What to consider when starting a new online community

by Martin Reed on 17 March 2008 in Articles

How to start a new online community

I enjoy answering questions from readers of this blog. Whilst I tend to encourage that these questions be asked within the comments sections of individual articles, at times the question may be unrelated to a specific article and consequently an email is best.

Today I want to answer a question I received by email from a reader looking to start a brand new online community. I believe that the advice I pass on to this reader can be beneficial to others, and that you can all help with your own ideas – hence the reason why I am publicly publishing my response (with permission).

The question

Here is the email I received:

Hi Martin

I’m looking to set up an new community website and plan to introduce a Forum and Blog (fresh content via the Blog).

From your experience, for SEO & getting new members to find my site which would you think would be better?

1) Setting up a Google Blogger site and linking my site to it?

2) Setting up a Google Blogger site and provide the content of which to my site via RSS?

3) Setting up my site and providing backend functionality for me to add my own content that is displayed on the frontend?

Any other advice with regards to this topic?

Thanks for you time and efforts – http://www.communityspark.com/ is awesome!

Best regards,

Hayden Pitout

This email was a good start, although I needed more information – namely the subject of the community and the reason why he wants to start one up. Here was the reply:

Hi Martin

Thanks for the reply. Yes, by all means please do cover the topic on Community Spark.

In Short:

I am South African, my wife is Swedish and we have a 3 year old son. We recently (seven months ago) moved to Portugal and as we don’t speak any Portuguese we have found it very difficult at times to track down information and so forth. As a result we rely heavily on our phrase books, dictionary, BabelFish, Google and expat websites.

So in light of this and the fact that my wife likes to Blog (on Swedish sites) about family life in Portugal etc. we decided to set up what we would like to be the BEST community website for expats living in Portugal.

I’m currently developing the website under the domain expatHive.com and hope to launch it (phase one) within two months. The visuals & logo for the website are close to sign of – so hopefully I will be able to get something up ‘soonish’ and factor in what I learn from your article.

Can’t wait to read it!

Thanks and regards,


My advice

First, I want to address the initial email. I can’t recommend Blogger for the simple reason that I have never used it. I never recommend anything unless I have experience with it myself. Therefore, I cannot offer any real advice in this area. However, when it comes to blogging software I would recommend WordPress for the simple reason that it has a huge community behind it and has now become the blogging standard.

I would recommend you integrate the community features (blog, forum etc) into your website – don’t link to an external blog or forum. You want to leverage all your existing traffic to best effect – keep everything on the site that people know; ie the one that already exists! Remember – Web users are lazy. Keep everything they need on one site.

You have decided to target a very specific niche. On the one hand, this can be beneficial as you will naturally have less competition. On the other hand, you may struggle to get the right visitors to your website. For a forum to be successful, it needs content, traffic, members and interaction.

Because you have such a targeted niche, I would recommend you start off limiting the community aspect of your site to a blog. Blogs take less work to turn into a success, yet they can create great communities through the commenting system. Once you have built a strong community around your blog and have strong repeat traffic and loyal members, you will be in a better position to launch a forum and ensure it is successful.

My article ‘The best online community: A forum or a blog?‘ should help you decide what direction to take. Developing any online community from scratch is hard work. You have the huge benefit that your wife loves to blog and is used to doing it – therefore use these skills to your advantage. A forum is a whole new kettle of fish and is a big step up.

Plan for a forum, but consider holding off until you have the traffic and time to ensure it is a success. Nothing turns visitors and potential members off more than an empty forum. You may also like to take a look at my article entitled, ‘Should you add a forum to your blog?‘ for further advice.

Readers’ advice

Community Spark is a great online community, and I want to invite the opinions and thoughts from all the readers as to how Hayden should proceed. How do you think he should develop his site? Do you think he should jump right in with a forum and a blog? What software do you recommend? What advice can you offer him? Leave a comment below with your ideas!

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Chat March 18, 2008 at 1:58 am

I would suggest integrating a blog into your website, controlling the front end and the back end for one simple reason, You control the content. The content is parked in your database which you have full control over. I wouldn’t suggest using an RSS feed as search engines could index your blogger content before the same content on your website which means your website now has duplicate content. duplicate content = bad, fresh content = good.


Michelle from the Coulee Region March 18, 2008 at 4:03 am

I wouldn’t reccomend Blogger, either, because I’ve heard of people who get started there and get good PR pages there and then are stuck because they’re on the whatever.blogger.com and can’t move.

For people who just want a blog and nothing else, WordPress is great. I haven’t used it myself but I know a lot of people who have and it’s easy to use. But if you’re pretty sure from the start that you want to expand on the blog, I suggest looking at a more full featured CMS. My personal favorite is Drupal but there are others such as Joomla as well. Sure you can always start with WP and then stick on phpbb or vbulletin, but I think a unified solution is much nicer.


PS: Martin: The captcha failed again. And I know I typed 3 because I hit the back button and it’s still there.

Amish Made Furniture March 18, 2008 at 1:59 pm

I would just like to add my two bits. Get it up and running and fine tune as you go along. Getting all the information, getting it all organized etc, will just keep delaying the launch. The sooner you launch, the sooner you will solve all glitches, that, believe me, you will face.

Mr Woc March 19, 2008 at 10:54 am

Hi there

1) Blogger is very similar to wordpress, i wouldnt suggest you set up a separate blogger website, but you can integrate blogger into your website, just like wordpress (there are advanced options), personally i use wordpress too but there is nothing wrong with blogger.

2) I dont understand why you would want to use RSs feeds, as google would have trouble seeing the content that is being show by the feed.

3) Number 3 depeneds on how you view your site, might be a good idea if you find a site, maybe you could add a forum ? social networking software ? have you looked into these ?


adult dyslexia March 19, 2008 at 6:51 pm

A forum on a blog takes a lot of effort upfront to upkeep and get going. It will eventually be self sustaining with readers but it is a long hard road to get there. It isn’t the best method to gain readership or links because it is so labor intensive.

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 19, 2008 at 7:48 pm

Cody – I agree with you. Keeping everything on one website ensures you keep maximum control and also means you can leverage your existing traffic to full effect.

Michelle – I know that you can have your own domain name using Blogger, but it looks a little more complicated to set up compared to having your own WordPress installation.

I really don’t understand why the CAPTCHA is failing for you. There is only ever one answer and it is coded into the script. Hmmmmm…..

Ramana – I think it is important to get as much as possible spot on before launching. Once you are live, the last thing you want to do is start changing things around and confusing visitors. On the other hand, if you worry about getting everything perfect from the outset, you will never publish the site!

Woc – Thanks for your suggestions. I am sure Hayden will find them helpful.

Adult – I agree with your. Developing a forum and a blog is a huge amount of work. Sure, eventually the forum will take care of itself but it could take months if not years before it reaches that point.

Hayden March 27, 2008 at 5:00 pm

Hi All

Work “overload” has prevented me from posting here sooner.

Martin – a BIG thanks for the blog, and to everyone else, thanks for all the input. I am glad this blog came about before I was too far down the development road. These are my updated thoughts/ideas/comments for the development of expatHive.com.

Integrating Blogger / WordPress
After much thought, I have decided against this. Integrating & customising any such product is never straight forward. Upgrades can potentially be complicated if bulk customisation is required and so forth. My initial idea behind integrating such a product was purely based on not having to develop my own blogging backend … and to possibly gain a better search engine ranking. However, as Cody and Wok commented – this will not be the case.

Rss Feeds
This was just a thought I had – a means of providing fresh content to the website without having to develop my own blogging backend, as well as potentially gaining a better search engine ranking. However, as Cody and Wok commented – this will not be the case.

Adult, I agree. Developing a forum is a lot of work and will take a long time before it reaches a point where it takes care of itself. However, I think for the type of community I am looking to develop (Expatriates living in Portugal), having a forum is paramount – even more so than a blog. My reasoning is that this kind of community is built on information … Expats have a lot of questions and need answers. Questions such as “how to find an English speaking Lawyer in the Algarve”, “my outside water pipe has burst, who do I need to contact” and so forth. A forum provides a far better means of getting answers to such questions (in bulk) by “opening it up to the community”. A forum also provides a better means for users to search/find questions that may have been asked before.

It may be a lot of work, but for this type of community I think having a forum is paramount. Please, comments on this point are most welcome.

I have decided to develop my own basic bloggin tool. After all your comments about Blogger, WP and the likes, I decided to rather develop my own tool. This now gives me full control over both the bloggin tool and the data.

So as it stands, I have developed my own bloggin tool. This will be used to provide fresh content to the site – my wife’s ramblings about life in Portugal as well as information she may deem useful to other expats living in Portugal and so forth. This will work alongside a forum I am currently customising and integrating. This (the forum) will provide the users with a means of communicating questions and answers relating to life in Portugal.

A lot of work? Yes, but hopefully the two working hand in hand will attract far more users to the community as well as generate a better search engine ranking.



Martin Reed - Blog Author March 29, 2008 at 2:52 pm

Hayden – Having read your response, I think that a forum is a good idea for you; as you say, you expect a lot of questions from members and this may be difficult to address solely with a blog.

I am surprised to hear you are spending time developing your own blogging tool when there are so many options already out there that are free – using one of these would allow you to concentrate on content generation and marketing rather than coding and dealing with bugs etc.

In any case, your project certainly sounds exciting and interesting – do keep us updated as to your progress.