When is your online community ready to launch?

by Martin Reed on 9 September 2008 in Articles

launching an online community

I received a great comment from Roger who is developing a new online community for weddings. In his comment, Roger asked a great question, namely:

I have a KILLER online wedding community to launch
- But I don’t know what would be the best way to do it. Should I just launch it? Should I write more content, should I hire someone to write even better content then what I think I’ve done??

Figuring out when your new community is ready to launch can be a difficult task. Hopefully this article will help Roger and anyone else who is currently developing an online community.

Do you have content?

Roger says:

I have written about 10 quality articles on wedding-planning, even though I’m not that interested in weddings, as I am with online business and getting things to WORK…

10 quality articles is a good start for a launch, but it is impossible for me to say whether it is enough without seeing the site. Here are my golden rules for creating content before you launch:

  • Make sure there is content in EVERY section/category on your new site
  • Don’t neglect forum content for article content, and vice-versa
  • Focus on quality over quantity quality AND quantity of content
  • Choose your initial content carefully – it sets the tone and personality of your community

It’s good that Roger has prepared some articles for his new community, however he should consider getting some people from his target audience to read them over and tell him what they honestly think. If you aren’t interested in the topic you are writing about, this may show through in your writing and consequently you risk alienating your visitors from the outset. People only join online communities when they see a shared passion amongst both the site’s members and its developers.

Additionally, Roger hasn’t mentioned whether he has created any other content – he needs to ensure there are posts in the forums, there are already members present and using the site and that features available to members are being used. Nobody wants to go to a party that doesn’t have any guests – an online community is no different.

What testing have you done?

Roger’s new community is completely custom coded by him and a friend, which is admirable. Not only will he now have a site that functions exactly how he wants, he should also have intimate knowledge with how everything works. On the downside, there could be the potential for a higher occurrence of bugs so before launching Roger will need to ensure that he has undertaken rigorous testing. He should also invite a small number of individuals from within his target audience to test out the site and report any errors.

Do you have time to launch an online community?

Online communities will destroy any free time you have. You need to be both aware of, and prepared for, this fact. If you have a busy period in your life coming up, hold off on the launch. I probably could have launched Female Forum in July but had to put it off as I had my final university exams to concentrate on in May, emigrated from the UK to the USA in June and got married in August. If I had launched the site during this busy period, it would have been impossible for me to give my new community the time and attention it needs to flourish.

Make sure that your calender is clear for the next few months at the very least. When you launch a new online community, it has momentum. If you lose that momentum you will find it very hard to get back.

What is your promotional plan?

If you have no idea what your next step will be after you launch, you aren’t ready to launch. Hitting the launch button is just the beginning, not the end. You will need to continue creating content and you will need to be obsessive about promoting your new community.

Roger mentions that he has set aside a budget for advertising on Google AdSense and Facebook, and has a mailing list from another site he runs in the same niche. This mailing list of 4,000 highly targeted individuals is his most valuable asset. He needs to ensure he spends a good amount of time writing and tweaking the copy before sending any emails announcing the new site to this list. You only have one chance to create a first impression – if you don’t interest those 4,000 subscribers in your first email to them, your mailing list will be pretty much worthless from that point on.

As well as promotional emails and paid advertising, you should also have a link building strategy. Get your site out there. Get people linking to it. Communicate with bloggers operating in your niche. Build excitement and publicise your site. A new community that isn’t promoted might as well have never launched in the first place.

Consider a limited beta release

Limited beta releases can be a great idea if you want to gauge how well your new community has met the goals you had in mind for it. Beta testing also helps you spot any bugs or flaws before they become a huge issue that affects thousands of visitors and members.

If you decide to open your site to a limited number of visitors for beta testing, ensure those who you invite:

  • Make up your target audience
  • Will really test the site and use every feature available
  • Be willing to report their honest, constructive and detailed opinions and findings to you

Launch slowly

Similar to the concept of beta testing, it can be a good idea to launch your new community slowly. If you run ten other popular websites, don’t promote your new community to all of them from the outset. Start promoting your new community on one or two of the websites, then expand your promotional efforts as the site develops.

This allows you again to find any problems or weak areas of your new site and fix them before you continue promoting. Promoting a broken or ineffective site is more damaging than not promoting it at all. Start off slowly, and build your promotional and development efforts as your site grows.

Your thoughts

Do you agree with my advice and recommendations? Have I missed anything out? Do you have anything to add? Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below?

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Marian September 9, 2008 at 7:36 pm

Just like the pains of giving birth, you need to go through a lot before you can launch anything. Every produce that is of beauty needs time and effort and love.

Angela Connor September 9, 2008 at 9:07 pm

I am ALL FOR launching slowly. I think it’s great when you can roll out new features, particularly those that the community has requested. It lets them know that you are listening and value their input. It also makes them become more invested in the community. I am also a big believer in content as king and go through great hoops to produce lots of it and we’re about 14 months in.

Mr Woc September 10, 2008 at 9:06 pm

Hi there

I think you make some good points, i prefer to launch my sites slowly, getting a few people to test the site, and see what they think to test the water, slowly improve the site and fix bugs that you will no doubt find lol, and once im happy with it, then start promoting it more heavyly.


Roger September 11, 2008 at 8:38 pm

Martin! Wow!! Thank you for an extremely useful and informative answer. I did not think you would dedicate a whole great article to reply on my comment! But you did! Just Wow!

This is the 4th or 5th time I’m visiting your blog, and It’s really not hard for me to understand why you have such success on your online communities, because if this is what your users are used to, when asking you questions, then they have absolutely NO excuse why to not visit you over and over again!

The fact that you took the time to write this special article, also shows people that learning by example is the best way to learn. And not only did I learn a bunch of things from the article itself, but I also learned what feeling I get as a visitor when the websiteowner really take my questions seriously and pays so great attention to what I have to say. Those answers you gave me in the article above, really makes me want to come back over and over again.

Thank you so much!

I still haven’t launched. I will wait until I feel the time is really there.. So i believe my next move will be to get a few people to test, test and test.. But now, I really wonder where to start looking for those testers! ;)

I can post a small update here, on how things went when I’ve pressed the big red launch button.

Thanks again!
- Roger

jennifer September 14, 2008 at 5:48 am

I have to agree with a slow launch. And yes, even a beta phase. Both of the online sites I work with brought me in on their beta phase and I’ve come to see it as an important pre-launch step. Beta is the time to begin creating buzz for the site and directing traffic your way, so that then the launch actually takes place, you are not starting from the bottom.

Best of luck, and as always, great advice from Martin!

Roger September 14, 2008 at 6:24 am

When I come to think about it.., everything about a pre-launch, or maybe better, a beta-launch is absolutely a good thing!

First of all, the beta-testers will not expect a fully grown community, they will not be as sceptic as the users who comes in after the real launch, and they would be teached to give feedback on the functions/bugs and so on..

So I think I would want to do this.. I have the time – BUT I do NOT have the any beta-testers, so where could I get those?

Is it a good idea to send an email to some of the customers that have bought from my online store, and promote it to them as “Since you are a recent customer from Store Name, we would like to welcome you to a pre-launch at Community Name – this is an offer which are given to very few… blahblah..” (The language would of course be different, English is not my first language) – But, would this work?

And what would decide when the launch is finally a reality? When sending out emails to a great deal of people, or when starting the advertising…?

All answers to this would be much appreciated!

- Roger

Nicole Price September 16, 2008 at 1:05 pm

LOL, “pains of giving birth” but i do know what you mean, there is a degree of nurturing involved in launching an online community.

Linda P. Morton September 17, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Thank you for this in-depth information on building a community.

I’ve got a site that I want to build into a community so I’ll really use it.

Agnus September 18, 2008 at 7:24 am

I think you make some good points, i prefer to launch my sites slowly, getting a few people to test the site, and see what they think to test the water, slowly improve the site and fix bugs that you will no doubt find lol, and once im happy with it, then start promoting it more heavyly.

Greg September 19, 2008 at 1:26 pm

I have to say this touches right in the middle…

I have many times been at that position, and wondered when am I ready?

Good to know others are dealing with the same situation :)

kouji September 24, 2008 at 10:56 am

and if the launch is relatively slow, the creator has a bit more time to observe things, and determine what steps need to be taken in order to grow the community. tough when things feel so rushed and hectic all the time.

DT September 26, 2008 at 1:09 pm

Nice writeup! I don’t think you’ve left anything out, but I’d just like to give a big thumbs up to the slow launch. As a former .com 1st round bubble veteran, I can’t even count how many lavish launch parties were followed by the 6 month later hangover of, “What the heck did we do wrong?” Taking a cue from Flickr is a great example. They ‘launched’ under beta (like a number of their contemporaries) and then even moved on into a ‘gamma’ stage, poking fun at itself. I’ve yet to see a delta or epsilon version, but you get the point.

The best of luck to you Roger. I’m not really into weddings that much either, but don’t tell my wife. ;)

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 28, 2008 at 6:25 pm

Marian – That’s a great way of looking at it; thanks for the analogy! Success is the result of hard work, and people that do not realise that are the likeliest of all to fail.

Angela – Exactly. It is important to realise that any website will never be finished. You will always want to tweak and improve the site, and add new features – if you delay a launch until everything is ‘perfect’, your site will never see the light of day!

Mr Woc – Having people test out your site and identify bugs before you launch is always a good idea. If you can’t do that, then even more reason to launch slowly – bugs on a site with low traffic and few members will always be easier to fix compared to a site with millions of visitors and members.

Roger – You are more than welcome; you asked a great question and covered some very important issues. I have no doubt that this article has helped others besides yourself.

Thank you for your kind words. This blog is very special to me, and knowing that I am helping people develop successful online communities of their own is a great feeling.

I think using your current subscriber list from your existing, relevant site is a good idea for finding beta testers. You could even set it up so that when people get to your site they have to enter their email address to gain access to the ‘private beta’ – this will make the job appear even more exclusive and access even more coveted.

The launch is a reality as soon as the site is publicly accessible – not when you start your promotional efforts. Keep us updated as to the progress of your community, and good luck with the launch!

Jennifer – Another benefit of running a beta phase is the testers you use may end up being amongst your most valuable members. They have already built a relationship with you and the site, and if you recognise the contribution they are making to your site’s success they will feel valued.

Members with a sense of shared ownership will be amongst your most loyal, and who is more likely to feel this way than people than have given up their time to iron out bugs and get the site working and functioning correctly?

Nicole – Exactly! I wouldn’t suggest that developing online communities is as painful as giving birth but they definitely need nurturing and a huge amount of attention in the initial stages of life!

Linda – Thanks for your comment, and good luck with your new online community.

Agnus – Thanks for your comment; I definitely think that is the right approach to take.

Greg – It’s the million dollar question and you aren’t alone in asking yourself it!

kouji – Exactly! Community developers often get frustrated with the slow initial progress of their online communities, however it should be seen as an advantage as it allows you to tweak, improve and fix problems before the site is seen by thousands.

DT – Wow that was a crazy time, eh? You should only launch when you are ready, and when you have a clear direction, vision and set targets and goals otherwise you will struggle – just like all those ‘dot coms’ discovered ‘all those’ years ago.

SusanDavis September 29, 2008 at 4:05 pm

Slow is the way to go. You don’t want to turn off a large amount of people instantly before working out all of the kinks and bugs.

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 6, 2008 at 7:10 pm

Susan – I agree! Not only will you (hopefully) come across any bugs or kinks by launching slowly, you will get a better understanding and be able to develop better relationships with your members.

John October 23, 2008 at 1:50 pm

Maybe this is a little of topic, but I have several pages based on good old forums (like vbulletin.com). I am wondering if there is a general rule of how much traffic you need on the page before you can hope for people to post in your forum. It is my experience that it is generally difficult to start a new forum. Anyone?

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 23, 2008 at 10:02 pm

John – The amount of traffic you receive has little to do with the amount of posts you should expect. The fact is, your forum might be attracting 10,000 visitors per day and getting 50 posts whilst a forum with 100 visitors per day may be getting 500 posts.

You need to ensure your forum encourages activity. Make sure it has content, posts, questions, is friendly and is active.

Yatch November 1, 2008 at 9:56 am

How should I go about creating content for launching a forum? I understand that having some article in social networking website but how can we do that in a forum? Should I create a blog on the subdoamin on the forum and fill it with some blog posts or put the articles in various threads of the forum?

Smiley November 1, 2008 at 3:00 pm

Yatch – create THREADS. Lots and lots of THREADS. Create two or three usernames and reply to your own threads, too, to kick-start the interaction.

Thorb November 2, 2008 at 12:36 am

When I lauch a new community site I usually do an open beta before I “launch” the site. I do the “open beta” after I have done the real beta and I know everything is working, and I do it to get some activity on the site. It’s difficult to get people to become members in a forum without any activity/posts, so I do the beta to avoid this situation.

But there has been some times when the betatesters have asked me to make some changes, which I have done. This happened with my last forum, officially launched 2 weeks ago, where it resultet in a completely new redsign of the site. (I already had the new design ready as a backup if anything would go completely wrong.) As of today this forum got 40 members, and more than 400 posts. And it is starting to get some attention as it also got a newsportal where I share the adsense revenue with my users. (I’m after the CPM ads, and as adsense isn’t really that big of an income I don’t really see a problem with this. This has resulted in several members contributing to the portal.)

Roger November 3, 2008 at 8:13 pm

I have now invited about 40 testers to my community. People are positive to my invitations. I sent them out Friday, 3 days ago. Nothing has happened in the forum-section, nothing has happened in the blog section yet (But a couple of members has began to use the wedding-tools, creating wedding-homepage, budget and so on..)

I just guess that no one wants to be the first one to “make some noice” and answer the 2(!) forumthreads I’ve posted.

Should I wait, or should I do as you says Smiley, and keep making threads, and then create a couple of users, and respond to my threads… Is this REALLY a good idea?

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 17, 2008 at 8:39 pm

Yatch – If your main focus is developing successful forums, then don’t go bolting more stuff onto your site; you’ll just be making life harder for yourself! Like Smiley says, post content. Write posts, write articles, ask questions, show an interest in your members. Never let conversations die. Keep plugging away and your community will become self-sustainable.

Thorb – Sounds like you are enjoying some great success. I wonder if this would have been the case if you hadn’t undertaken any beta testing?

Roger – Create some more content yourself; I don’t see a problem with creating a couple of members yourself – especially when all you are doing right now is beta testing. Perhaps you need to be more selective when recruiting beta testers; make it clear that in return for giving them the ‘sneak preview’, you expect them to really test out the site. Remember – getting a beta tester invitation should be highly desirable and even glamorous!

Roger November 20, 2008 at 6:06 pm

Hi all! Here is my “small” update on my new-launched wedding community :)

Warning: I’m Norwegian, so it might be a little hard to understand everything.. I did as best as I could ;)

I invited about 40 testers October, 31st – I got about 14-16 registred users from that invite. Next I implemented a dhtml-drop-down-box on my 3 year old online weddingfavors-store. Here I gave my visitors a “preview” – using a thumbnail of the page, and asked them if they wanted to be testers on the site during a pre-launch. I still have that box, over at http://www.tilbryllupet.no.

Today there are 24 registered users, and 18 of them are already very active :) – 11 blog-entries, 14 galleries with about 30 pictures :) – Our forum has now over 140 posts, and people are giving positive feedback all the time! It’s a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to my new community’s future.

(I also used the suggestion of programming a “pre-launch-loggin-box” so that the testers have to log in using their email address, before they can register or use the site at all.. This has been a success, and people really take the tester-task very seriously!

When I have about 30-40 registered users, and when at least 20-30 of them are active – I will be thinking of launching the site for the rest of the “world” – I will talk to my most active users about this first.

Positive experiences using the pre-launch method:
1. The site is tested in so many different ways than I could’ve managed to do my self.. People always tend to “do something” their own way, and this has given me a nice set of “to-do-tasks” – improving the code. After all, everything is hand-coded by me and my friend..

2. The community really starts to look alive :D – People are generating lots of GREAT content, which will be really important the day the site actually goes live.

3. Because I’ve promoted this site, and sent out invitations manually(!) – It’s been easy to prepare users who have responded to the invitations, that the site is still brand new, and that they shouldn’t expect plenty og activity.. This has turned out really positive, because the ones who really register, knows that if they want to se activity, they need to stay active themselves. Now I have users who WANTS to be active, and I have plenty of active out-turned(?) users :)
- And because of this, I didn’t have to worry about the “No-users-no-content” and “No-content-no-users” – dilemma!

4. I have already pointed out a couple of members who would be really suited for the moderator-job.. But I won’t ask them just yet.

5. I have the time to build a “close” relationship with all of my users during this testing-period, and they will then be a great army of “salespeople” when it comes to promoting the community – because they like the community, trust the community and like me and trust me! :)

6. Since I have few members, but very commited members, I have the time to answer all their questions very much in detail, so they are learning how to use all of the functions, and how to “act and respond” to other users. This way they will be almost invaluable when it comes to help me teaching other new members how to use the community, after the launch.

7. I HAVE THE TIME TO LEARN HOW TO ACT AND RESPOND TO THE USERS! I’ve never done this before, and even though I know my way around all the sections of the site, I don’t have the slightest idea on how to run and maintain an online community. This way, I will also learn how to do things!

I promised to come back with an update, and now you’ve read it! :) I’m really happy I wrote that one comment on one of Martin’s posts a couple of months ago…! I got so many Ideas from you Martin, and also from all of you others who are commenting! Thank you! I rest assure I came to the right conclusion, when deciding to pre-launch my community!

- Roger.

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 29, 2008 at 1:28 am

Roger – Thank you so much for your update! I got your email the other day and will reply to it when I get the chance. You gave me some good inspiration for a further article or two, as well!

feamor January 15, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Thank you for your great article Martin. Now, I want to ask some questions and would like to hear your suggestions :)

I am developing a forum with phpbb3 and it’s nearly ready to launch now. It is about all computer related things, hardware, technology, mostly software and coding.

I am trying to decide that which one is better for me, releasing a beta version or directly going online?

I recently graduated from Computer Engineering Department from a university. So I have a large friend community who are computer engineering students or working as software developers in worldwide. I have personally spoken at least thirty of them. Also via mail and our community forums, so far, nearly 400 people have learned about my project. Then, I went to some high schools which gives web-network and database education to their students. In there, I spoke with school teachers and give information about my community. To all of the people I have spoken, I asked their thoughts about the forum idea and asked them for their needs (so their requests). Then I created the categories by considering their suggestions and needs.

By all these above, I guess that I can reach 1000-1500 person without any paid advertisement. But I think, a forum doesn’t give a good first impression if it has no post.

So I have two choices. I can open a beta version and request from 20-30 of my friends to post some messages. I don’t know how long should the beta version be, how many posts per topic is enough?

Second choice is, announcing the forum to all my colleagues via mail, groups and forums.At the same time, starting online advertising in web sites (I don’t have to pay for it and they have a huge amount of visitors per day. So a lot people can visit my forum in the first day of launch.)

Also, I have to decide how many forums and sub forums should i have. Currently, there are 180 forums and subforums and 50 of them is visible from mainpage. This causes a lot of topics with zero post and zero view and it doesn’t seem good. But i can’t delete most of them because after some activity, it gives the ability to find results faster. And if i create categories later and move current posts under them, it will cause broken links which is very bad for search engines ranking.

Sorry for the very long post :) In brief, my questions are:

*In my condition, beta release is better or not?
*When should beta version end?
*How many categories should be in main page and totally? (your thoughts)
*And any other suggestions for me :)

Thanks :)

Martin Reed - Community Manager January 21, 2010 at 3:54 pm

feamor – It’s great that your friends know about your planned community; are they commited to helping it succeed? The same goes to the people you’ve been canvassing for ideas – don’t tailor the community to them if they aren’t even going to join!

You should already have some level of community before you launch a community website. These people could be your friends – if they are passionate about the project and will be involved and active. If not, go looking for people that are. Use Twitter, Facebook to talk to people you want as members. Read and contribute to blogs from people you want as members.

After you start talking to them, get them talking to each other. Then open your community website – keep it small and basic. You want things to be close-knit and personal. As these early members develop stronger relationships, you can start expanding the membership and encouraging more people to join.

Get rid of all those forums and sub-forums. Start with one or two. Add more forums as the need arises – don’t anticipate, just react as the community grows.

I hope this helps.