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The Small Business Website Guide

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How to build a niche social networking site

Learn how to meet your customers needs with social networking sites

Everybody is familiar with the web’s most popular social networks, sites like Facebook and LinkedIn have become a regular part of daily life for many people. But in addition to these gigantic, general purpose platforms, there are many smaller social networks targeted at specific niche audiences, often based around areas of interest such as professions, taste in music or a shared love of a particular pastime.

The opportunities for developing niche social networks are huge. Sites like Facebook and LinkedIn have to be all things to all people in order to cater to such large audiences, which means they often cannot serve the more specific needs of particular interest groups. So if you can create a networking site that does meet the needs of such a group, you stand a good chance of success. 

How to build a social network

The good news is that you don’t need to go to all the effort of developing a complete social network from the ground up as there are several ready-made options available.

Perhaps the most popular is BuddyPress, a plugin for the widely used Wordpress blogging platform that provides a completely new feature-set enabling you to operate a social network. The key benefit of BuddyPress is that it is quite easy to implement, if you can run a WordPress installation then it’s only a small technical step to setup and manage BuddyPress. The process of installing BuddyPress onto a live WordPress site takes just a couple of minutes, although obviously you will then need to spend time customising it and learning how the features work.

BuddyPress is free, open source software and is widely used by small and large organisations alike, so it’s stable and well supported. There are plenty of free themes and additional plugins and you’ll find lots of help and support in the official discussion forums. If you’re already familiar with WordPress, then BuddyPress is very likely to be your best option for building a niche social network.

There are other options to consider. Another commonly used free, open source social networking platform is Elgg which, like BuddyPress, will run on any web server or host which provides PHP and MySQL. Elgg’s roots are in academic networks, but the project has grown wider than this and is used for a wide variety of social networks by numerous high-profile organisations.

Unlike BuddyPress, Elgg is a system that was designed from the ground up to be a social networking platform. While there is a well established user community, the support for Elgg is a little less extensive than BuddyPress and newcomers to the platform may find the learning curve somewhat steeper. There are, however, plenty of free plugins to extend Elgg’s functionality, and numerous free and commercial templates you can use to customise the look of your site.

If you’re looking for an even simpler solution, you could use a hosted/managed social network platform, which will allow you to build a site with very little technical expertise. There are many such services around, Ning and SocialGO are two popular examples. The pricing for these services varies, but some will offer free trials and in many cases the basic package will cost just a few dollars per month.

Building the community

Social networking sites are heavily dependent on an idea known as 'the network effect' to succeed. This simply means that the value of these sites is intrinsically linked to the networks users create between themselves and the more users a site has, the more value it offers to its users.

This can present a problem if you are building a new social network site and don’t have any users, because without any users the site has little value and that means it will be harder to encourage new people to sign up. There is no easy way to solve this problem, but a good place to start would be to try to publicise your new site in places where your audience is already likely to be focused, such as blogs, discussion forums and other websites that cover the same topic.

Another way to draw users to a new social network could be through an advertising program, using Google AdWords to target Internet users who are searching for words and phrases that are relevant to your site. This will, of course, require some investment and the exact costs will vary depending on which audience you are targeting, but AdWords allows you to work within whatever  budget you have available.

Moving forward

It’s not enough to simply build a social network, recruit some members and leave them to get on with it. For a social networking site to be successful, you will need to constantly monitor and manage the site to ensure the quality remains high - finding ways to encourage users to participate and contribute to the site, and keeping a wary eye open for spammers who will flood your site with fake accounts.

There’s plenty of room in the marketing for social networks focused on untapped niches, but success is not guaranteed, you will need to work hard at building, promoting and managing the site if you want it to grow.