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Just building a feature-filled social networking site with a sound infrastructure is only the start of your website journey. Don’t fret, though, because it’s an exciting journey: social networking sites are the most visited area of the Internet. According to recent statistics from Hitwise.com, social networking actually accounts for 11% of all web visits.
As expected, this popularity begets competition: competition to keep your site from resembling an online ghost town and competition to find and convert the right people for your particular niche.
1. Identify your target audience
Who are you targeting -- specifically? To help answer this question, think about the target age, gender, interest, and geographic location of who you want to use your new site.
Remember, social networkers are already busy on sites like Facebook, MySpace, Digg, and others, so the average person probably won’t add a “general” social networking site to their agenda. So, choose a niche and identify the relevant audience so you can stand out.
Once you know who you are targeting, figure out how many people are in your target audience and might be interested in your site. To do this, think about keyword searches this audience might do to find sites like yours, and then check out keyword search volume on Google and research data on sites like compete.com and hitwise.com. You should also visit Stumbleupon, go to groups, and find out how many people subscribe to the group or groups related to your topic.
2. Beta test – thoroughly
Social net workers have choices, and they definitely don’t have the time or willingness to deal with problems. So before you launch, you need a really strong beta site that’s been tested and tested and tested. And tested one more time for good measure. If you have the budget, consider private or third-party testing – not only will they do a thorough job, but they may notice problems that over time you’ve come to ignore. The easiest way to turn off a potential customer is to deliver a sub-par experience.
In addition testing the user experience, be sure to include server and load testing: When sites go down, visitors are turned off and leave, most likely for good.
Remember that social media users as a group tend to be more technically savvy, and as a result, more likely to bail on you if they’re unsatisfied. The bottom line is that you’ll want to have your site in top shape before driving traffic to it.
3. Seed your site
Say you’re creating a site for interior designers and your goal is for thousands of designers to upload photos for the community to comment on. At launch, make sure you have tons of photos in place.
A common mistake is assuming visitors will load your content for you, but in reality almost no visitor will commit to making that jump unless they see other people have already done so. Think about it -- would you as a visitor upload photos, add descriptions, and comment on other photos when it is unlikely people will see what you’ve done?
The basic principle is that visiting a social networking site is a lot like using a forum – if there’s no activity, you’ll leave. So seed your site with the kind of content you want users to generate and interact with.
How can you do this? Get a beta group to help you seed your site – even if it’s just your friends and family. Not only will you be seeding, you’ll also be performing additional beta tests in the process.
4. Network to generate traffic
The key message here is that social networking requires online, not offline, buzz generation. Get in touch with online influencers during your website's pre-launch phase and more general blogs and PR sites post-launch.
How? Use Technorati and Google Blog Search to identify the popular blogs that focus on your demographic. Then, after you’ve conducted beta testing and you’re proud of your site, contact the major bloggers and influencers in your demographic and ask them to beta test your site prior to launch. By reaching out early, you’re showing you respect their knowledge and you really value their feedback.
That’s a much better approach than contacting them after the launch. Why? Most will be flattered you sought their opinion ahead of time, and not only will you get valuable feedback, you’re more likely to be reviewed when you do launch. Reviews and mentions by influencers help create buzz – and buzz creates traffic.
Then notify influential blogs like techcrunch.com, mashable.com, and killerstartups.com. Keep in mind they get tons of requests, so make sure your pitch is to the point.
5. Consider traditional online advertising
If you have the budget, contact the large sites and forums in your demographic that sell ad space and buy a few ads (federatedmedia.com could be a good source). But do not delude yourself into buying just any traffic, and don’t focus on general-interest sites even if they get huge amounts of traffic. In the early stages of your website, you want your ads in front of the right eyeballs – not just any eyeballs.
6. Don’t forget SEO
Getting traffic from search engines is key, right? And getting free traffic is even better. To do this, one of the first things you’ll want to do is identify keywords and continually optimize your site and pages and get ranked for those words.
For example, if your niche is interior design, you’ll definitely want to rank for terms like “interior design ideas,” interior design photos,” “interior design community,” etc. Look for keywords that describe the content you offer instead of products and integrate that content into your pages. (Unless your site is devoted to product reviews or discussions, of course.) And remember, it’s hard to rank highly for general terms; it’s much easier to rank highly for specific and focused keywords.
7. Participate on sites related to your niche
If there’s a huge forum or a thriving group in StumbleUpon in your demographic, set up an account, link back to your site, and interact and become well-known in that community and you’ll generate traffic to your site.
When you set up your account, make your username the name of your social site to help further brand you. Make a name for yourself – actually, for your site – in your demographic. Here’s a guide to help you set up a StumbleUpon account and, if you like, becoming a top Stumbler.
8. Create spokes for your hub
Set up Facebook and MySpace pages that are extensions of your site. Then search and network with people who share your interest. Aggregating content from your social site and placing it on your Facebook and MySpace pages will give potential visitors a sense of what is on your main site.
You can also set up a Twitter page, with the name of your site as your Twitter username, and tweet all day about what you’re working on and what’s new on your site. You can also perform searches on Twitter to find people interested in your niche. Many influential bloggers use Twitter to alert their readers about new content – you can too.
Make sure you also link to all your Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Stumbleupon profiles from your main site – basically, anywhere you’ve created an account related to your brand.
9. Analyze, analyze, analyze
The key to effectively marketing your social networking site is to understand conversions. A conversion in social networking terms is not a sale, it’s a sign-up. (Marketing is, after all, about spreading the word, getting the right visitors, and converting them.) A free tool on blvdstatus.com can help you understand where visitors came from before they signed up, whether based on a keyword, a site, or a blog.
Understanding where your conversions come from helps you determine where to focus your marketing efforts. If a mention on a particular blog resulted in a nice volume of sign-ups from the blog’s readers, you’re on to something. Analytics help you determine where it’s worth spending your marketing time.
10. Encourage your active community
Think of ways to get your community to interact with each other. The benefit is that ever elusive ‘network effect’ – when an active community creates buzz and word of mouth, yielding more users.
Things you should do to facilitate interaction: comment on user comments, create contests for things like adding content, allow users to vote, and let users submit questions.
Note: I’m sure you’ll be surprised by what can create interaction. We work with a best-selling author who, due to time constraints, isn’t easy for the average reader to contact. We asked site users to submit questions they’d like the author to answer, and then the community voted on the top ten questions. It’s so popular it’s become a monthly feature on the site and generates an incredible amount of participation and interaction.
11. When you reach critical mass, work on features to fine-tune the community experience
Once the buzz from the launch dies down, new features can build new excitement, both within your community and outside. So spend time adding features or tools. Then contact bloggers and influencers to let them know what you’ve done – not only will you maintain a vibrant community, but the buzz will help you generate more new users.