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How to Grow Your Social Network

Dos and Don’ts from publishing community managers.



By Dylan Stableford
03/31/2009

With increasingly inexpensive providers and sites offering turn-key solutions, starting a social network for a magazine brand is easy. But growing one is a challenge. Social networks inherently rely on organic, audience-driven growth—the kind of word-of-mouth marketing that has led to Facebook’s sudden ubiquity.

But there are steps you can take to keep participation in your social network lively—and growing.

FOLIO: asked John Byrne, editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com, and Athena Von Oech, vice president of community management at Ning, for the keys to driving growth of a social network, as well as some tricks for goosing activity—and, importantly, what to avoid. Here’s what they recommend:

1. Make your social network authentic. People can tell when something isn’t authentic and they won’t join.

2. Make it easy for people to find your social network. A good first step is to add a tagline and description. Keep it simple, specific, and obvious. This helps people find it from a search engine.

3. Keep the visual design of your social network interesting and elegant. People often assess the design of social network before joining it.

4. Use badges and media players. Promote your social content away from your social network.

5. Keep people engaged. Let them know what’s going on in the social network. An easy way to do this is to place your “latest activity” feature front and center. It also motivates others to contribute.

6. If you don’t have a ton of blogs or smaller chunks of content ready to go, make photos and videos the focus, at least initially. Lots of photos and videos—especially if they are exclusive to your network—makes your social network more compelling.

7. Make use of the “chat” feature. It’s another instant indicator of how active your social network is, as it shows all members who are online. It’s live, active and real-time.

8. Add exclusive content—photos, videos, blogs —that can’t be found anywhere else on your parent sites.

How to Keep it Lively

1. Keep adding exclusive content to your social network. Aim to add something new a few times a week, at a minimum.

2. Collaborate with readers on reporting. Reach out to the public for feedback and ideas during the development of a story, not just after. They’ll feel engaged, important, and part of the process. “[Some of our editors] go as far as ‘Tweeting’ topic sentences, and ask ‘followers’ to fill in the rest,” says Byrne.

3. When you’re first getting started, pose a single question to your members every day to get the conversation going. This will get everyone involved in one discussion instead of scattered in smaller discussions.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do

1. Don’t moderate everything on your social network if you won’t be around to approve the content. When people add content, they like the instant gratification of seeing their photos, videos, blog posts or groups published on the social network. Moderating everything all the time makes it difficult for people to want to continue to contribute. It stifles growth and creativity.

2. Don’t assume you know more than your readers. BusinessWeek’s community includes CEOs, entrepreneurs, analysts and thought leaders. “We’d be crazy if we didn’t try to tap into their expertise in a meaningful way,” says Byrne.

3. Don’t have a ton of required profile questions that people need to fill out to join your social network. If you want to see lots of growth on your social network, keep your profile questions brief and required questions even briefer. The more profile questions you force new people to answer, the more likely it is people will just give up in the middle of the sign up process.

4. Don’t put the “latest activity” feature at the bottom of the page or, worse, remove it altogether. Removing this feature—or relegating it to a lower portion of the main page—makes it really hard for new prospective members to figure out what’s going on.

5. Don’t expect your social network to continue to grow without your help. The more active you are on the social network—adding photos and videos, replying to discussion forums, joining groups—the better. New members will instantly know where to go with questions, and they’ll be inspired to be active as well.

By Dylan Stableford
03/31/2009




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