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Building a Successful Niche Social Media Website

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you have probably seen that I have an interest in niche social media websites. However, the problem with niche social sites is that most of them have only a handful of users and they provide very little potential for marketing your website or blog. That makes the good ones even more valuable.

If you are a web designer or if you enjoy reading web design-related articles, hopefully you’ve already come across Design Float. Those of us in the web design industry are fortunate that there are several useful design-related social media sites. If you’re looking for a place to promote your own content and find other items of interest, I think you’ll like Design Float.

Unlike many other niche sites, Design Float sends a significant amount of traffic to popular submissions (in fact, today I’ve received well over 300 visitors from Design Float). And as its community grows I only expect it to get better.

I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Egenes, the owner of Design Float, about his experience with creating a successful niche social media site. Andrew has a great deal of insight that many of us can learn from. In just a few months he has accomplished the very daunting task of getting a niche social media website off the ground. I hope you’ll enjoy Andrew’s insight as much as I have.

When did Design Float launch?

I launched the original version of Design Float in the beginning of August, 2007. After only a week, I began working on a complete redesign which launched about 2 weeks later.

What motivated you to start Design Float?

I’ve always been a fan of Digg and the concept of community generated and moderated content, which they helped pioneer. But as Digg became larger and more mainstream, the quality content became diluted with irrelevant and often pointless submissions. It continually became more difficult to find content worth checking out, let alone Digging. Digg’s lack of category and subcategory depth left the door wide open for clones that take the social media model to smaller and more focused niches. Design happens to be the niche that I’m most passionate about and I felt that a Digg clone aimed at the design community would be extremely helpful for designers everywhere.

What do you feel are the keys to success for a niche social media site?

1. Name your project something relevant to the niche you’re entering. I don’t think people put enough thought into what they name things these days. If you hope to build a memorable brand for your social media site that will last, put some thought into what you call it.

2. Social Media is still a relatively new idea, so don’t assume that you’re niche knows what it is or how it works. You might have to educate them on how they will benefit from using your site as a gateway into the topic you’re covering.

3. Don’t forget what your #1 one priority is: Giving your users access to focused, quality, relevant, and well organized information.

4. Don’t try and monetize your site too soon. I didn’t start serving ads on Design Float until a couple months after the project had launched and I made sure that the focus was still the content, not the ads.

5. Finally, listen to your community. Talk to them. Respond to their emails. Implement their requests. Nobody knows what the users in your niche want or expect better than the users themselves.

What does a niche site like Design Float have to offer users that a larger, more established site like Digg cannot?

The main thing that a niche site like Design Float offers that larger broader outlets like Digg cannot is better organized relevant content and less irrelevant content. The goal of a niche social media site is to keep its content and submissions directly related to a targeted top level category and its sub categories. What’s great about Design Float is that you can drill down into the different mediums of design and find highly focused content that would otherwise be thrown into the overall “Design” category at projects like Digg. Entries about CSS don’t have to compete with entries about branding, or photography, or interior design… or photos of the largest Lego car ever constructed.

Design Float is built on the Pligg system, is that correct?

That is correct. People often ask me why I opted to go the open source route versus building something from the ground up. When I first decided to create Design Float, I had a fear that the design community might reject the project because it was “Just another Digg clone.” Combined with the fact that I’m by no means a PHP genius, I decided it would be best to use Pligg because of the rapid deployment benefit that open source software provides. If the project was rejected, at least I wouldn’t have spent several months developing the backend for something that was never going to succeed.

What is your opinion of Pligg as far as the possibilities to customize it and how difficult it is to learn?

I feel the Pligg developers did a great job of making Pligg easily customizable for an experienced designer/developer and while I’m not completely sold on Smarty (the template engine used) I’ve learned to appreciate it. Getting a project to the level of customization that I’ve been able to achieve with Design Float does require jumping into the core files, however, and is something that might be intimidating for someone who doesn’t have an understanding of PHP.

There are hundreds of small social media sites popping up everywhere. It seems like 95% of them send no real traffic. How have you been able to build a community around Design Float so that it actually does send a significant amount of traffic to popular submissions?

Logical organization and a usable layout that puts the content in focus have been the two biggest things that I believe contribute to Design Floats ability to send significant amounts of traffic to popular submissions. In addition, things like hiding article summaries by default encourages users to write better headlines which translate to higher click through numbers. I also know that people who visit Design Float are looking for quality design related content, of which we have a ton of. And finally, the community does a great job of submitting and floating the quality design related entries and making them popular.

When Design Float was first launched, how did you go about getting people to start using it and building a community around it?

My initial form of promotion was submitting the site to popular CSS and web app showcases which exposed Design Float to one of the primary target audiences, web designers. After only a few days I could tell that the project had been embraced and a community began forming almost immediately. Pretty soon, a moderate viral blog buzz began to roll and before I knew it, there were over 250 mentions of Design Float across the design blogosphere. Design Float still gets mentioned regularly in design related blogs, and combined with the fact that the site indexes with major search engines like a dream, we continue to grow by over 300 new members a month.

Since I’ve been using Design Float I’ve seen an increase in the amount of advertisements on the site. The icons section seems to have a new advertiser every time I visit. It seems that a niche site that has such a targeted audience would be attractive to advertisers.

From your experience, how do you feel about the income potential and monetization opportunities for niche social media sites like yours?

There is, without a doubt, huge potential to monetize niche social media sites. Obviously the degree to which you’re able to monetize depends upon the niche you’re in. The design niche happens to have an abundance of companies and service providers that see positive results from traditional forms of banner advertising. The key is to find a balance of displaying advertisements for products and services that your target audience will benefit from while serving them in forms that are as minimally invasive as possible.

With the way things are changing, however, I believe there are going to be much more exciting and effective ways to monetize a social media site like Design Float. Things like affiliate marketing and interactive marketing don’t put a cap on the income potential of a site like the more traditional forms of web advertising do and I’ve been researching these to see if there is a way to incorporate them into Design Float.

At the end of the day, you can’t forget why your users are there though. If your goals are to make as much money as possible, you’ll eventually drive away your users and kill the community. It’s important not to get greedy. As long as you make your focus providing your niche audience with quality relevant content, the money to sustain it will follow.

Do you currently own any other websites?

I don’t currently own or run any other moments currently. I am going to be collaborating on a project in the near future which will also target the design community and it’s not going to be a clone!

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