Building a Successful Niche Social Media Website: An Interview With Andrew Egenes of Design Float

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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32 Responses

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  • Anna Vester, January 2, 2008

    Great interview Steven. I visit Design Float website almost daily. I have been watching its rise since the very beginning. Andrew did a very good job developing and marketing the site. It surely landed right in the middle of the design niche. Thumbs Up!

  • Karen Zara, January 2, 2008

    Steven, thank you very much for posting this interview. You just asked the right questions. As a result, Andrew Egenes gave some great tips that many webmasters can benefit from, e. g., how to promote a new site, generate more click-throughs, monetise it, take advantage of bigger site’s weak spots etc. It is almost like a mini-course on niche sites. For this I must extend my thanks to Andrew, who generously shared his knowledge with this blog’s readers.

    Stumbled and delicioused. ;)

  • Cory Perry, January 3, 2008

    Excellent interview! I am a regular at Design Float, and it is for the exact reasons mentioned in this article. Digg has become far too useless for me and finding quality design content on Digg is difficult. Design Float merges the best of Digg with a topic that I am very passionate about, so it was only natural that I would embrace Design Float as my permanent Digg replacement.

    I actually have not been back to Digg since I stumbled upon Design Float.

  • Andrew, January 3, 2008

    Thank you all for the kind comments and thank you Steven for giving me the opportunity to share the things I’ve learned through creating Design Float.

  • Anthony Baggett, January 3, 2008

    I really enjoyed this interview and am a fairly new Design Float user. I really believe this is an awesome site for finding content with virtually no spammy, pointless entries…perfect.

  • Vandelay Design, January 3, 2008

    Anna, Karen, Cory, and Anthony,
    Thanks for your feedback on the interview.

    Andrew,
    Thanks again for your willingness to do the interview and for sharing your experiences.

  • Niall Doherty, January 3, 2008

    Great interview, and great job on Design Float. I like hearing about the people behind the scenes, gives the site more personality and makes people relate. Keep up the good work.

  • Jon, January 3, 2008

    Design Float hit the nail on the head, and it came out of nowhere! Good article, I had been wondering how long DF has been around because there’s so much content but I had only recently found it. It’s one of the rss feeds I check everyday (or every other day.)

  • MarketingDeviant, January 4, 2008

    Interesting social media site! I can learn a few things from those floated articles!

  • Quinn, January 4, 2008

    Oh please, the guy behind DF is a complete hack. He has done nothing innovative at all, he can barley make a website to begin with. He happened to just rise a bit further standing on he shoulders of other great people like Rose. Interviewing this putz instantly makes me take you off of my subscribe list. Now maybe the next time you’ll interview someone that didn’t take and open source platform and and stick ZERO thought into it other then only focusing on a design list. Perhaps next time you will interview someone who has created a real social networking site. Perhaps.

  • Lost Forum, January 5, 2008

    i really enjoyed the interview part. thank you very much Steven for sharing it with us. also thanks to Andrew Egenes for his wonderful tips, which i think surely will benefit the webmasters. great blog!

  • Vandelay Design, January 5, 2008

    Quinn,
    That’s fine if you unsubscribe, I’ll never be able to please everyone. The design of the site really has no relevance on the reason for the interview. The focus was on promoting and building a community around the site, which he has done very successfully. You have the balls to rip Andrew’s work but not to leave a link to your own. That’s interesting.

  • Shivanand Sharma, January 9, 2008

    I really like interviews like this. There’s nothing that can give you as much insight as an interview can. As Alfred Sheinwold once said “Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won’t have time to make them all yourself.” And it’s basically learning from teh experience of others and building upon it.

    Sometime back I read Steven’s interview at Performancing.com and I made it a point to provide similiar rich and informative content on my site as well.

    Regards
    Shivanand Sharma
    http://www.thestasis.com

  • Vandelay Design, January 9, 2008

    Shivanand,
    I’m glad you found some useful information in the interview. I tried to ask questions that would be though-provoking and Andrew put real effort into his answers.

  • Web Design Sussex, February 21, 2008

    Thanks for the interesting info, we are developers but have not heard of design float. Will check it out and see if this will help our exposure.

  • Morton, April 9, 2008

    Great article. We created a niche social network at my employer Elon University for alumni, students, faculty/staff, and parents.

  • Houston, May 20, 2008

    Listen. Do not have an opinion while you listen because frankly, your opinion doesn?t hold much water outside of Your Universe. Just listen. Listen until their brain has been twisted like a dripping towel and what they have to say is all over the floor.

  • Dallas, May 22, 2008

    O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.

  • Skout™, July 5, 2008

    Quinn u suck.

    Genius is taking ‘already made’ platforms if you can and offer something well thought out of that…

    You can take 2 months developing what’s already available ‘freely’ and still have a product that suck!

    I think it was a wise decision to use Pligg – both development + business-wise…

    Well done to Andrew.

  • AxeThem, October 4, 2008

    Pligg is a great system that has a lot functionality out of the box. There is a lot to modify to make your website unique after that though.

  • Sketchplanet, February 28, 2009

    Nice interview, I see the site is down (again!)…I think the guy needs to either stop using pligg since it’s easily hacked and secondly, get a better server.

  • Nate @ Debt-free Scholar, March 24, 2009

    Dugg! Just kidding. ;)

  • nicky, May 13, 2009

    Yes, Social media network like Designfloat is really good where we can find great design related articles and drive huge traffic also.

  • Sweet Pixels Web Design, May 29, 2009

    I think Social Media is a long way off delivering the content to people in the way they desire. I find myself using so many social sites to keep up to date with trends & technology from using Twitter for resources, Digg & stumbleUpon For video or tutorials and finally Delicious for anything interesting. I would so prefer the internet search companies to deliver the actual content based on searches as apposed to visiting hundreds of sites.

  • Liam McIvor Martin, July 12, 2009

    Super cool post, I’ve been trying to develop my own site and banging my head against the wall as everyone is telling me something different.

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