Bootstrapping a Niche Social Network

Bootstrapping your niche is easier if you leverage existing motivation. How do you bootstrap your social site if you’re targeting a group that doesn’t yet use software (or doesn’t seem interested in using software)? While software designers can often see how useful their tool can be, normal users aren’t so prescient. How do you get […]

Bootstrapping your niche is easier if you leverage existing motivation.

How do you bootstrap your social site if you’re targeting a group that doesn’t yet use software (or doesn’t seem interested in using software)? While software designers can often see how useful their tool can be, normal users aren’t so prescient. How do you get them to see the value in your software?

Eric DeLabar brings up this question in response to my post on the power of niche social network sites last week:

“I’ve always had a problem wrapping my head around this exact topic. Having mainly technical friends getting my circle of friends to try out a new website is simple, especially if it’s of a technical nature. However, my next largest circle of friends are from our local community theatre. As a whole we could really use a niche site for communicating with other community theatre groups, however most of our members really aren’t all that interested in social networking or in most cases the web in general. I don’t know if this is localized or just community theatre in general, but I haven’t been able to find anything similar.

It seems like a perfect niche, but where do I find an audience to bootstrap it?”

Eric’s situation is a great example of what a lot of software designers are dealing with.

Leverage Existing Motivation

The key is to swim with the tide, not against it, by leveraging existing motivation.

Notice how Eric wrote that the theatre folks aren’t interested in “social networking”. This is normal…most people don’t have a social networking problem.

So where is the existing motivation? Well, the folks in your community theatre group *are* motivated to be better at theatre, to put on better shows, to run better productions. That’s where Eric needs to focus…on how the social software can make them better at theatre.

People don’t want to be good at software. They want to be good at fun things like acting, writing, and ultimate frisbee.

In other words, Eric needs to answer the question: “How does my software make them better at what they already love to do?”. Does it allow them to put on better shows? Does it allow them to get more people into the theatre by cross-promoting with other theatres? Does it put their show on more community calendars? Does it allow producers better access to shared resources? (I really have no idea what the real benefits would be, but the point is that Eric needs to know what these details are)

Once you identify the areas where the software can improve the theatre folks life, you’ll have a much easier time convincing them to give it a shot. So in their mind they won’t be using “social network software”, they’ll be using a tool to help them be a better theatre group.

This is an unfortunate side-effect of the social networking craze. We have new words that we’re using to communicate among those of us who design the software, but for the vast majority of folks who will actually use the software, the terms don’t mean very much. So while you may understand what I mean by “niche social network”, the people actually in the niche social network think of themselves as performers, actors, or what-have-you.

Kathy Sierra has a great post on this topic: Keeping users engaged. In this long post (definitely worth reading) she talks about how to make things interesting for people by engaging and challenging them on multiple levels. If what you’re building isn’t interesting in itself (Kathy uses the example of garbage bags), you need to create a challenging environment around that thing. (I don’t think theatre has this problem, but other niche sites might)

Anyway, there isn’t always a great answer to the question: “how does my software make people better at what they’re passionate about?” If you can’t answer this question, your software is facing an uphill battle for acceptance.

But most of the time there is existing motivation. Everybody wants to be better, even if they don’t articulate it as such. Bootstrapping niche social networks is about finding and leveraging that motivation, while speaking in terms people already understand.

Published: May 5th, 2008

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