Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications and How to Avoid Them, Part 2

This is part II of a series on Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications. Read Part I

5) Not Appointing a Full-time Community Manager

No matter how prescient your designers and how well thought out your design strategy, there is no way to design a perfect social web site that doesn’t need ongoing management. Yet, some social start-ups fail to recognize this and launch their app without a designated caretaker. The result is a slow failure…the worst kind of failure because it’s not immediately apparent that it’s happening.

In any decent social app, use and users are always changing, always adapting and pushing the limits of your software. So as Matt Haughey, founder of Metafilter, says in his excellent Community Tips for 2007, “Moderation is a full-time job”.

This is part II of a series on Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications. Read Part I

Update: read Part III

5) Not Appointing a Full-time Community Manager

No matter how prescient your designers and how well thought out your design strategy, there is no way to design a perfect social web site that doesn’t need ongoing management. Yet, some social start-ups fail to recognize this and launch their app without a designated caretaker. The result is a slow failure…the worst kind of failure because it’s not immediately apparent that it’s happening.

In any decent social app, use and users are always changing, always adapting and pushing the limits of your software. So as Matt Haughey, founder of Metafilter, says in his excellent Community Tips for 2007, “Moderation is a full-time job”.

The success of many social start-ups proves this to be true. Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, when asked about making online communities work, admitted there is no silver bullet, but added:

“A lot of our success came from George (Oates), the lead designer, and Caterina (Fake). Both of them spent a lot of time in the early days greeting individual users as they came in, encouraging them and leaving comments on their photos. There was a lot of dialogue between the people who were developing Flickr and their users to get feedback on how they wanted Flickr to develop. That interaction made the initial community very strong and then that seed was there for new people who joined to make the community experience strong for them too.”

Stewart’s description is exactly how George described it to me when I met her at SXSW. She could not over-emphasize the value of her and Caterina spending so much time with users…24 hours a day greeting them, showing them how to use Flickr, and generally saying “Hi”. It was clear to her that a huge part of the early success of Flickr resulted from that personal attention, that personal connection that someone on the other end cares about what’s going on. A full-time community manager is crucial to providing this level of attention.

6) Not Building Archived Knowledge

When your social app begins to grow and you start to attract more and more new people to the fold, you begin to see trends in their initial confrontation with the software. The same issues crop up repeatedly. People have the same problems over and over again and the community manager spends more and more time answering the same questions.

For example, uploading that first batch of photos might be intimidating for those folks who have never done it before. Let’s imagine they all run into the same problem: how do you get photos out of iPhoto and into your Flickr account? There are certain steps to do this, but it is not entirely clear, especially if you’ve never had to export pictures out of iPhoto before.

It’s the community manager’s role to help people at this stage. They’ll chat and email with the person to help them along. But their role should also include figuring out when archiving common problems will make a big difference to a large group of users. If the process of exporting from iPhoto is archived at a URL, then the community manager only has to point people to the brand new “exporting from iPhoto” page instead of explaining it over and over again.

One strategy to avoid repeating the same things over and over again is to use these interactions to feed a FAQ or a user’s guide. Whenever you start to see trends in help, add it to your FAQ and add a section to the user’s guide. This will allow the community manager to focus on the latest, more unique problems without having to rehash older issues again and again.

This seems pretty obvious now that we’ve talked about a general case. But it’s not so obvious when you’re in the heat of battle and these issues are cropping up unstructured for the first time. The secret is to observe patterns in the questions people ask but also in the underlying cause of the questions while leaving enough design time dedicated to creating a healthy set of resources that can serve future users.

7) An Over-Focus on Social Value

This may sound counter-intuitive, but it is possible to focus too much on social value when creating social web applications. Why is that? Well, because much of the motivation within social sites is actually rooted in personal value, or answering the question: “what’s in it for me?”. I’ve dubbed this the Del.icio.us Lesson because it was Del.icio.us who gained so much attention for the social value of tagging but it was really the personal value of saving bookmarks that drove the site.

At the beginning, when you’re building the service, is not the time to focus on social value. There is no social value because there is no user base. So adding tags in the hopes that people will discover new things is probably premature at this stage, for example. Instead, focus on how a single person can use your service even if others don’t share or tag anything.

Think about YouTube, a killer social app. Even at the very beginning YouTube was providing personal value: hosting your videos for free. If they had been charging for this feature, no social design in the world could have caused the growth that free video hosting did. So while YouTube excels at getting viral growth out of the sharing of videos, they’re providing a valuable, personal service at the same time.

It should also be noted that altruistic people, or people who do things for the good of the group regardless of personal benefit, are incredibly rare. They’re so rare, in fact, that they make a very poor population to design for. There just aren’t enough of them to make up a significant population in any area. Even Wikipedians, who have been called altruistic at times, are mostly driven by reputation…the reputation they gain from their peers and other Wikipedians.

Continue to Part III

Published: June 20th, 2007

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