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How to develop social networks when you’re a start-up

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The first commandment for building a social network is: Thou Shalt Scale. A social network needs to be able to cope with huge spikes in users – perhaps multiple millions – and if it can’t, users will abandon the site in droves. It is also critical to make a site ‘sticky’ by providing compelling reasons for users to stay once they’re on the site; innovative design and unique, robust applications are therefore an absolute prerequisite.

Users tend to flock to new networks – well, the good ones – but numbers drop off sharply when critical mass is reached. The issues then become scaling back down and, of course, retention. Networks employ various methods to keep users interested, such as notification of applications, alerts for new messages and new activity, and reminders to visit. These all require users to submit contact details and, and for an audience now wary of putting details online, very strong security policies must be enforced across the social network.

If there aren’t enough users on the site at launch, it appears ‘empty’ and potential users bounce off, probably never to return. Start-ups therefore must feed users onto the site prior to launch, either by inviting beta testers to the site or by actively recruiting users from their own networks of contacts – including employees.

Some organisations partner with specialist web site developers to turn their vision of a social networking site into a reality. In this case, start-ups should only seek developers with a strong track record in developing social networks. This is because developing this type of site requires specialist skills to both address the challenges – including the rapid development of unique and robust applications, coping with rapid change, creating fresh design and handling exponential load spikes – and embrace the opportunities.  

New Bamboo Top Tips 1.    Get feedback early and often. Get people using your social networking site during its development and act on their feedback. Therefore you ensure that you consistently navigate your network towards success.

2.    Go cross-channel if you can. Maximise your user numbers by making the site accessible via mobile devices.

3.    Plug into existing networks. Including links to established networks – Facebook and iPhone applications for example – will help put you one step ahead of the game.

4.    Create a Unique Selling Point (USP). No one cares if you provide the same features as other established sites. Do something different and focus on that completely.

5.    Or….target a niche audience. A social networking site is only useful if everyone you know is on it. Facebook initially targetted individual colleges for example.

*Gwyn Morfey is an application developer at New Bamboo.

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