A “niche” or specialized social network can be a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to build a unique website where members identify more closely as a group based on their profession, training or experiences.

Niche websites can allow advertisers to reach a more concentrated group of potential customers, which can let you sell advertising space on your website at a premium.

Unlike FaceBook or MySpace which attracts millions of people of all ages, and interests, a niche social network website attracts a smaller group people of like mind and interests. You can easily build a more focused, where everyone “gets” all the other members.

What is a Social Network Website?

Social network websites have a number of features which makes it easy for website members to join the community, create a member profile, join groups, post blogs, send private emails, make friends, discuss topics in forums and more.

MySpace and FaceBook, two of the largest social networks, have millions of members from all walks of life, all ages and many different interests and backgrounds.

What is a Niche Market Website?

A niche website is a social network website where members share a common background or career experience-something all the members can relate to.

For instance, your niche market social website might be for firefighters, artists, Corvette owners, camera collectors or entrepreneurs.

Many people have a hobby or interest they truly love, and would like to meet up with others who share that interest. While anyone can join Facebook or MySpace, finding other members with similar interests among the millions of members on the large social network websites is time consuming, and often members can get lost in just figuring out what all they can do on a large website.

Building Your Website – Two Approaches

Free or rental – If you want a quick and easy website solution, consider using Ning.com.

Ning.com allows you to set up your own social network using their system for free. It is easy to get started and this approach can be a great place to try your idea for a niche website, without spending a lot of money out of pocket initially.

Ning.com does let you upgrade your website, so if you want enhanced features, have your wallet handy.

Keep in mind that you will be limited to what they provide you in terms of software and features and advertising.

While having a “free” website may sound attractive, you will need to spend quite a bit of time and effort setting up your website, adding your website’s logo and initially marketing the website. Keep in mind that you are inside the Ning.com network, and later if you decide to move your website away from ning.com, they in fact own the website.

Be sure to read all the fine print first or consider a website that you own 100%.

100% Owned – If you want to own your website entirely so you can have full control over your website look and feel, database and everything within the website, consider buying some off the shelf software and hosting your website yourself.

There are a number of social network applications that can provide a robust website that you own totally. Software such as Social Engine provides website owners access to the source code, the ability to add additional features to the website via plugins and offers several design templates to choose from.

Keep in mind you may want to own your website entirely so it has a greater value in case you want to sell the website or make major programming changes to the website.

Selecting Website Software…

Installing software on a website server is not quite the same as installing a program on your own computer.

Hosting companies will typically have “shared” hosting servers, so there are very strict guidelines as to what any hosting customer can install. Applications are typically PHP, CGI, Ruby on Rails, NET and CFM.

You will need mature, reliable software which has many websites using the software, not something that is brand new and unproven.

There are many software developers who offer MySpace or FaceBook “clone” software for a few hundred dollars, which seems too good to be true – and it is.

Keep in mind, that if the software you purchase is from a one person company or individual developer, you probably will not experience good, reliable software support. And if the individual stops supporting the software, or decides to take a full-time job, you may be stuck with obsolete software that cannot be upgraded, ultimately affecting your website and business.

Find a Reliable Technology Partner

If you are not technical and most of the above seems like “Greek” (or “Geek”) to you, find someone to work with you who has some technical skills or you may want to consider using a “free” or low cost hosted solution like Ning.com.

If you are looking to build a business around your niche market, work with a website design company who has some experience with application integration and some experience with creating a social network website.

A website designer will be able to help you with selecting and evaluating software and with the customizing of your website, branding and can help you with all the technical issues.

Review Application Demos

Make sure you check out actual working demos of software and look at actual websites running the software before you take the plunge. Poorly supported software, no matter how slick it is, will be frustrating to use. It can be especially frustrating to learn, after you spend several days to customize your software, that it has software bugs or just is not going to work the way you expected it to.

Make sure the website administration area is easy to use. As the website community “host” and administrator, you will using the Administration system on a daily basis to manage users and work on the website. Make sure the system you go with is intuitive and relatively easy to use, which will save you time and effort over the long haul.

Look for official support forums where website owners are use using the software you are considering. These discussion groups are great for getting a feel for how well the software you are considering is supported and discussion groups can give you insight into community building and growing your website.

Software that just shows you screen shots and where there is no official support forums should be avoided. Usually these software programs force you to buy first and suffer from very poor customer support.

Contact website owners

If you see a social network site or software that you like and seems to have a good mix of features, you might consider contacting the website owner and see what they will share with you about what they are using for software, and how they built their website.

Do not expect the owner to give you endless help with how to build your own website-do your homework first and ask a few relevant questions. Remember, their time is valuable and you don’t want to wear out your welcome.

Hosting Basics

Use a reliable hosting company. While the hosting company will not help you install software and build your website, they can be very helpful in helping to get an application or script running on your website.

Make sure the hosting plan you have will allow for your website growth. Social network websites can contain a lot of photographs, videos and can get very busy at times. Be sure you can later upgrade your hosting plan if needed to give you more server space and bandwidth.

The Importance of Backups

Make regular backups. I like to use hosting that has Cpanel. Cpanel is a control panel that will let you make daily, weekly or monthly backups.

Backups are important in case your website gets hacked or there’s a problem with the server. While hosting companies do back up their networks, your website is essentially a database and if it gets corrupted or you need to move to another hosting company, you will need to have a recent backup.

Work with a “niche” group you know inside and out

For your website, be sure to go with a group you belong to or identity with. You are building an online community, and if you have a lot of enthusiasm and interest in what the group is about, this will help your website to be successful.

When members see that the website owner is “one of them”, you can personalize the website more easily and members will see you as a person, not as a faceless website.

Starting an online community takes a lot of time and dedication. If you love woodworking and you live out in your woodshop and you love to share with other woodworkers, then starting your own online community for that group is a great idea.

On the other hand, if you only like the idea of a group, and you haven’t “walked the walk” and can’t “talk the talk” you will have to rely on recruiting some key members to help build momentum in your website, which may take some time and effort.

Tips for Building Your Online Community

1) Lead by example

You will have “seed” your online community by starting a few discussion groups, inviting members to join, and nurturing the community along.

Some members who join will jump in and contribute and be active in the community, but other members will join, post a comment and do nothing more for several months.

You will have to lead by example and contribute blogs, comments and forum topics initially until you have enough members on board to share the load with you.

2) Be patient

The first month or two will go slowly as you slowly new members. With an empty website, some potential members will be turned off, others will get what your website is about and start contributing.

You will need to be pro-active. Invite people you know to join and you will contact clubs or organizations who have members that are appropriate for your website. Invite the club or organization’s president or key people to check out your website.

Remember the 80/20 rule-100 members signing up will give you 20 members who will really do something on the website in terms of contributing.

Seek out and befriend those who are contributing to your website. While social network websites generate their own content, but it is the members who are active that make it happen, and some encouragement and recognition on your part will go a long way..

3) Treat your website seriously

Starting an online community then only checking in once a week or once a month or so to see how it is doing will not work. This is like starting a restaurant and expecting it to run itself.

If you start a community, you have to be involved and constantly looking for ways to engage members. You should be a community leader and involved on a daily basis.

Starting a niche social network website is a lot like throwing a party.

A good host will make sure all the party goers are having a good time and make sure the refreshments and food is available so a handful of people becomes a noisy crowd having a great time.

4) Set Reasonable Expectations

If you start a community hoping to cash in on advertising revenue or commissions on affiliate programs in the first year… it is probably not going to happen. Building your website membership and getting website traffic will take time.

Focus first on building your membership and getting your members involved in the the community. Send out monthly emails to members to profile members and to point out new groups and areas of interest in the website. Refine your website to make it better as time goes on.

By first create something of value, your members will help spread the word to others and your community will grow.

Later, you can focus on how to do some cost recovery or make money with advertising on your website.

5) Do your homework

Remember, you get what you pay for. Free website services rarely are truly free. Most have hidden strings attached and moving your website from a free or low-cost service to a 100% owned system will mean somehow importing your old website into a new system, which may require custom programming.

Use Google to do research on hosting companies, and find complaints about software or online services you are considering, and to learn how to market your website and grow your community.

6) Have a 1, 3 and 5 year plan

Plan on a year to initially build, launch and to start your website growing.

Keep in mind you will need several years to grow and develop the website, especially if you grow by word of mouth and you don’t have a large advertising budget.

Bigger is not always better… a small community that is close-knit and vibrant will be easier to grow than an overly-ambitious large website that is under-funded.

7) Spell out Your Terms of Service

You must have a Terms of Service page with your website rules and what will happen to members who violate your terms of service. Having rules in place beforehand will make it easier to deal with misunderstandings or problem members later on.

You can review several websites to get ideas of what should be covered in your own Terms of Service and you can of course have a lawyer draw up a final document for you.

8) Practice Tough Love

It will take a few weeks or maybe even months for your website to start growing and to pick up momentum, and at first it seems that every new member is invaluable to helping make the website grow.

You will have some people join who have their own agenda in that they are less interested in helping you to build a community and more interested in promoting themselves or recruiting your members, or spamming members.

Do not hesitate to give members who violate your website rules or Terms of Service, “the boot” if they are clearly violating your website rules.

Sometimes new members may not have much experience with social networks and may just not know how to post correctly. Contacting problem members and offering to help them or to explain to them why you have certain rules can go a long way and help you build a great community. But if someone is not listening or is not a good community member, you must be prepared to disable or delete their account so they do not drive off other members.

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