Social networking websites have become a primary means of social communication, in both the social and corporate world. According to Facebook’s Press Room, they have more than 500 millions users. This is a shocking increase from its initial 1 million active users in 2004.
Facebook is just one of many social networking sites experiencing rapid growth. There are a variety of social networks for all types of interests, and each network differs slightly. However, there are a few key components that lead to success when designing a social networking site.
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You should learn from your competitors, but not copy them. You need to think of how you can be at least 50% better than everyone else – innovation is the key to success. Twitter created a whole new category; Facebook is MySpace on steroids. What will you do differently?
The aesthetics of a social networking website must be visually appealing. Colors or fonts that strain the eyes will discourage the user from spending time on the website.
Unlike most websites, social networks expect the same visitors to return daily. That’s why something flashy or quirky should be out of the question – choose a design that your audience will not get sick of.
Remember that with a new social networking site, new users don’t have a lot of site loyalty quite yet. For this reason, you must make every action easy to accomplish.
Keep the registration process simple, and guide them through the steps. Add explanations to even the easiest steps, so that the user never has to leave the page to get help. For example, incorporate icons next to each field with a popup box providing further instruction when the user clicks or hovers over it.
The signup landing page is a key element of a successful social network. When a new user visits your website, they need to understand the benefits of signing up for an account.
“What’s in it for me?”
Tell the user why she needs this particular social networking site. What value will it add to her life? How will it make her social activities easier? How will it better connect her to the world?
How to take action.
From the moment the user sets foot on the page, his next steps should be clear. Whether those steps are to register, sign in, or watch a video tutorial that further explains the site, they should be clearly displayed on the page so he knows what must be accomplished to move forward.
Immediately engage users by helping them find friends upon signup. Offer a variety of ways for them to search for friends: by name, email address or network. Also, provide them with the option of importing their email address book so that they can find registered friends by email address.
Also, build in a feature for existing users that encourages them to continuously search for new friends, and invite non-members to join the site. Allow users to import their email address book, and send invites to contacts that are not members yet.
Build your networking site so that users can use their own organization system. Create functionality that allows them to group photos and videos into albums, and group their friends into groups or specific networks. This will help to make the site more user-friendly and accessible.
Email notifications are a great way to engage users once they have registered for your social network. Emails will encourage them to return to the site, when otherwise they may forget to check back regularly.
Create a system that sends the user an email every time someone sends them a message or comment, uploads a video, requests or accepts a friendship, or does any other type of interaction that involves them. Provide a direct link in the email so that the user can navigate right to the specific page.
However, be sure there are also options that allow the user to set their notification preferences. The last thing you want is to be a social network that spams its members.
It is also important to set up functionality directly on the social network that alerts members of any new activity that involves them. These notifications should be clear, well organized, and easy to access. The user should notice alerts the minute she logs in to her account.
A member should be able to customize her social networking profile to cater to her needs. One of the signature elements of a social network is the user’s ability to customize her profile to reflect who she is as a person, and also to set up personal preferences on privacy.
When building a social network, it is vital that you include the option for members to customize their profiles in some way. Perhaps you don’t want to provide full customization options, like MySpace does, but you can still give members some freedom in the information they display.
Key customization options to consider:
Thinks of how you can integrate with other existing social networks. While it may be unwise to be too reliant on another social network, it can be a great way to attract visitors and improve utility for your existing users.
Social networks sometimes have to create fresh demand rather than fill a demand that already exists. For example: what would a potential Twitter user search for? For niche social networks, however, there might be opportunities with keywords such as ‘dating’ or ‘golf’. Be creative and look for opportunities, but always keep in mind that there might be more effective marketing activities than driving quasi-targeted traffic to your homepage.
Social networks usually control vast amounts of unique content, which creates a great opportunity to attract long tail search traffic. You could rank for your users’ names, Q&A section, forums and user blogs. Some social networks provide a small amount of ‘teaser’ information through search results, then ask their visitors to sign up for an account to see more.
Most social networks adopt a multi-dimensional hierarchy, which leads to optimum usability and navigational benefit for your users. Let’s say you have a social network for tennis players. A user can browse by tennis club, by geography, by competition winner and by many more options. You can move from one profile to another directly, if they are friends. In this model, profiles inherit multiple values and are ‘filed’ in several locations. This provides optimum flexibility to your users as they navigate your site.
While a multi-dimensional hierarchy will enable better website navigation, you should develop a search function to make your website perform better. You could consider using an option such as Google’s, but it’s better to develop your search functionality in-house over time. This will allow you to embrace the benefits of structured data.
Make sure your website is usable on mobile devices, preferably including a lighter website version. It might also be worthwhile to develop an application for Blackberry, iPhones and other devices.
You should perform testing. With social networks, it’s important to take a sophisticated approach to how you track performance: sign ups alone may not be enough. A certain landing page may lead to improved sign up rates, but those users may not necessarily turn out to be the most active or most likely to invite their friends.
Do not limit your testing to sign up pages. You can also use split testing to improve the usability and performance of your network: does a green or a white background lead to the most user loyalty?
Decide upon key metrics for your social network. Here are some ideas for metrics you might wish to use to judge your success:
Once you know your metrics, you should be able to evaluate your marketing spend more effectively. You should know the cost of generating a new user from each marketing source. In making your calculation, do not forget to include the amount of new users each new user successfully invites.
While writing this article, it’s always a possibility that we missed some other great tips. Feel free to share it with us.