How to Build A Massive Online Community

There are tons people in the social media scene who talk a lot about “community”… and there are a quiet few who work hard at building sustainable online communities. Joshua Dorkin is an independent online publisher and community manager in Denver, Colorado – who runs the real estate investing community BiggerPockets.com.

Josh shares tips for building an online community and tells how he grew the site to almost 50,000 members:

Please tell us about yourself and your online community?

“I’m an online publisher and real estate investor in Denver, CO. Five years ago I started out in real estate investing… I and was looking for a great resource to help me find the tools and info I needed to help me with my business. I couldn’t find any site that fit my needs, so I decided to start building my own.

Joshua Dorkin supports his family by running an online social community from home.

I began to build the site while working my full-time job as a teacher. Soon after launching our forum, people began to participate… I immediately realized then that the site could become more than just a hobby site for my own personal needs. I spent all my free time coding the site and expanding the directory of resources, and soon launched our blog. Eventually, I hired my first coder and began to really start building the site into what it is today – a full-featured social network, with tools and applications targeted to real estate investors, professionals, aficionados, and the every day homeowner / renter.”

Did you have experience running online community sites before? How did you learn?

“I learned how to run it though trial and error, and from watching what other forum sites did. There was a lot of experimentation in the early days as to how to run the site, and I made plenty of mistakes and pissed off more than my fair share of people while doing it. Overall, I learned by doing.”

How does your site make money?

“The revenues are primarily from advertising. While Google AdSense is a great driver of ad income, we also do direct sales of banners on our site and newsletter. Additionally, we participate in a select few affiliate programs. Partnerships with other businesses are also very important drivers of revenue, as are our paid membership upgrades, and a little bit of e-commerce.”

Presently your site has over 48,422 members. How did you get such a big crowd?

image: Steven crane

“The most exciting member was number two. It was very exciting to know that someone other than me was on the site . . . I felt a sense of success, and saw the potential for people to start pouring in. The first two years were very shaky. The community hadn’t reached any kind of tipping point, and it seemed that the site could either flourish or fail at any time.”

What were the most successful strategies that helped increase signups and strengthen the community?

“I believe that the strict administration of our site has helped it be so successful. I’ve spent time on other real estate and non-related communities, and I see that the sites that are strongest are those who clamp down and enforce some set of rules or guidelines. It is so easy to be lax, but in the end, that doesn’t work. People are always looking for some angle to exploit for the purpose of marketing, and if you allow a free-for-all, your community will result in chaos.

Other important reasons for our success in growth has been the passion of our core members. Any strong community will always have that core group, and they can easily make or break a site. This group usually consists of influencers, and often times, those influencers are quite powerful. Sadly, in many cases, this power can get to their heads; I’ve had to remove many of these people from the site over the years. Mostly, they always got the idea that they were above the rules and started to take advantage of the site. While the community respects them in general, by allowing these members to stick around, you undermine your entire system. All that said, we’ve learned to keep this type of behavior in check and have come to depend on the core group of members to help other, new members out and promote the site. Their passion is evident and catchy.

Throw all that together with lots of activity, tons of great content, and fantastic membership, and the community simply grows on its own now.

What are the biggest headaches?

“Spam is certainly a problem with any kind of community, but we’ve managed to develop some pretty good processes for identifying and removing it. Actually, one of the best moves we made on that front was to empower the members to report posts and other content on the site. I’ve found that the general membership does not want that crap around, and usually find it before we do. We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to spam.

Spam and community disagreements can be a major headache. image: jk5854

The last major headache is disagreements between members. We allow members to disagree with one another – these often result in some of the best discussions, but when people begin to get personal and attack one another publicly, we put a stop to it. We try and bring these people together to resolve their issues in private, but you can’t always make that happen. In that case, we simply let these people know to avoid one another. We’ve got many members who were participants on other sites, but decided to leave and join BiggerPockets because they know that we won’t tolerate that public bad-mouthing that goes on elsewhere.”

A lot of times people will join a community and never even upload an avatar, let alone any content. What’s the best way to improve participation?

“I think the best way to improve participation is to have a team that is welcoming and friendly, and to always connect with new members. We make it a policy to welcome new members and to remind them of the benefits of completing their profile and participating. Often times, people just set up an account and plan on coming back later, but forget and move on. The welcome serves to let them know not to forget about us, and to get going for their benefit. Otherwise, having that strong core group of members, who also remind the newbies to get a picture and profile together, definitly helps.”

Say someone was starting an online community today – what are two or three things you’d advise them?

“The first thing I’d advise is to get an understanding of how online communities work before getting started. Jump on other sites and get a feel for them. While I did it through trial and error, you can learn by participating. I’ve seen dozens of sites come and go over the years for this reason alone. I’d also advise making sure you’ve got the time, or that you’ve got people who have the time, to manage and remain active in the community. Countless communities die because there is no one to actively manage them. Doing so is not easy – in any niche, there are only a handful of truly successful communities for this reason alone.

The last bit of advice I’d offer is to do good. When other upstart communities have done bad things to us (steal content/members/etc), in the end, they failed. Karma is a real bitch sometimes.”

What are your professional goals for the future? At what point will you know you’ve ‘made it’?

“Given that I’ve managed to build the site without a real, full-time team of employees or any kind of startup capital, I’d have to say that I’ve already made it. Does that mean that I’m satisfied with what I’ve built? Not even close! I’ll know that BiggerPockets has truly made it… when anyone and everyone who deals with real estate knows that we’re the place to be.”

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