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Step Right Up, Start A Community Site

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Maybe community sites are the next wave for entrepreneurs. Now anyone can invite their extended neighbors into a closed community and begin making money, right? We wish it were that easy.

In yesterday's WSJ, there's an interesting article (subscription required) about several niche sites that grew into something meaningful. What these sites share in common is a loyal and active user base. Otherwise, they seem quite different.

Stick To Targets:

First there's QuentinsFriends.com, a marketplace site for younger New Yorkers that's akin to Craig's List. It charges membership fees and accepts members via referrals. Next is ASmallWorld.net, which helps diplomats and other travelers find each other. It's ad-based and free but also controls invitations. Finally, MothersClick.com addresses the concerns of new parents. It's also ad-based yet open for registration.

These sites are experiencing success on a niche scale. They focus on meeting the needs of members who share similar demographics and interests. People can ask questions, make posts, or participate in transactions. Perhaps it's the small-town feel that makes these sites work.

Flash back to 2005, when we were all exploring the potential targeting opportunities for vertical search. There was even going to be a vertical search destination for left-handed dog walkers, right? Maybe not, but a large variety of vertical search destinations didn't come to pass either.

Keep Them Active:

Community sites may be targeted like search sites, but the similarity ends there. These are destinations which seek far higher levels of participation. At some point, there's enough activity to keep things interesting for active users.

Reporter David Enrich says that the main obstacle to the ongoing success of niche sites is the profit motive. The balancing act between revenue and membership growth may wipe out “the niche player aura that made the sites attractive in the first place.”

However I'm not sure that community sites are more trustworthy or successful because they're smaller. Their success may hinge on sticking to their main mission of social participation, without adding extra functionality. Another reason for success may be some rate of natural turnover and freshness among the members, which keeps the sites more vibrant.

Who knows? Maybe these communities and others like them are considered hip places by their audiences now. When other hip places open, some will stagnate or close due to diminished interest in them. We have all followed the herds before.


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