Since last year and the development of Buddypress, more than 50% of my calls and contacts have been people wanting to build community websites (like Facebook, of course).
Most of the time it's people that haven't given any thought to how they will build membership, marketing, and actually running the community...basically they just think it would be cool and people will come running because there is no community for whatever obscure niche service or product that they are in.
But should you really tackle every thought that comes into your head just because no one else has done it?
Odds are someone has done it and it failed, or smart money has determined that it's not financially viable and moved on.
Communities are incredibly difficult to build and time consuming to run. Most times all you really need is a simple discussion forum, but of course everyone wants to be the next Facebook, even though they have no understanding of how Facebook was built outside of what they see on TV and movies.
I have probably built 10 or more community sites in the last year and most of them have no shot at success. Furthermore, I suspect that the owners will grow frustrated and quit when they realize that people aren't lining up to join like they thought they would. It is probably the one and only thing that I consistently try and talk people out of..to no avail.
My advice to most people who are contemplating building a community site is to stop and ask yourself a few questions before powering through.
How many followers, subscribers and readers do you have at your blog /website? Or how many in your existing organization?
If the answer is none or not many, then building a community is not going to change that. It will actually only serve to make the space you build look even emptier.
How many Facebook and Twitter followers do you have?
If you aren't successful in building followers here, odds are that won't change if you build your own.
Are you technically knowledgeable to run the software that runs communities?
The most popular community building tools is Buddypress. However most popular communities are run on custom built scripts. Contrary to popular belief, websites like Facebook, My space, Mommy Blogger and so on are run by many, many people on huge server systems with ample marketing budgets. That's something to take into consideration when you are comparing your idea, to those conglomerates.
Outside of the people that you know, how many other people do you think will honestly be interested over a long period of time?
Many business owners do this. They envision how their friends and family will enjoy their business idea and never put themselves in the shoes of strangers that don't know them. This is a mistake in a lot of businesses, and the downfall of many.
What will you do that is truly different than other communities and can you afford to do it?
If you start off by saying something like "I want it to be like Facebook, but...", you need to stop right there. No one has ever come to me with $100 million budget so that they can even remotely get in the same league as a site like Facebook. And even Facebook didn't start with all of the features that you see today.
It''s fine to study those that have come before you and want to improve on it, but when talking about building a community, you also need to study he graveyard of fallen communities that have failed in the past....and there are a lot of them. Many started by large companies with unlimited resources like Walmart, Google, Viacom, and some major publishing companies.
Most community sites fail because they can't answer this question from consumers and users:
Now, I'm not saying that there is no room for another community, or that you can't be successful tackling your niche market. Just know that building, and running a community is much harder than building and running a website and much more difficult to grow.Why would I want to join a social networking site that doesn't do anything special when compared to the others that already have me hooked?
If you don't have a plan other than being just like what is already out there, or has already failed then you need to reevaluate what you really want to accomplish and is building a community the best way to do it?
Wikipedia has a decent list of existing Social Networks. It's not a bad place to look when you start saying things like "No one is doing it like this":