All Work, No Pay?

Congratulations to Manny Hernandez as TuDiabetes.org turns three! As one of the best resources in the world for people with diabetes, it deserves a raucous birthday party.

To commemorate this anniversary, Manny shared a very familiar three lessons learned. They are:

  1. Running a social network is not easy.
  2. Running a nonprofit is not easy either.
  3. Helping others is the best thing you can do in your life.

As the President of a for-profit entity, I won’t speak on point two. But I can wholeheartedly endorse his other points.

It is extraordinarily difficult to build a social network. You must reach critical mass, develop a strong culture, and empower your members to control the direction. And with growth comes a diverse set of characters. 99% of people are decent to the core, but the other 1% is toxic. Managing that 1% can twist you up emotionally and drain your enthusiasm. Along the way you deal with technical problems, growing expenses, and tough choices about which direction to go.

But you are strong. You persevere and succeed in building an active community. Cha-ching!

Not so fast. Social networks are not profitable businesses. At least not for a long, long time. I did a little back-of-the-napkin math and discovered that since December 2005, my wife and have made $6.15 an hour building Diabetes Daily. That’s not $6.15 each, that’s $6.15 combined. Split that in half and we’ve each made about $3.08 an hour.

If we were doing this for a paycheck, we would have folded before TuDiabetes was out of the womb.

Thankfully, we aren’t do this for the money. I fell in love with Elizabeth while she was in post-diagnosis turmoil. I wanted to help her. I wanted to help everyone like here. And so we built  Diabetes Daily to make life better for everyone with diabetes.

And there are other ways to get paid. Every time I read a “you saved my life” email, I get an expansive emotional payday. Sure, I can plot the future growth of Diabetes Daily and know that we will eventually make a good paycheck. That eases a lot of my anxiety, especially with a beautiful little baby girl starting preschool next year. But it’s my belief that we can give millions of people a better life that makes the 10,000+ hours worth more than $3.08.

So I fully concur with Manny. Social networks are tough to build, but helping others make it worth every bit of effort.

Communities: With Freedom Comes Responsibility

Community guidelines are important. They give you a framework to make fair and productive decisions about moderating. They help your members understand what behavior is acceptable and promotes positive discourse.

But Guidelines are not enough. As Diabetes Daily has grown, there have been more posts that fall within our guidelines but are unproductive. We spent the last week debating these special cases and uncovered a set of principles that, if embraced, would substantially improve the level of discourse.

Yesterday, we posted Responsibilities of an Open Community. Here are the principles we are embracing – you can read the post for more detail and specific examples.

  • Principle 1: Everyone can participate in the conversation.
  • Principle 2: If someone starts a thread, let them lead it.
  • Principle 2 Corollary: Respond primarily to the person who started the conversation.
  • Principle 3: If someone requests personal experiences on a topic, reply if you have personal experience.

These principles are an attempt to build a productive culture on Diabetes Daily. As a support community, we have a specific set of needs that may go beyond what political or popular culture community might want. But as I read and re-read them, I think they are applicable to any tolerant, respectful, and productive community.

So did we get them right?

And the harder question: how can we disseminate these principles so that they stick?

Average CTR on Banner Ads

For years, I’ve been wondering whether our banner click-through rates on DiabetesDaily.com are low or high. I want to be able to look our advertisers in the eye and say: “Boy, do we have a great deal for you. Check out these numbers and imagine the return on your investment!”

We have many ad spots with click-through rates above 1%. These are undeniably great. But what about the skyscraper ad on the right side of our forum? It has been averaging a .15% click-through rate during the past two months. Granted, we have regular advertisers and regular customers, so there is a certain amount of ad blindness. But isn’t that a bit low?

MarketingSherpa has posted this fantastic graph showing the average click-through rate of different banner ads sizes. And it looks like our “low-potential” forum spots are actually over-performing.

Average CTR on banner ads
Next time I pitch to an advertiser, this chart will be at the top of my mind. How are your ads stacking up?

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I love Doodle. It is the easiest possible way to schedule events among multiple people.

Pros:

  • No registration required – this is the key!
  • Fast
  • See best time slots at a glance
  • Handles timezones gracefully
  • Effortless commenting

Cons:

  • I didn’t know about it until recently.

We recently used Doodle to schedule a conference call for 21 people. It took 3 minutes to setup and an hour to find the best time. See for yourself, it’s perfect.

Challenges Faced By Online Communities – And Solutions That Work

A few months ago, Diabetes Daily (DD) welcomed it’s 20,000th member. I did my ritual re-reading of the old announcements and marveled at how our community has grown. Like a kid, each year brings a new set of challenges and opportunities. Because this milestone was reached on New Years Eve, I got especially nostalgic.

So I’m going to walk you through our journey from nothingness to one of the five most visited diabetes websites in the world.

Mission Mayhem

Five years ago, my future wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Frustrated the lack of local support, we reached out online through a new blog called Diabetes Daily. It was place where we could share our lessons learned with others like us. We posted often and furiously on dozens of topics. We added categories, let our sidebar bloat with lists of things to look at, and commented around the web. It got bloated. And it didn’t work.

The Wayback Machine took a snapshot of the earliest versions of our little blog – from 12/7/2005. (Posting this is like letting someone you look through my middle school art projects. Shudder.)

For those of you unfamiliar with diabetes, you need to know that it’s a balancing act. To be successful, you simply need to balance food, exercise, medication, weight, hormones, and the weather 24/7/365 forever. When everything goes right, you may forget about it until your next meal. It’s exhausting and endlessly frustrating. And every person’s situation has genuine nuances.

So here was the problem: we wanted to help everyone manage diabetes better. All types of diabetes. Food, exercise, sex, emotions, medications, complications. Could two people new to diabetes do all that? In the evening or at our ‘real jobs’ when we could sneak a few minutes?

No.

A blog lives and dies by the time you spend writing and the topics you choose to cover. It is possible to have a community of readers – Fred Wilson‘s blog on Venture Capital is the A+ example – but you ultimately control the flow. Can someone ask unrelated questions? Is someone around to provide an answer? Our the answers good?

Less than 14 days after launch, we had our first epiphany. We didn’t want to broadcast. We couldn’t just broadcast. We needed to open up the conversation.

Next Step: Picking a Conversation Platform

There are a lot of options for hosting a community. They range from free to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. We made a choice on a whim and got lucky.

In hindsight, there are a few core attributes that every good platform needs. If any were missing, I would be blanketed in stress and sleepless nights.

  • You own your own data. If someone else hosts your platform, who owns the data? Can you move to a new platform or are you locked in forever?  The web moves fast – don’t get stuck in the slow lane.
  • You can survive catastrophic failure by your software provider. This is critical. If you are hosting your dream on someone else’s servers, what happens when it goes down permanently? Do you have a backup? Can you host it yourself?  Or is it gone forever? If you don’t actually own your user data, then you’re SOL here.
  • You can extend the functionality. If your community is successful and you have the revenues to grow, can you grow? Can you build innovative services on top of your platform? Or is the feature list locked in stone? Make sure that your platform can serve as a foundation for your biggest dreams.
  • You can afford it. We began as a hobby and had no money. If we have access to the data and can upgrade later, pick something that won’t crush your budget. A platform is only a platform. The community is what you nurture on top of it.

We quickly came across vBulletin. It’s slogan “Instant Community” was appealing. It had flexible moderating features and a vibrant community of add-on coders. We installed it next to Movable Type and have never looked back.