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.

  • Jordan Canter

    It's amazing to look at the Wayback Machine and see how far you have taken Diabetes Daily. I'm looking forward to hearing what strategies you used to get the initial inertia for growth.

    Congratulations on the new blog!

  • davidedelman

    Jordan, that Wayback Machine is awesome. It's wild to turn back the clock on the world's best websites to see their meager beginnings. Although it's a little scary that stuff can be cached on the Internet forever…

    In my next post, I'll out line strategies we used to grow successfully. And many that didn't work out so well.