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Social networks are not communities

RedBubble was first conceived as a me-too local version of a successful overseas website, but a change in direction made it one of the world’s most successful online art communities.

Nett spoke to co-founder Martin Hosking about the difference between a community and a social network, and the best ways to streamline the e-commerce experience.

Social networks are not communities

Hosking believes there is an important distinction between a community and a social networking platform – something many social media gurus and marketing agencies have yet to fully understand.

“Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter, like social networks, are toolboxes of things you can do, but a community is a group of people with shared interests who interact on top of those social networks,” he says.

“A community has to be based around something in the top half-dozen things you are genuinely interested in. You can form a community around a church because it’s one of the most important things in those people’s lives, something they’re prepared to give their time to.

“I don’t think Woolworths could form a community around people who enjoy shopping at Woolworths, because that’s not the most important thing in someone’s life. It’s a functional thing.

“For our users, being an emerging artist is one of the half dozen most important things in their lives. Probably it’s in the top three. Therefore, you can form a community around where people are genuinely prepared to give time and contribute to it for the benefit of the whole; they then get something out of that.”

Sites based around a strong community will be able to use these online tools to great advantage.

“What I think we’ll see, and this is the next phase of the evolution of the web itself, is the sites that are good at having a really strong community message and way of conveying that will use the social networks on top of those platforms. They’re the petri dish, the medium in which strong communities can thrive,” says Hosking.

“Certainly Facebook and Twitter are important to us. But typically it’s the artists themselves using those platforms to do the marketing for themselves. The best model for us is to provide a platform for the artists to do sharing, but the artists take most of the responsibility for forming their own networks and doing their own marketing.”

Building a community fast

Understanding this distinction helped RedBubble grow very quickly. The founders also realized they needed to have a strong focus on a well-defined target market.

“You have to be really clear about who you’re building it for,” says Hosking. “With a lot of sites, if you ask them who it’s for, they’ll say, ‘It’s for whoever comes’. That’s not really a good enough answer.

“In our case, the orientation of RedBubble is the pro-am or emerging artist market. These people want to find an environment that is supportive to allow them to sell their stuff, to have the print-on-demand problem taken away from them, and to find an audience and reach like-minded people.

“This group of people, their needs are different from professional artists’ and very different from the needs of people who just want a place to put their snapshots online.”

It also helped that the co-founders themselves fit into their target market.

“It’s very hard to build a community for somebody other than yourself,” says Hosking. “The decisions about what you build are very soft, small decisions that add up to a big decision. If you’re not guided by inside knowledge of what these people want, you’re going to have to do market surveys or endless research or you won’t get there.

“For Peter, Paul and myself, and everybody else who works at RedBubble, we said, ‘Let’s build it for ourselves and make sure that we fit within our target market’.”

This approach worked. Since launching in February 2007, RedBubble grew to over 200,000 members and revenues of $3.5 million in the 2008-09 financial year. Hosking estimates it is the third-largest art website in the world.

“Our first challenge has been the technical challenge of having to scale with so many images and so much data being uploaded,” he says. “That’s an ongoing part of being a website and you just throw resources at that and you’ll eventually solve it.

“The second challenge was more difficult and that’s to do with how do you scale the community while still allowing it to look small and welcoming?

“One of the main things we do is to break it down into smaller groups. People won’t necessarily say, ‘I’m a member of RedBubble’, they might say ‘I’m a member of the Dandenong art group and the 3D group’. Enabling these much smaller groups has been an important part of allowing the community to grow and develop while being small enough to work for individuals.

“The third challenge with scaling was the print on demand. We ship stuff all over the world and that’s a question of bringing on partners around the world. We still do most of our printing in Australia but we’ve got partners in the United States and the United Kingdom.” #

You can read the full article here.



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