How to Start a Social Networking Site

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, speaks to advertising partners about targeted advertising.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, speaks to advertising partners about targeted advertising.
AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

The World Wide Web is a powerful tool. It allows people to communicate and connect in ways that simply weren't possible a few decades ago. You can chat with friends on the other side of the planet, sharing photos and videos while you catch up. With the Web, you may be able to track down an old friend whom you've not seen in years. You can make new friends or even find your soul mate.

Online social networking sites are some of the most popular online destinations right now. These sites tend to package services together in an organized and attractive way so that users can leverage the Web to make connections with others. There are hundreds of social networking sites. They range in size from enormous -- like Facebook and MySpace -- to smaller sites aimed at a specific niche -- like Ravelry, a social networking site for people who like to knit. These sites can bring people closer together while being miles apart.

They can also be lucrative projects. Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2005 -- by 2008 he made the list of the 400 richest Americans with a net worth of $1.5 billion [source: Forbes]. The husband-and-wife team of Michael and Xochi Birch started the social networking site Bebo in 2005 as well. Three years later, AOL purchased the site and the couple netted $600 million [source: Mashable]. A quick glance at the history of online social networking sites will uncover several other remarkable success stories, too.

Just because there are a lot of social networking sites on the Web doesn't mean the well is dry. In fact, someone may come up with a brilliant idea and implementation of a social networking site tomorrow and become the next great innovator of Web 2.0. That someone might be you. But what does it take to start a social networking site?

Starting a Social Networking Site: The Basics

Two high school students created the myYearbook social networking site.
Two high school students created the myYearbook social networking site.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

Your first consideration for your social networking site should be its focus. Without a focus, your site will just be a mishmash of Web services and features. While your site may have engaging applications and a snazzy look, it won't make a big impact on your users without that initial focus.

Do you want your site to be a general-purpose social networking community? If so, that means you'll be going head-to-head with some of the most popular Web sites on the Internet. Giants like Facebook and MySpace dominate the social networking space in the United States. In other countries you'll go up against sites like orkut (in Brazil), Bebo (in the United Kingdom and Ireland) or Hi5 (in China). These sites not only have several years' head start, they also have millions of members.

Another option is to create a site around a particular hobby or activity. Giving your site a central theme may help it through the initial launch and inevitable growing pains as you gather an audience. And by choosing a theme, you'll attract users who are already interested in the subject matter. Interested users are engaged users. That means they're more likely to contribute to the community and stick around. If there's nothing interesting for your users to do they'll just leave.

Let's say you've got the perfect theme in mind for your social network. There's a potential audience out there on the Web just waiting for a community that caters to their interests. What do you do next?

Make a list of the features your site will offer. This should include everything from member profile pages to any message boards or messaging services you plan to include. You may have to buy these features from a vendor or build them yourself. Some may even be available in a free, open-source format. Resist the temptation to include everything -- your site will become a chaotic mess if you do that. Instead, choose the elements that best fit your theme and work from there.

You'll need a host for your Web site, too. If you expect your site to grow quickly, you're going to need a host that will provide enough storage and bandwidth to meet your needs. For the most part, hosting on the Web isn't free. Assuming you aren't lucky enough to find someone willing to donate hosting services, you're going to need to put money on your mind.

Costs of Starting a Social Networking Site

One way to raise money for your site is to seek out venture capital (VC). A venture capitalist is a person or organization that invests money into new businesses in the hopes that the business will succeed and return a profit to the investors. Many Web sites got their start via an initial VC boost that propelled them into success. A few, like the messaging service Twitter, have survived mainly on VC without any other real business plan.

Only a small percentage of startup businesses ever receive VC. You may either have to supply the capital you need to launch your site on your own or seek a loan from a more conventional source. Every approach carries with it some risk. You should give careful consideration to every move you make before committing -- make sure you can cover costs if the site takes longer to succeed than you'd planned.

Twitter became famous for not only being a popular social Web service, but also for lacking a business plan. Twitter stays afloat mainly through seeking rounds of VC. But that's not necessarily the best approach for the average business. You should take some time to formulate a business plan. How will your site make enough money to sustain itself or even turn a profit? This isn't an easy question -- even giant sites like YouTube still struggle with the answers. But if you don't spend time thinking about how your site will generate at least enough money to cover costs, your new project will have a very short shelf life.

It's also important to remember that business plans aren't set in stone. As time passes, you'll find it necessary to revisit your business plan and make adjustments. You may find that Web advertising is your best bet at generating revenue. Or you might develop an application platform for Web developers and charge them a small fee to incorporate their apps into your site. It's important to keep an open mind and remain flexible.

Starting a social networking site is a big job. You'll have to build a foundation for an online community and then respond to its needs as it grows. It's almost a guarantee that your users will begin to ask for things you never considered when you first sat down with your idea. But if you stick with it and really put in the effort, you may find that a social networking site can be a rewarding project.

Learn more about social networking by following the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Entheos. "How To Start Your Own Social Networking Site." Jan. 9, 2009. (July 14, 2009) http://webdev.entheosweb.com/2009/01/09/how-to-start-your-own-social-networking-site/
  • Forbes. "The 400 Richest Americans -- Mark Zuckerberg." Sept. 17, 2008. (July 14, 2009) http://www.forbes.com/lists/2008/54/400list08_search.html?Name=zuckerberg&Age=0-99&NetWorth=1.0-70.0&City=&Source=
  • Glazowski, Paul. "Bebo Founders Talk History Of Network And Past Web Efforts." Mashable. March 16, 2008. (July 31, 2009) http://mashable.com/2008/03/16/bebo-history/
  • Hendrickson, Mark. "Nine Ways to Build Your Own Social Network." TechCrunch. July 24, 2007. (July 14, 2009) http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/07/24/9-ways-to-build-your-own-social-network/
  • Klein, Karen E. "How to start a social networking site." Los Angeles Times. June 9, 2009. (July 13, 2009) http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jun/09/business/fi-inbox9
  • Miller, Claire Cain. "Venture Capitalists Look for a Return to the A B C's." The New York Times. July 6, 2009. (July 13, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/07/technology/start-ups/07venture.html