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Case Study: An Insider's View of Planning, Building, and Managing an Online Community on a Shoestring

by Sue Boettcher and Eva Shaderowfsky

November, 1999

Virtual Communities are a lot of work. If you don't love it - if you aren't utterly fascinated by the concept - don't start one. You'll encounter heartaches and headaches and find it to be an incredible time sink, BUT you'll learn a lot along the way and find it to be enormously rewarding. We hope that by sharing our experiences we can give you a realistic idea of what it's like to plan, construct, and administer a virtual community without a lot of deep-pockets funding from investors.

In late fall 1997, we decided to build our own women's community. We had worked together on AOL building their first women's forum, Women's Network. Eva had a couple of long-running women's issues chats on AOL as well. Aside from that, we each had worked with different web-based communities. We had the experience and the background, we knew, to build a top-notch women's area. Statistics were showing that women over 35 were the fastest-growing demographic group online. Yet the existing big women's sites were marketing to younger women, and there was almost no content on the net targetting "30-somethings" and up. We saw a huge hole, and we knew we had what it took to build a site to fill it.

We had several challenges ahead of us once we made the decision to go ahead. We had to pick out software, we had to decide on the social rules by which our community would operate, we had to get it up and running, and had to invite people to occupy the empty rooms.

We wanted a message board site to begin with. Aware that a linear conferencing style was what facilitated conversation better than threaded boards, that's what we looked for. There were several options, including some that were many thousands of dollars more than we were willing to pay. Finally we settled on Web Crossing software, which had its own proprietary scripting language, and which was almost chameleon-like in its ability to be customized. We could envision building the entire site around the Web Crossing software, whereas other message board systems sometimes looked as if they were foreign objects grafted onto the site. With Web Crossing, the boards would be integral; in fact, they would be the core of the site. And what's more, Web Crossing had its own chat software that we could purchase later when we were ready to add chat to our site.

Another issue that was important in our decisions was host tools. The host tools with this product were particularly good. You could make the site inaccessible to a given user, make it read-only, require that a moderator check their posts, give them access as a regular participant, or make them a host, with the power to delete, move topics, etc. This flexibility was important to us.

In December, we purchased it. Although we'd never done anything quite this ambitious before, we were up for a challenge, and managed to get it installed and operating. We customized the graphics, replacing the industrial-gray buttons with our own. We spruced up the background with a nice peach linen, and we added a header graphic of our own design. The idea was to get a look that was feminine and inviting, but not lace and ruffles. We think we succeeded.

Meanwhile, we turned our attention to the social issues. Where we came from, on AOL, anonymity was an accepted practice and people were almost paranoid about giving out their real names - sometimes rightly so. We also had some experience with communities that had their roots in the WELL, where anonymity is shunned as somehow being dishonest. The thought is that when people use their real names, there is a greater sense of accountability for what they say. We could see that angle, but we also knew women were often afraid online - and we didn't want to discourage participation by forcing them to give real names when they weren't comfortable with it.

We discussed the issue with a couple of other VC-savvy women, and eventually became convinced that we could come to a compromise on the names issue. We decided that there were some legitimate reasons why women might *need* to remain anonymous (accountability issues aside) - for example, women escaping abusive relationships. We decided we would require them to give real names, but those names would be confidential, and be shown only to hosts and sysop. That way, we figured, *we* would know who they were, and perhaps that would lend that sense of accountability we were after. We therefore configured our software to use userIDs instead of real names and added a database field for real first and last names.

A rules of the road document was next on our checklist. We looked around at existing documents and finally cobbled one together from the what we felt was the best of what other communities were using. We kept it short and as free from legalese as we could. We decided to include it in the registration pathway so that anybody who registered had to agree to the provisions of it before they got inside the site. And we wouldn't be letting guest users post, so that wasn't an issue.

Email validation was another thing we discussed. Should we require new members to give a valid email address - in other words, one from which they can actually send and receive mail? The upside is that this also encourages accountability and allows you to "lock out" someone if they're being disruptive by blocking their email address from registering again. By blocking their email address, or so the theory goes, you block them from participating with *any* userID. The downside, as you may have realized already, is that with all the free email services around these days, it's very simple for anyone to have a new email address within minutes. If we locked them out, they'd simply re-register with a new address.

And another problem surfaced as we looked more closly into this issue. With the software we were using, there was a problem at the time sending validation mail to AOL. Since we knew a lot of women from AOL, we knew we would end up with a strong AOL user base. If none of the AOL women could be validated, the system wouldn't work for us. Ultimately, for those reasons, we opted not to implement it.

So, our community software was ready. The registration issues were worked out and the rules of the road document was written. All we needed now were people!

We made a list of the people we knew online. We picked out about thirty or forty women we thought would be interested. We wrote them a letter about our new community, telling them we needed special help at this time. We needed them to "seed" the community, the discussions, with posts of their own so that the site would be already started by the time it was opened to the public.

About half of them ultimately showed up at the community, and fewer than that actually posted anything. We were a little disappointed, but undaunted!

After a couple of weeks of seeding, we sent out surveys to those we'd asked to visit. We asked them if they'd visited our site, if they'd liked what they had seen, what we might to do to improve it, and, if they had gone once but hadn't come back, why not. As a result of their replies, we did some tweaking.

In January, we decided things were far enough along that we could announce the community's existence to the mailing list that Eva maintained for her women's issues chats, a list of some 600 plus people. Slowly, people began coming to our community. We listed it with the search engines and waited impatiently for the listings to show up. We asked for reciprocal links with some of the women we knew also had websites. We knew Aliza Sherman, Cybergrrl, and she helped out with some publicity as well. We signed up with Bannerwomen ad network. We talked it up and put the URL in our .sigs. We developed a newsletter list and put the signup form into the registration sequence.

It was slow getting started. There was a trickle of posts rather than a flood. Several key participants we'd been counting on didn't show. Others surprised us and came when we weren't expecting them. For a couple of months we worried that the community was on the verge of not making it. We worried that the website was too slow, and complained several times to our web host and asked them to move us to another of their machines, to no avail. Users complained that coming to women2women felt like talking to Eva, or talking to Sue, because it seemed like nobody else was posting. Finally, in about February, things started to pick up. We were ecstatic! Maybe this was going to work after all! On occasion there were actual entire conversations happening in our absence - it was great! We began to relax about it a little.

Then one day in early March 1998 we signed on to discover that a weekend's worth of posts were missing. What? How could that be?? We contacted our web host and were told that they'd had an equipment failure - a hard drive failure - and that they'd had to restore our data from a backup file a few days old. OK, we thought... hard drives crash. These things happen. But in the back of our minds we wondered why they had to use a backup file several days old? Didn't they do nightly backups? Remembering the slowness issues, and their non-response, we started thinking we should find a different web host.

The community came back from that very slowly. It was like a time warp. Posts weren't there that you KNEW should be. Whole conversations vanished. There was a real sense of the fragility of what we were doing. We were just bits and bytes on a hard drive, after all was said and done, and maybe we were crazy to think it was more than that?

We lost all the momentum we'd gained in February.

About a week and a half later, in mid-March, we signed on to discover, once again, that there were posts missing. In fact, this time, there were a full nine days gone.

We were livid! The web hosts said hackers were responsible this time, that they had broken into the computer and erased bunches of files from the hard drive. Maybe so, but why were your backup tapes 9 days old??? As it turns out, nightly backups weren't being done because of server speed issues. The worst of it was that the web host didn't even understand why we were so upset. "Can't they just post new messages?" We looked in earnest for somewhere else to go. Once again, the community, just beginning to recover from the weekend post loss, became very quiet.

We've had a handful of several-hour outages a few times since then, where no posts were lost but the server was down for a while, and it's always interesting to us - and scary - how long it takes to recover to previous traffic levels after that happens.

We thought about what we needed for a web host. We wanted a host that had some expertise in our software, who understood VC, who truly DID do nightly backups, and who ran UNIX servers, since some of the extra things we'd installed were set up for UNIX. We asked around. We looked at web sites. We talked to prospective web hosts, picked people's brains and made nuisances of ourselves. Finally, despite the fact that we'd pay about 30% more per month, we settled on a web host in Boston, because they also offered our software as part of an extras package for their customers. At least, we figured, they'd know our software when something went wrong.

And, in April of 1998, we moved. It was hell. With much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, a copy of "UNIX for Dummies" at our sides, and a flurry of letters and phone calls to the old and new hosts and the software support people, we got the new site up and running on the new server, moved all the other accessory CGI programs over, and made sure everything worked - all the while scared silly that something would happen again to our database at the old host site before we could move our files, or that we would overwrite some irreplaceable file with the unfamiliar and arcane UNIX commands. We backed up like crazy and copied files to our own computers.

Finally, we made the old site "read-only" and put an explanatory message on the front page that we were moving, and hoped to be up and running again in a day or so. We had already copied the database from the old site to the new, so we didn't want people adding new material. Then we sent through the DNS change to Internic to tell the Internet routers where our site was going to be located, and waited. The mail bounced once because the people at the new web host misspelled our domain name on the form, so we waited some more. Arrrgh! The new site was ready to go with the doors unlocked, but until the DNS changes propagated across the Internet nobody could get there - their local DNS servers would direct them to the old web host's site. Finally after two-plus fingernail-chewing days, people started trickling in, like travellers coming home after a long journey. It felt like the end of a long, long race. Ultimately, the server was fast, we had upgraded to a newer software version when we moved, and everyone was very happy with the results. We breathed huge sighs of relief and collapsed.

Our traffic increased almost immediately, confirming our suspicions that server slowness was one of the major issues behind our slow start.

As we grew from month to month, we felt more confident that the community would make it and not turn out to be one more of the empty hallways in cyberspace. It was really turning out to be a neat place!

In fact, Eva became so convinced that we were doing the right thing, that she began thinking about moving her AOL women's issues chat onto women2women and off AOL. First, though, we had to purchase some chat software.

Back to the techno-drawing board. We looked at what seemed like a thousand different web chat rooms. We ruled out web-based HTML chat, because the interface was just too klunky to do any kind of serious fast chatting. But Java chat, the main alternative, was problematic because many versions of AOL available then did not support Java, so our AOL visitors would have trouble coming to her discussions. Furthermore, many Java chat rooms were downright incompatible with Macs, which both of us have. But there weren't many other options. One type required the user to download a plug-in, which we thought would be daunting to many users. We'd been spoiled by the easy chat accessibility on AOL!

Finally we settled on the Web Crossing chat software that came with the message board we'd bought. It would integrate with the message board log-in system so people wouldn't need to log in twice. It worked nicely with Macs, it was customizable, had great host tools, and just plain felt like a nice room to spend time in. We knew there would still be problems with some users, but we were convinced we'd found the best compromise we could between accessibility and performance. We forked over the money, and bought it that summer.

As soon as we installed the new unlimited-use chat license code into our control panel, however, we had problems. Every time someone would go into the chat room, the entire board software would hang. We emailed the support people. They verified that the same thing happened when they tried it at our site. Upgrade, they suggested.

We tried upgrading just the chat applet. No go. Still had problems. Upgrade the whole thing, they suggested. Uh, one small problem. That's $400 more dollars! We talked to the sales people at the software company. Is it possible, we asked politely, to get this as a complimentary upgrade, since our problems only happened after we'd already spent hundreds of dollars to purchase the chat license?

Sure, they said. Here's the license code for the new version. And they sent an URL to download it from. We almost fainted! This was too easy!

More UNIX hell. Dig out the copy of UNIX for Dummies. Rework ALL the customizing template code we'd put in when we built the community and adapted it to our needs, because there was new code for the new version. Put the community on notice that we would be closed "for a few hours" (we wrote with fingers crossed for good luck) while the actual software switch was made. Let the community know their patience is worth it to get all the cool goodies in the new version. Using UNIX FTP, FTP a 2 Meg file from the software company's server to our web host's server. Hope to hell you don't overwrite something important - like the database - in the process of installation. Unpack the software, move one huge set of files from one directory to another, without losing our custom image files, set all the permissions right, (WHY did we want a UNIX server, anyhow??) and finally, pray to your favorite deity that everything works when you try to fire it up. Sue took a deep breath. "Make run," she typed. It would take a few minutes, the instructions said, for the old 15 MB database to be digested and written into the new version format, before it would respond to logins. She typed in her name and password.... waited.... and waited....


We were back... and chat worked great! We collapsed again in relief.

In the meantime, we'd found a chat host we'd worked with from AOL, and started a regular Saturday noon chat. Eva gave her notice at AOL and we set August as the last date we'd have an event there, and October as the first date we'd have one on women2women. That would give us September to move the incredible quantity of chat transcripts, computer graphics, photos, and other materials from our AOL space, to women2women.

We dug in. We copied all the files off AOL to our computers. We reworked the graphics so they would be faster on the web. We uploaded the old chat logs and constructed a whole new area within women2women to store this information. There were problems with the old chat transcripts and it took some work from the programmer who works for our web host to get it solved. It was weeks of tedious work!

But finally it was ready. We planned the first events, put up a schedule, got ourselves listed in some online chat event calendars, notified Eva's mailing lists, and showed up on time in our brand new conference room.

About a dozen people showed up. But we were used to attendance of 40 or 50 on AOL.

We thought - this is new - traffic will improve with time. We were wrong. We haven't had more than about 20 people at an event since we moved from AOL. This, despite an opt-in mailing list of over 1100 people.

On AOL, we finally realized, we got a lot of drop in traffic, people who happened to be chatting somewhere and dropped in our room to see what was happening. This didn't happen on the web, we discovered. People came because they had to make a specific plan to do so. They showed up because they wanted to and thought they would enjoy the topic.

They also behaved better - we've had no disruptive chatters since we moved!

Attendance at the chat events, including our Saturday noon event, continues to be a challenge, though. We're not certain how to solve this, quite frankly.

Marketing for the site as a whole is a challenge as well. We've sent out a few press releases, have reciprocal links on a number of sites, are listed in the webTV list of women's sites and get a good deal of traffic from that. We have awesome meta tags and recently re-listed our site in a number of search engines.

Growth is slow but steady. As we write this, two years after women2women was first conceived and incubated, we have around 2400 members (of which maybe 100 are regular participants) and about 35000 posts. Our database is around 50 megabytes and with backups and other files, our entire site takes up nearly 250 megabytes. We're very close to having to pay for bandwidth overage (too much traffic, in other words). We're certain the web hosts will catch up with us soon and raise our rates! We're thinking in terms of a co-located server eventually.

Costs are only going to rise. We get some revenue from affiliate programs and click-through banner ads, but not enough to pay for our web hosting fees, much less the software costs we've had in the past. We've put a great deal of out-of-pocket money into women2women over the last two years. So, we recently adopted the National Public Radio business model: "member-supported radio." We announced last month that we'll be a "member-supported website." We made arrangements for credit card processing, got a PO box where people can send checks, and announced it on the site. Time will tell whether this model will work.

So, if you've read this far, you're thinking, wow, what a hassle! Yes, undoubtedly it's a enormous amount of work. You've really got to love doing this and believe in what you're doing. Has it been worth it for us? Let us share a couple of comments from our community members to answer that question.

"I kinda like it here too, can't remember what I did before I started dropping in here to see how everyone was almost every day. I do feel that all of you ARE my friends and I need you, each and everyone. It gets lonesome out here in the sticks and the days begin to look like the same thing over and over sometimes. All I have to do is pop in here, read the jokes and find all of my favorite topics to see what is going on and I always leave with a different slant on the day. This site is like a magnet for warm, intelligent, caring people who are always here and willing to pitch in and help anyone with anything! If anyone tried to convince me that being online is bad for your health, I would just send them here and they would change their minds very quickly!"

"I want to say, again, how much I appreciate the fact that Eva and Sue have made it possible for us to have a warm, caring community made up of so many different ages, vocations and countries. We are all so different but understand each other so well because we are WOMEN! I have made many friends here and intend to stay and make more."

"Sue and Eva... I have not been on internet very long. I have visited many women's sites because I knew that is where I needed to begin. Some were okay..and others were very scary. Women were attacking one another, bear-baiting, it was really unbelievable. I just wanted to say that I think this is a wonderful site and I believe a big reason for that is you two. You set the tone, you are so sincere when you greet people and you simply let everyone know that this is a place where people may disagree, but kindly. Thank you for this 'safe haven.'"

"On this Season of Giving Thanks... Thank you, members of women2women who have so enriched my life over the past year.

"Thank you, hosts for all the work and effort you have put into building one of the best communities on the net.

"And Thank you, God, for leading me to this most wonderful of places!"


Contact information:

Sue Boettcher
co-host, women2women

Eva Shaderowfsky
co-host, women2women and host, Evenings with Eva

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