Ernie Hsiung
Ernie Hsiung
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A couple of months ago we profiled the Offbeat Bride Tribe. One of the things we immediately noticed about their network is their active forum section — hundreds of brides and brides-to-be sharing tips, tricks and advice. We were fortunate enough to sit down — well, virtually sit-down — with Network Creator Ariel to see what kind of advice she could give to maintaining an active forum.

Hi Ariel! For the people unfamiliar, can you introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about the network you’ve created?
I split my time between being a marketing manager for Microsoft, and then writing books, blogs and magazine articles. My first book, Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternatives For Independent Brides, came out last year and I launched at the same time. Obviously, a forum was a natural fit for the site, but I’ve managed forums in the past, and I sort of hate them … all that moderating and back-end work are irritating. Plus, the last time I hosted my own forum, it got hacked and was ultimately used to spread an email virus. ACK. I’m a geek, but I’m not into doing back-end PHP work to keep my forum working.

But last fall I started getting emails from readers begging for a forum of some kind. I was hesitant and knew I didn’t want host it … plus, forums feel awful Web 1.0 and very 1998 … so I decided as an experiment to start a network on Ning.

Within days the network had hundreds of users, and within six months it was up to 3,000. I’ve been shocked by the popularity! I guess nontraditional brides really have a lot to get off their chests. 🙂

A big challenge for a lot of new Network Creators is that it’s tough to get the conversation started. How did you address this?
I think it’s key to look at your motivations for starting a network. It’s hard to manufacture community out of thin air, and so it’s best to identify an existing market that is looking for a place to talk.

Do you have moderators? Are they your friends or people on your network? What exactly do moderators do?
I have two moderators who I chose based on their ranking as the two most active folks in the forum. They help me with approving new members, and alert me when there’s drama brewing somewhere. Honestly, with the site getting as large as it is, I could probably use a couple more moderators – plus, one of my mods just got married, which means she’ll probably be on the site less.

What kinds of things do you think you do differently?
My Ning network is a community extension of, which was already heavily trafficked when I started the network. So I had a lot of traffic to drive to my social network on Ning.

I’ve spent enough time in online communities to know what I think works and what has a way of slowly destroying a community. I’m very clear about what the mission of the group is and am quick to close threads, delete members, and ban people who don’t abide by the rules.

Probably the biggest rule I enforce is proactive, positive discussion. I’ve seen what happens to communities when they get taken over by ranting, bitching, and venting, and I’m just not interested in running a community that’s non-stop negativity. I think this is especially important when dealing with a subculture like nontraditional weddings. It’s all too tempting for the conversation to devolve into rants against family members who don’t understand, catty attacks on people who do things more traditionally, etc.

I totally get that sometimes members need a place to vent – which is why we have a group on the network specifically dedicated to bitching. That way, if you want to commiserate, you can head to the group and get your gripe on. But if you’re just looking for, say, centerpiece ideas, you’re not wading through discussions about family drama, etc.

I get accused of being a “forum nazi” sometimes, and I’m totally cool with that. It’s a great big Internet out there – if people don’t like the way I run my social network, I encourage them to start their own network on Ning. And some of them have taken me up on it! 🙂

What are your tips on setting up — and maintaining — an awesome social network?
Figure out what your members want and give it to them. I only recently realized that part of why the OBT forum was so overwhelmingly busy was because people were using forum posts as a blog substitute. When I moved the “Recent Blogs” module to the top of our homepage, the relief was almost immediate. Members immediately started posting blogs like crazy and the forum calmed down to a more manageable conversational load.

Thanks, Ariel!