The first online portal I joined was Prodigy in 1991. It was actually a great experience, there was just no one there. But the few people that did use the mostly text-based service were very friendly and it wasn’t unusual to interact with someone on one of the pseudo-message boards and share your home address with an invitation for others to write a letter. Different times.
From there I went to CompuServe in the mid-1990s and AOL soon after that. Both CS and AOL were also internet providers, and at the time it was some outrageous amount, like $25 for 10 hours online. For a month! I often spend more than 10 hours online in a day!
Then around 1997 or so, AOL announced that it was changing it’s price structure and removing the hourly cap on online access. They rolled out the $25 for unlimited access and it was a total game-changer. Unfortunately, it also totally changed the experience on AOL. Suddenly, there were kids everywhere! I feel like the old man shaking his cyber-fist but suddenly I had to learn what ‘LOL’ and ‘OMG!’ meant, along with ‘trolling’, ‘noobs’ and the endless string of 😛 XOXO.
AOL had gone mainstream, and in the process, the experience that it’s core users had become accustomed to had changed greatly. Ironically, we are now seeing the same thing happen in reverse with Facebook. Facebook started out as a site for only college students. Then the restriction of having an edu address to access FB was lifted, which meant that recent college grads and soon-to-be college students (IOW the younger and older siblings of current FB users) started checking out the site.
The social media geeks found FB in 2007. Over the next 2-3 years its userbase grew at an astronomical rate. Suddenly it seemed like every kid from the age of 14-24 was on Facebook.
Then the parents found out that their kids were on Facebook. Suddenly parents everywhere that had little to no idea what their kids were up to, only had to go on Facebook at it was all there!
As you might expect, Facebook is quickly becoming ‘uncool’ to these kids. In fact, Facebook recently verified that young teens are leaving the site. Where are they going? To sites that their parents haven’t discovered yet like SnapChat, Instagram and Path. Which are now growing like crazy, that is until mom finds out about them…
It’s truly the paradox of growing an online site or portal: You need to reach a certain mass of users to attract more users. And you need to monetize those users, which is another reason you want more users. But the simple fact is that adding more users changes the overall experience. It has for every social media site I’ve used for the last 20+ years. And when the overall experience changes from what made the site appealing to begin with, people leave.
If you are trying to create an online community site, or even if you are trying to build a blog readership, always focus on delighting and retaining your first users. These are the builders of your base, the people that love your experience and tell others about it. When you get in a rush to bring in new users too quickly, you change the experience, which means you lose those first users that are really the foundation for you entire community. It’s like building a pyramid, you have a strong foundation, then you start slowly building the pyramid. Then suddenly you start to quickly add on and going skyward with the pyramid, while at the same time you start removing the foundation. Obviously the pyramid will soon collapse under its own weight.
Never pursue growth at the expense of user experience. Facebook’s growth was driven by kids. Kids that are now deciding they don’t like being on the site anymore. When the foundation is removed the collapse isn’t very far behind.