This is a guest post by Jim Nelson of Tripawds.com.
Talk about a niche market!
When I first started blogging about my three legged dog Jerry back in 2006, never in my wildest dreams did I think helping those facing amputation for their dogs would be my full time job five years later. But then again, I never expected the little website I created to keep friends and family informed about Jerry’s progress to become the largest online community for canine amputees and their people either.
Jerry was the Chief Fun Officer of the design firm my wife Rene and I grew for nearly ten years. After his amputation we sold the business—and our home, along with most of our belongings—and bought an RV to travel the country making the most of our remaining time with Jerry, and searching for the next big thing. We considered a number of different ventures during our three years on the road, but that thing turned out to be right under our noses, and the Tripawds Blogs community was born.
We had been building Jerry’s dog blog all along, with lots of helpful canine cancer resources and loads of information about amputation for dogs. And we were doing our best to monetize the site with your typical affiliate programs, text link ads and PPC campaigns. For details about the fledgling Tripawds site, don’t miss my submission for the 2008 ProBlogger Video Mashup. My movie is the only one featuring a talking dog.
Tripawds has come a long way since then. Jerry is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on at tripawds.com which now hosts 650+ three legged dog blogs with more than 2,600 registerred members and more joining every day. It’s the club nobody ever wants to join; but a fun one nonetheless, where members commisserate, share their treatment plans and help each other cope with difficult decisions. And its success would not be possible without a few things that make the community what it has become: WordPress Multisite, discussion forums, and social networking.
Forums create discussion
In the early days of the Tripawds blog, we started to receive frequent requests from people for advice about their dogs. As much as we wanted to help, replying individually to all these emails got old, fast. We decided to create discussion forums so members could answer each other’s questions directly. This allowed people seeking advice to get more than just one opinion, increased traffic and user registrations, and added valuable content to the site.
Shortly after installing the Simple:Press Forums plugin for WordPress, our membership quickly grew from a handful of followers to hundreds of devoted individuals actively participating by welcoming new members, sharing advice and directing others to informative content. Now with more than 4,400 topics and 59,500 posts the Tripawds forums not only provide a helpful resource—and valuable search bot fodder—but they keep visitors on the site longer; as long as ten minutes per visit on average.
Tripawds provides dedicated forums for canine cancer care, nutritional advice, coping with loss and much more. And when the community demanded an “Anything Goes” forum we obliged, creating a place for members to discuss whatever they wanted. To boost sales through certain affiliate partners, and help our members save on pet supplies or supplements for their dogs, we started specific Anything Goes forum topics where we frequently post coupon codes, sale notices and other promotions we find through our affiliate advertisers.
The network creates community
In late 2009, with a discussion forum and live chat room, the next logical step for growing the Tripawds community was to offer members their own blogs. That’s when I discovered WordPress MU; now an optional core function of WordPress known as Multisite. Migrating from our plain vanilla WordPress installation to the multi-user blog network was no easy task, but now it is as easy as clicking Create a Network. Well almost, there are a few extra steps but not many. With a basic understanding WordPress, you too can make your own blog network.
We chose to use our Multisite network to offer free blogs to members, following the freemium model. We give users 25MB of upload space for their free blogs which display banner ads. For a nominal fee—payable by monthly, quarterly or annual PayPal subscriptions—these ads are automatically removed. Upgrading to a Tripawds Supporter Blog also automatically increases the user’s upload quota to 1GB and gives them access to additional premium themes and plugins.
With network-wide user avatars, searchable blog/user directories, and widgets throughout the main Tripawds site that display most recent blog posts and comments, a true sense of community has developed among our members. It is heartwarming to watch friendships develop, and recurring payments from auto-renewing Supporter subscriptions are nice too. We use various WordPress Multisite plugins from WPMU Dev to make this all possible.
You don’t have to host user’s blogs, however, to take advantage of the power WordPress Multisite offers, especially if you don’t want to deal with the demands a growing network will put on your server. Hint: shared hosting won’t cut it! You can use Multisite to host a number of your own sites from one WordPress installation. Using a Domain Mapping plugin, each site can even have its own URL. The first thing we did after creating our network was set up a number of Tripawds Featured Blogs. These are dedicated sites where we review various products ranging from the best gear for three legged dogs and recommended nutritional supplements, to books, downloads and Tripawds t-shirts.
Everyone is on Facebook
Jerry’s fan base first started to grow on the Tripawds YouTube channel, where one of his movies is quickly approaching 1.5 million views. We use Twitter to announce all new featured blogs posts, as well as for celebrating the triumphs of some amputee dogs and mourning the loss of others. As for Facebook, I was a holdout. I refused to be assimilated. Then I finally realized how many people were sharing news about their three0legged dogs, or asking for advice, and the Tripawds Facebook page was born. Jerry now has more than 2000 fans.
Facebook adds a whole new sense of community, with friends, photo sharing, and instant gratification. That’s why we use it primarily to drive traffic to Tripawds where people usually register right away to see if anyone is in the chat room, where we are usually waiting to welcome them to the community.
Realizing that most visitors on Facebook are seeking fast answers, we created a custom landing page to help them out. The tab anyone sees before “liking” the Tripawds page includes links to our most helpful resources and RSS feeds from the blogs and forums.
Ebooks, podcasts, and more
Social networking for three-legged dogs doesn’t end on Facebook. I frequently participate in various dog-centric group discussions on LinkedIn. And our latest endeavor is Tripawd Talk Radio using the free BlogTalkRadio broadcast tools. Rene and I co-host this program periodically to profile amazing survival stories or interview veterinary oncologists and rehab specialists. We use the Tripawds discussion forums to announce shows and solicit questions for guests. Then we make the podcasts available in our Downloads blog after each show.
Another download we now offer was more than three years in the making. For those who don’t care to spend time searching the vast amount of content in our blogs and forums, we published Three Legs and a Spare, the first in a series of canine amputation handbooks. This 108 page PDF includes hundreds of direct links to the most helpful blog posts, videos and forum topics Tripawds has to offer. While the majority of content in this ebook is available for free on our site, the primary value is in its consolidation and organization of information.
The last suggestion I have for anyone creating a community is t-shirts. Members like to feel like they belong, and they love to show their pride. Cafe Press makes that simple. We had a basic CP Shop for years, with limited product availability, and even fewer purchases. Not until we upgraded Jerry’s store to a Premium Shop did we start to see regular revenue from the vast selection of three legged dog t-shirts and gifts we now offer.
Building a community of support
Finally, if you have a cause website don’t be afraid to ask for money. We held a community support ChipIn campaign to compensate for our additional hosting costs the first year after outgrowing the capacity of our old shared account—a clear case of too much traffic and bandwidth usage being a good thing.
Running our own server isn’t cheap, but active community members understand that. Others wanted to know how they could help after the campaign so we created different PayPal subscription levels for ongoing contributions. We also created a Support page that lists the various ways members can help, from naming their own price for a dog bandanna to clicking numerous different affiliate banners for shopping online.
With an audience that is often distraught over caring for their dog, however, we do our best to steer clear of any blatant promotion. Instead, we only provide links to products we believe in and always provide full disclosure about affiliate partnerships.
So if you’re interested in building a community for something you’re passionate about, consider using WordPress Multisite, discussion forums, and social networking to build a following. And if you think your cause isn’t grand enough to make it worthwhile, think again. Did you ever think there was such a site for three legged dogs?
Do you have a niche blog? How has community-building helped your blog succeed?
Jim Nelson is co-founder and chief administrator of the Tripawds Blogs community and discussion forums. Together with his wife Rene, Jim published Three Legs and a Spare¬†-¬†A Canine Amputation Handbook, the first in a series of helpful ebooks from Tripawds.com.