Social media & networking, Software & web applications, Tips

Interview: Damian Maclennan on Sydney Cyclist

In preparation for some workshops earlier in the year, I spoke with Damian Maclennan about his community building efforts with Sydney Cyclist using the Ning platform. Damian has kindly granted me permission to blog the conversation here.

In the interview Damian talks about why and how he went about setting up the community, his thoughts on Ning as a community platform, and he shares some of the lessons learned in building and maintaining it.

Grant:  What was your motivation in setting up Sydney/Melbourne Cyclist?

Damian:  Originally I just set up Sydneycyclist. Sydney is a very tribal place, and cyclists different cycling groups are pretty tribal too. The mountain bikers won’t talk to the road racers, who won’t talk to the people who just ride to work etc. etc. Add that to the fact that the Eastern suburbs people won’t talk to the inner west people etc. etc. and you have a whole lot of people with common interests who aren’t communicating. There are other cycling forums around, but in Australia I found them to be very Melbourne centric, and Sydneysiders wouldn’t engage.

I thought that if I could build a Sydney specific site that allowed for each “tribe” to have their own space that they felt comfortable in, as well as a common discussion area, then it would start to break down some of the artificial barriers and get everyone talking.

After Sydneycyclist had been running for a month or so, I was contacted by someone well known in the Melbourne cycling and advocacy community and asked if I had any plans for a Melbourne version. We work on that one together, she does most of the management of the community.

How many members do the respective communities currently have?

[As at time of interview] Sydney has about 920 members and Melbourne has just hit 500.

How long did it take you to set up the sites?

I use the platform to run them, I’d love to build my own software from scratch but it’s not something that will ever get done. Ning is perfect for this sort of thing, I had the initial set up done in a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, and I’ve spent fair bit of time tweaking since then including rolling out a custom design. A lot of the tweaking has revolved around moving different content around on the home page and watching how it affects the community interaction.

How have you found Ning? What are the pros/cons of that system?

It’s mostly great. I never would have launched the site without Ning so I can’t fault it too much, it’s perfect for this kind of site. A few cons to not controlling the platform have arisen when people have accidentally deleted things and I have no way of getting them back. Also I’m at the mercy of Ning’s decisions regarding their platform, they can change features and / or design elements and there’s not a lot I can do about it.

Currently they also don’t have a good way to export all the content, so I have to put a little more faith in them that I’m comfortable with at times. Ning aren’t doing a great job of community consultation so it’s easy to get carried away imagining worst case scenarios.

Were there any costs involved in setting them up?

Not much, Ning charge a small amount of money per month for some “premium features” like using a custom domain name and removing some of the Ning branding.

How much time did you need to invest in curating the community? Has that changed over time, and if so, how?

In the earlier days, I would be involved quite heavily in every discussion, nurturing the content and community is very important in the early days when things are slow or in a lull. I also used to personally welcome each member and try to make a comment specific to them based on something in their profile. Lately with work and other commitments I’ve not let some of that slip, but by now the community culture has become self sustaining.

What tips or advice would you offer to someone considering starting a Ning (or similar) community?

Just do it. The nice thing about Ning is it really is easy to give something a try, if it doesn’t work you haven’t lost much.

What sort of activities did you do to build the community? What worked and what didn’t?

As I said before, welcoming people when they joined made people feel at home, I’ve had that feedback a lot. I’ve also been along to a couple of cycling community events like the bike film festival and spoken to lots of people and handed out some flyers, those things help a bit as well. I certainly haven’t done as much as I could.

I spent a lot of time with placement of various features like the blogs, events and recent discussions on the home page. This makes a big difference in how people choose to interact and I found that getting it wrong could have an instant effect on the amount and quality of the content.

I also have had group rides that are promoted and discussed on the site, while usually small they do bring curious people out to ride and meet new cyclists, getting people interacting in the real world and then taking that discussion back to the site brings a great element to the community. It stops being virtual and becomes real.

You mentioned that others have now “picked up the torch”, launching communities in other cities. Can you tell me a bit more about these initiatives?

I’ve had emails from a few people asking about how I set up the site and any advice I have, which I’ve been happy to share. Out of that has come an Adelaide version and one in Birmingham, England both based on Ning.

As a final note, this started as an experiment in starting a niche online community, but it’s crossed over and makes a very real difference in the offline world. I frequently run into cyclists when out riding that I know through running the site, and I know others do too. The Sydney City council sponsored bike valet parking [link updated 2012-03-29 (original link] at various community events like the Surry Hills festival is almost entirely organised via Sydney cyclist.

I know of people who “met” online ending up sharing a house together and people who meet up for group rides. On top of that it’s taken a lot of discussion that used to happen on locale specific mailing lists and put it in the open so all the tribes can share, interact and benefit.

Post-script: Damian and his family are about to move to Brisbane, so no doubt we’ll be seeing a “Brisbanecyclist” soon…