Web 09: MacHeist founder give tips for community builders

Event-driven businesses engage users, says John Casasanta

Many great web strategies fall when users fail to arrive — or arrive only to leave and never come back.

That is not a problem the MacHeist community, which sells Mac software, has had to deal with. One of its founders, John Casasanta, came to Auckland's Web 09 conference last week to share his insights into community building for fun and profit.

MacHeist started in 2006 with an event involving missions that users had to solve to get discounts on software bundles and other benefits. The competitive element caught on, driving rapid growth in membership and sales. Casasanta describes the community as an "event-driven" business.

MacHeist also donates 25% of its proceeds to charity.

With 325,000 members, Casasanta says MacHeist is potentially the biggest Mac community. He describes it as a "non-traditional" business.

John Casasanta at Web 09 (Picture: Matt Morris)

In the MacHeist calendar are one big event and a number of smaller ones, all involving missions. Casasanta says it is important that these events be time limited. In addition, each event consists of a number of smaller events, he told the Web 09 audience of around 200 on Friday.

He says the best way to notify users of an event is email and, as an aside mused about whether RSS is dying, being replaced in part by Twitter, which is becoming increasingly useful. In future, he says, iPhone push notifications could emerge.

Creating buzz is vital. Site owners need to get people talking and they can do that through mystery. Hints about upcoming events can be dropped and MacHeist goes so far as to change its front page shortly before a mission is launched — getting members buzzing in forums and on Twitter.

Casasanta says such non-traditional businesses should hire passionate people. MacHeist has hired some of its own members.

MacHeist also features forums and chat, features Casasanta was unconvinced of at the start. It was co-founder Phillip Ryu that changed his mind.

Casasanta says such features have to fit seamlessly in with the rest of the site. On many sites these are add-ons, with a different look and feel from the rest of the site. MacHeist redeveloped its chat client and back-end to ensure it integrated with the site and now plans to do the same with its forum — a much bigger job, Casasanta says, as unlike Chat it will require data to be migrated.

He says the event and engagement approach means members become passionate about the site and refer non-members to it. People running such businesses have to give members lots of reasons to come back, he says.

Other tips were to avoid flame-fests, and to "keep things clean — but not too clean", through recruiting plenty of moderators. Sites should also designate a head moderator to keep tabs on the others as they can abuse their power.

Casasanta suggests forums should have a "lounge" where members can discuss whatever they like. He says threads should go beyond what is typically found in many forums. MacHeist put a lot of effort into the design to include avatars and a speech-bubble metaphor.

Threads that welcome new members, provide instructions and encourage participation are also a good idea. Polls, member maps and group mission solves also feature on MacHeist.

Computerworld will provide extended coverage of Web 09 in its April 27 issue.

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Tags Development IDmacheistjohn casasanta

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