How to make a social media app for your business and create a thriving online community

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How to make a social media app for your business and create a thriving online community

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READ TIME
18 min
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To social or not to social? That’s the question facing creators, business leaders and community managers in 2022. Do you fall in line with Facebook and create an online community bound by someone else’s rules and algorithm? Or do you say no and instead build your own social media app? Private. Branded. Exclusive.

Stick with us in this beginner’s guide and learn how to make a social media platform from scratch – without needing to know how to code an app or develop a website.

We’ll show you how to create a good social media site instead of one that drains people. How to start a network that starts a movement. How to make an app like Twitter, Instagram or even Facebook, but with the added bonus of monetisation, customisation and complete independent ownership.

How to make a social media app

Why should you create your own social media app?

5 reasons why communities thrive with their own private app

When you own the platform, all the data is yours. You can tell exactly how people are interacting, what’s working, what they’re stuck on. And you can do it without a snooping tech CEO or limited analytics dashboard getting in the way.

It’s easier to ask questions directly too. Responding to a poll by CMX, 65% of community managers said they get valuable product feedback from their community. 34% have even hosted customer advisory boards to really get a feel for what their members want, need, think and feel. What might you ask about?

60% of people say they use social media to connect with experts and ask questions on specific topics. But whereas many people are put off by the lack of privacy on traditional social media, creating your own app can make all the difference.

Compared to traditional platforms, people see custom online communities as places to open up and truly be themselves. According to research by Reddit, 36% more people think the conversations are meaningful; 28% more think the atmosphere is respectful; and 19% more think their voice gets heard.

And if you happen to represent a niche interest group, you could be looking at even more engaged members. Social media users with uncommon interests are 35% more likely to go online to make connections.

With a customised community app, you create an environment where so much more is possible. You can give members access to features and tools they don’t see on social media. You can host collaborative livestreams. You can start creative challenges, trends and activities. All in a safe space for members that’s free from judgement and hassle.

Responding to a poll by CMX about what their members contribute, 59% of community managers mentioned user-generated articles and content; 36% speak of member-hosted events; and 11% even have members creating tools and applications for people to share. With the right tools, encouragement and space, the only limit is the imagination.

Commission… Platform fees… Juggling four services to take a single payment… Sound familiar? Running a business online can be admin-heavy and a logistical nightmare as you expand, but it doesn’t have to be. 

If you work with the right software provider or app-building partner, you can create an app that lets you monetise your community and manage everything in one place – from taking payments and subscriptions to connecting members and carrying out your service.

One of the communities we helped to build now sees 90% of their business come through their app. And they aren’t alone. Across the world, 79% of community managers believe their community has had a positive impact on their company’s objectives, and 87% believe it’s critical to the company mission.

Since Covid-19 arrived, people have spent an average of 43% more time on social media apps, but not the ones you might think. Independent social media apps and online communities are on the rise. And although Facebook does still hold the top spot, engagement on the platform hardly compares.

Leaders of communities that are based in Facebook Groups report their posts reaching as little as 2% of their members. Compare this with the communities we’ve created apps for and it starts to get interesting. Typically, around half a community’s members engage every month, and our top-performing customers reach a staggering 75% monthly active members. Thanks to features like push notifications and in-app nudges, leaders are able to reach members whenever and wherever they are, away from the usual noise. It just makes sense.

Step One: Understand what your community app needs and set your metrics for success

You’re about to take your first step towards understanding and unlocking the power of community. Great job! We’ll assume you already have a business, movement or some other cause to unite people around, so the first thing to consider is why your community needs your social media app.

What is the purpose of your social media app?

For people to download your app, it has to give them a good reason to invest their time and attention. It has to give them something they need – whether they know they need it yet or not.

What does your target audience need? Think beyond what you sell or provide. Or rather, think around it. For example, if your business sells bathroom tiles, your customers might also need DIY tutorials, tool recommendations, design inspiration, a place to show off their work, and so on.

Consider the following questions and make some notes:
  • What might your target audience need that you could provide, create or facilitate?
  • What experiences could you provide them that add value?
  • What types of social interactions could you support?
  • Why might your target audience come to you over a competitor?
  • What do you both value, believe or hope for?
  • Which areas of a person’s daily life do you impact?
  • How do your target audience interact with each other on social media?
  • How could purpose-built features make each interaction better?

Remember, your audience may not know they have a need until they see there’s an app for it – an opportunity for you to get creative and show them what they’re missing!

How will you measure the success of your social media app?

By now, you should have a good idea of what your community needs. What about you?

Are you hoping your social media app will bring in stronger leads and extra revenue, gather cost-effective insights and feedback, boost engagement and retention?

Do you want to get to know customers on a more personal basis, build awareness and advocacy of your brand or mission, reach further to connect more people?

Now’s the time to set some rough goals that will help keep your eyes on the prize. Many of these you will be able to measure with ease through your social media app. Being purpose-built and privately owned, there’s nothing to stand between you and your data.

Common success metrics for a social media app

CPI (Cost Per Install)

Average cost of an advert that leads to a download

CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost)

Overall marketing cost of acquiring a member

User Activation

Percentage of members who are active

User Retention

Percentage of members who keep using your app

User Churn

Percentage of members who stop using your app

User Engagement

Measurements related to number of actions, time spent or frequency of visits

Further Reading

Understanding your Analytics

Step Two: Plan how your social media app will work and choose which features to include

1. Community Structure

Navigation dictates how people will use your app, making it one of the most important parts to plan. And although it may seem logical to choose your features before you decide how to join them up, a general idea of layout can help you get started. So…

What will be the main purpose or function of your app? What should people see first, big and bold? The rest can flow from there through menus and folders.

Social media apps tend to open with an activity feed that displays recent posts and comments. Is this what you want to do? If so, you could open to a general feed, one for a specific group, from yourself, from members’ friends, or so on. Maybe you only want certain people to be able to post to the feed, or maybe it’s open to all. What makes the most sense for your community?

If you would prefer for members to get straight into your specialist content, you could open to a resource library and build the app around that. Comments and feeds are still an option, but members would find them elsewhere or access them through the app’s menu. Communities built around learning and sensitive information often choose this option.

You can mix and match the features in all these options, but if your social media app will primarily be used for live streaming and calendar events, you might want to put those front and centre. Then you can think about how polls and comments might work, and how push notifications can help make sure every member turns up and keeps turning up.

Further Reading

Disciple Features

2. Member connections

Online communities that last make human connection effortless. Facebook, Instagram and all the rest know this, and members will expect the same from your private social media app. How you go about it, on the other hand, is up to you.

The foundation of a member’s online identity, a personal profile does more than just put a face to a name. It enables users to decide for themselves who they are and how they want to be seen within the context of your community, and provides a way to search for people like them, add them as a friend and make lasting connections. 

 

Each community is of course different, so profiles should reflect this by including relevant fields. A golfing community might want to include handicap, for example. A weight training community could include targets and wins. You could even create badges to celebrate them.

A key benefit of building your own social media app is the potential for groups and sub-groups. As we discussed earlier, people are more likely to seek you out and stick around if you serve their particular niche interest within your wider area of expertise. Alternatively, you could set up secret or private groups for particular members.

 

Traditional social media generally restricts your ability to divide up your community, so how might you use sub-groups to help them find their people and flourish? Perhaps our bathroom tile community could have a floral tile designs sub-group, or a sustainable grouting techniques sub-group, for example.

Do you want to let people talk among themselves privately or keep it to the comments sections? Can anyone message anyone, or only their friends? Generally, it’s a good idea to open things up and give people plenty of ways to chat, but you don’t have to. If your priorities are privacy or protecting vulnerable members, you could cut out the messaging altogether or request verifications first. But remember, members will want to connect with each other as well as with you. So how will you help them do it?

3. Resource library

Keep your content in one central location that’s reliable, organised and owned by you. Make it available to members whenever they want it, wherever they are. And decide who sees what with full control over permissions and privacy.

You could show off photos, videos and other visual content – both yours and your members’ – in a stylised and interactive gallery. Allow members to contribute user-generated content with ease, or organise your own work, designs and products.

Sounds dull, but don’t underestimate the value of being able to organise your content according to your own logic. Folders and lists give you the freedom to set out your content exactly the way you want to. You can create a direct route that makes sense for your community instead of having to make them scroll through feeds and albums to get what they need.

Do you want to let people talk among themselves privately or keep it to the comments sections? Can anyone message anyone, or only their friends? Generally, it’s a good idea to open things up and give people plenty of ways to chat, but you don’t have to. If your priorities are privacy or protecting vulnerable members, you could cut out the messaging altogether or request verifications first. But remember, members will want to connect with each other as well as with you. So how will you help them do it?

4. Moderation tools

Just because a community is thriving doesn’t mean every single person will get on with each other. Despite having escaped the trolls and abuse that often comes with traditional social media, sometimes you may still have to step in. It pays to be prepared, so consider how you might use moderation tools.

You could allow people to block other members and report their behaviour to admins. You could impose shadowbans on offenders, disable their posts, or delete them. You could raise trusted members to the rank of admin or moderator and share the load with them. As leader, it’s your responsibility to have this covered. Thankfully, with your own app, it becomes much easier and more intuitive.

5. Livestreaming and RTMP

Further Reading

Learn more about livestreaming

6. Customisation
and branding

The finishing touch of a private social media app, and what helps set it apart as special and unique, is the branding.

It’s also what ties your app to the rest of your business, cements your identity, and makes you instantly recognisable. Make sure to customise your app by including your logo and brand colours to really make it pop.

7. Security

Further Reading

Learn more about security

8. Analytics

9. Monetisation

There are three main subscription models: free, freemium and premium. Free costs members nothing at all. Freemium costs nothing to download the app but certain features and content are locked away until you subscribe. Premium means the only way for a member to access the community and app is by paying a monthly membership or subscription fee.

Like a Premium subscription model, members only get access by paying for it. Unlike a subscription model, members only have to pay once. Download the app for a price, get everything inside. Or almost everything…

Would one-off sales make sense for your business? You can use in-app purchases instead of or as well as subscriptions to your social media app, giving you flexibility to build a business model that works for you. In-app purchases are generally thought of as digital goods you would deliver through your app, like a series of videos or access to a course.

You can use your app as a shopfront for real-world goods as well as digital ones. Though still purchased through the app, like an in-app purchase, these are referred to as physical purchases. Can you guess what our bathroom tiling community might sell?

A great way to introduce new revenue streams without adding too much to your workload, you could allow other organisations, brands or partners to sponsor certain areas of the app or pieces of content. They pay for the honour of including their name, logo or original content in your space because they want to be associated with your brand or gain access to the people you’ve brought together.

You could also host ads if you want to, but they can negatively impact customer experience and App Store ratings. Sponsorships are far a safer bet if you can get them.

Exclusive meet and greets, live streamed conferences, a series of seminars, or even something hosted in real life. If you can give your community premium experiences that are genuinely meaningful or helpful, they may be willing to part with a little extra cash. Why not earn a penny for your thoughts?

Step Three: Choose how to create your social media app

4 ways to create your social media app

SaaS platforms such as Disciple provide you with out-of-the-box features to choose, combine and customise. Using a suite of simple tools and help if you need it, you can build a professional-standard social media app. One that appears in App Stores, is fully responsive for web and mobile, and takes little to no technical skill to manage. 

All the features we mentioned in Step Two are available when you choose a SaaS platform, from branding and livestreaming to monetisation and analytics.

Open-source software can be downloaded and configured on your own server. There are both free and paid options available, ranging from sites like Reddit to more flexible options. To customise open-source software, you’ll need to have a developer on your team or hire one to build and maintain your site. 

If you were to hire a developer, you could access all the features we mentioned in Step Two. However, you wouldn’t get automatic software updates, would have to pay additional hosting costs, and wouldn’t benefit from customer support.

CMS (content management system) platforms like WordPress or Drupal could, through the use of additional plug-in software, be used to build a social media site. Many of these plugins can be found for free, but there are limits to what they can achieve and are notoriously buggy. 

With this option, you could build a social media website rather than an app. It could use some of the features we mentioned in Step Two, but they would have to be low-quality versions that provide a fairly lacklustre experience.

 

Let’s say you have a completely unique idea that requires extremely advanced technology, like a Snapchat-style social media app that has VR filters. The only way to build your innovative new app would be to hire a specialist app development company. 

This is not an option we recommend unless your business is particularly gargantuan and established, being an incredibly expensive and time-consuming process.

Disciple’s recommendation

Further Reading

A new era for community builders

Step Four: Drive people to your app

Start with a migration program

Further Reading

How to migrate your community

Simple ways to attract new members

Assuming you have a website, create banners that show off your new app and direct people to download it. When your website’s visitors click the banner, they should be taken to your App Store page to download the app.

Already sending out newsletters or email updates? If so, use them to push your app through featured blogs, infographics and videos. If you don’t already send anything to your members, now’s the time to start. Whatever you create, remember to always include a strong call to action to download the app.

Google Ads are a great way to get your content in front of new, relevant audiences. You tell the algorithm who you want to find, set your budget, upload your content, and let it roll. You can do the same with most social media sites.

Put your members to work! Once they’ve joined and settled in, prompt them to invite friends by sharing a referral code. Try to make it as easy for your members as possible – an easy-to-find link they can simply copy and paste, attached to a feelgood message that motivates them to share far and wide.

Final words

Are you looking to grow, engage with and monetise your own community?

Create your very own community platform, on Web, iOS and Android. Gather, engage and
profit from your community in a safe space that you control. Your community, your rules.

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