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How to Build and Launch a Social News Site in 21 Days

    Tip'd homepage

    Social media websites have made a huge splash on the Internet as we know it. No longer do editors dictate what is news, and what is important. The power belongs to the masses on social news sites, which is a huge reason for their traction and loyal users.

    It’s no surprise that developing a niche social media site is a popular job request for web developers. When I first learned about brand new social site for financial news, ideas, and tips Tip’d, I was immediately impressed with the clean, sophisticated design and impressive functionality. Yet what was truly amazing about Tip’d was how fast the site was assembled by it’s rockstar development team.

    Quick Turnarounds

    Most developers know that sites involving social media features are hard to do right. Features like voting, comments, account creation and moderation take a long time to get right. The Tip’d team bypassed a lot of that coding and used a CMS specifically for social news sites, Social Web CMS, which had many of the features that they needed right out of the box.

    Here’s an interview with the Tip’d team of Andy Hagans, Chris Pearson and Jimmy (”Jimbeaux”) Atkins.

    Planning: Interview with Andy Hagans, Tip’d Founder

    WJ: What sparked the idea behind Tipd?

    AH: A couple weeks ago, I was reviewing all of the ‘niche social media sites’ (Ballhype for sports, Lipstick for celeb news, etc). I simply couldn’t believe (2 years after social news hit it big) that there still wasn’t a financial social news site with some real presence. So I ran the idea by Jimbo, and that night, around 2 AM, we got the first (very ugly) version of the site up and running.

    WJ: What were planning meetings like to get everyone together and organized? Just email, or did you use something like Basecamp to get organized?

    AH: Email, Basecamp, and IM, depending on what needed communicated. We work virtually as we all live in different areas.

    WJ: Do you have any goals or expectations of the site? Big future plans?

    AH: Goals- We want to have 2,000 members by the time we move out of beta in early December. Long term, we want to be THE place people set as their homepage for financial news. We want to have 50,000 members and get 5 million pageviews per month. I think it’s do-able–not because I’m a genius or anything, but because our team is so good at what they do, and because so many bloggers and finance junkies have been craving a more social place to find and comment on financial content.

    Development: Interview with Jimmy Atkinson, Tip’d Developer

    WJ: What was the total time taken to get the site from concept to launch? Can you kind of give a general idea of the breakdown of time spent?

    JA: Andy and I first discussed the concept of Tip’d on September 24. We purchased the domain name and began working on the site that day. Our beta launch occurred just three weeks later, on October 14. Here’s how we got there: The first steps we took was to install Pligg to our server on day 1, September 24. After a few days of customizing it as best we could, we decided on October 1 to contact Ash, the a former Pligg developer and current lead developer on the SWCMS team, to see if he would be interested in working with us. He began working with us later that day, and this gave our development productivity a much needed shot in the arm. It was on this day that we made the change from Pligg to SWCMS. Since then, we’ve constantly been tweaking and adding new features on an almost daily basis. This will likely continue for a few more weeks until we reach a stable point.

    WJ: Caching/Performance- What hardware do you guys use to host the site?

    JA: Currently the site is hosted on a Media Temple grid server. We use a caching plugin designed specifically for Pligg/SWCMS.

    WJ: I hear that you guys had a doozy of a time hacking the socialwebcms. Can you give us a little background about this? What were you changing from the source code?

    JA: As I explained in the first question, we did spend a few days configuring (I’m not sure I would quite call it hacking) Pligg after we first installed it on September 24. A few days later, we reached the point where we decided we needed some outside expert help on the system. That is when we decided to reach out to Ash. And since October 1, Ash has been handling all of the really complex stuff (i.e. adding new features and working out bugs).

    WJ: I noticed that you guys use a redirect script to track outgoing clicks, as opposed to just linking to the story normally. Are you going to be providing any statistics or analytics in the future?

    JA: We are not planning on providing any stats at this point; although this could be something we’ll discuss in the future.

    WJ: What tools did you guys use to speed up your development process? Any IDE’s, collaboration tools, etc.?

    JA: No IDEs, but we did use NotePad, PsPad, WinMerge, and Windows Grep in development. We love using 37signals’ Basecamp as our collaboration tool.

    WJ: 6. Any tips for developers wanting to hack a CMS and create a social news site?

    JA: If you’re going to hack a CMS, don’t hesitate to talk to the developer if possible. Doing this has worked out great for us so far. If you’re going to create a social news site, remember that the most important thing is the community. You can have a fantastic CMS with all sorts of great features, but if no one is using it, what’s the use? The community is the most important aspect of any good social news site. The fact that we recognized this before we began work on the project is one of the main reasons for the success of Tip’d so far.

    Design: Interview with Chris Pearson, Designer for Tip’d

    WJ: Designing a community site is much, much different than designing a website like a blog. Can you explain some of the ways that the Tip’d design is different than a typical blog or website?

    CP: Sites like Tip’d exist primarily to steer people in the direction of articles that they want to read, and because of this, the design/usability goal is simply to get people the information they need as clearly and as quickly as possible. In environments like this, users tend to process information in visual chunks, and this means that certain details (headlines, submission data, usernames, links, etc.) must be both obvious and quickly discernable.

    On a community site like Tip’d, it’s extremely important to give users the context they need to process information and then to get the hell out of their way. Unlike a blog, people tend to use community sites over and over again in search of new and rewarding content, and this places an even higher premium on usability (which is really the hallmark of any great community site).

    WJ: The Tip’d’s theme is very nice, clean, and reeks of Chris Pearson’s excellent design work :) Did you guys create a theme from scratch, or did you just modify an existing socialwebcms theme?

    CP: In order to reduce development time, we simply used the HTML from an existing SocialWebCMS template to build the site. In truth, the existing code was so bad that we had to make lots of little customizations, but when you look at the big picture, most of the HTML is stuff that was there before I got my hands dirty with the styles.

    The CSS is a completely different story, though. I rewrote everything from the ground-up and basically breathed new life into an HTML structure that makes me want to pull out my hair. As a result, I don’t really know what to call this… I guess it’s sort of a hybrid re-design, and even though we started with an existing template, the final product looks, feels, and behaves differently than the original.

    WJ: What features in the design did you try to do differently than other major social news sites, like Digg or Reddit?

    CP: Not that it’s all that “different” from other major social news sites, but with Tip’d, I simply tried to guide users directly to the meat of the site. In this case, the “meat” consists of three main things—article headlines, article summaries, and vote buttons. These are the three most important elements users rely on when scanning, and I wanted to make sure that they didn’t have to put forth any effort whatsoever to locate them.

    To accomplish this, I employed some very basic typographical conventions in combination with a limited color scheme to emphasize both important elements and visual breaks. The end result is a layout that is almost devoid of visual fluff, and this makes scanning a more intuitive, less confusing process. The idea is that you want to avoid forcing users to learn a proprietary navigation system or new usability conventions when they visit your site—just give ‘em the keys and let ‘em drive.

    WJ: Were there any restrictions designing the theme of a CMS as opposed to a blog or a regular website?

    CP: CMS platforms like Pligg exist because they run a very particular type of Website, and naturally, there are little nuances that are unique to each type of site. Aside from that, though, most sites share common elements that constitute a vast majority of both the design and functionality. For instance, the primary content column of Tip’d really isn’t that much different from a stream of blog posts; it’s just been adapted to display the specific blurbs and meta data that are important to this type of site.

    WJ: Do you have any tips/advice for anyone wanting to design a killer social news site?

    CP: The biggest thing to watch for with any type of site built on a CMS is the core template system that you use as a foundation. Before you get started, make sure you’ve got a sensible markup structure and a stylesheet setup that isn’t overly complicated—it’ll make your life MUCH easier as you trudge through the intricacies of the design process!

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