Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

How do you build an online community? Interview with Mark Ballantyne of UK Business Labs

We spend quite a bit of time on ecommerce and online business forums, and one of our favourite hangouts is UK Business Labs, or UKB as we like to call it. It has over 5,700 members on the forums and over 20,000 followers on Twitter! I emailed Mark Ballantyne (a rather handsome gentleman) to ask get to know the UKB story a little better:

Here’s the transcript of the interview:

Hey Mark! So… what made you decide to start UKBL?

The forum initially started because my wife Emma wanted to run some sort of business. I suggested that she consider maybe running a forum of some sort as set-up is relatively easy and initial outlay minimal.  I have vast experience both as a member of online forums (well over 400) and through running a niche sci-fi forum myself at the time we started; so I was in a good position to advise and get the technical bits done without too much head-scratching on Emma’s part.  Emma eventually handed the reigns of the business over to me fully in 2011 when our daughter was born as she could no longer find the time for it (I can see why!).

Congratulations! Incidentally, were there competitors at the time?

At the time UKBL started, there were a fair number of strong business forums around but this has diminished to perhaps two or three who are staying the distance; ourselves included, thankfully.

Any reason why you focused specifically on UK?

Why the UK specifically?  For no reason other that we can keep discussion ‘local’ so to speak.  That said, we welcome anyone from anywhere.

That makes sense. What difficulties did you face?

Getting members on board to begin with – and gain traction – was incredibly difficult.  I made the initial mistake of inviting hundreds of my online associates to the forum but all I was doing was bringing them to empty, inactive space!  With hindsight I would have let it grow more naturally as people discovered it and concentrated on the members we had; inviting associates later in the game.  Promoting the forum is another challenge but Twitter seems to be filling that role nicely.

3: How is UKBL successful where so many other forums fail?

Good and fair moderation on a forum is key; we decided from day one that spam wouldn’t be tolerated and we still have a fairly tough stance on it.  Those who are joining simply to get a link to their site should beware!  UKBL is a network, not just a free link.  My experience in social media gave me the advantage of knowing those aspects which work and which don’t on a forum and these were employed to create ‘just the right mix’.

4: Any cool stories of stuff that happened on the forums? Have you met people from the forums in real life?

The forum is an online thing for me so I’ve not yet had the opportunity of meeting any of the members.  I have a full-time job anyway (as well as running a graphic design business) so I’d be hard pushed to attend any real-world networking events.  Perhaps some day.

5: Do you spend a lot of time running the forum? (Seems like it!) How do you manage your time?

I probably spend around three to four hours a day, all-in.  As I mentioned, my experience means I can nip in and out quickly seeing what needs to be done and doing it.  I must credit our regular contributors though for making the place a joy to run. Our members are a professional bunch of business people and occasions where I need to moderate or clean things up are very rare indeed.  The community runs itself very well.

6: Long term plans? What happens when you’re done/ready to move on? Do you have succession plans? Ambitions?

It stands to reason that I’d like to see the forum expand further with more members.  This has to happen gradually though because I’ve witnessed many forums grow too big too fast and it tends to crush them real quick. Moderate, steady growth is our aim.  I’ve no formal plans to sell-up any time soon but, much like anyone in business, I’d sell-up if made a decent offer!


(This is Mark! We warned you that he was handsome.)

What we got out of this:

  • Experience counts. Person running successful forum had loads of experience as a member of forums, and had run a smaller niche forum before. There is no substitute for familiarity with an industry or space. This is consistent whether you’re a blogger, working in marketing, running an ecommerce store or a forum. Get your hands dirty.
  • Beware the grand, overdramatic launch. I’ve actually had similar experiences running Facebook groups. The most successful one grew slowly and organically, and there were existing conversations for new members to contribute to. Trying to get hundreds of people into an empty space is a horrible idea. Even if everybody likes you, they will struggle to get along effectively. In a footnote of his essay “Do Things That Don’t Scale“, Paul Graham suggests that “There may even be an inverse correlation between launch magnitude and success. The only launches I remember are famous flops like the Segway and Google Wave. Wave is a particularly alarming example, because I think it was actually a great idea that was killed partly by its overdone launch.”
  • Twitter is great for promoting business content. No hard statistics here, but Mark’s experience on Twitter seems to be consistent with our. It does make sense that executives are likely to be skimming through Twitter than Facebook during office hours. Facebook has a far more “consumer” vibe, where you catch people while they’re socializing with friends. Twitter feels a little more “professional”. It’s easier to catch people while they’re at work.

Stay tuned for more interviews with interesting people in the ecommerce and marketing spheres!


Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's Blog Editor. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's been thrice named a Top Writer on Quora. He hopes to enjoy a glass of whiskey onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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