Time moves in circles.  It’s surprising how often it seems everything old is new again.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I’ve returned to my roots.  I’m back at Delphi Forums.  The image of the headline in Mass High Tech is from more than 10 years ago but it’s true again.

This spring I got together with my long-time colleague, Dan Bruns, and we came up with a plan to reinvigorate Delphi.  And now after a few months of hard work and user testing, we’re on target for a relaunch this fall.

Delphi is like an old friend.  It’s grown up and evolved with each new era.    There is a direct line connection back to the 80s when Delphi was launched as one of the first online services.  We competed directly with America Online, CompuServe, GEnie and other “online pioneers.” It’s where I started my career in technology.  It’s where I met a Senator Bob Kerry, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Case, Mark Cuban, and a who’s who of other early innovators.  At that time learned that the driving force behind the growth of online services wasn’t an information superhighway as many people called it.  It was person-to-person interaction.   People having conversations and forming online communities. We didn’t call it social media then, but it was highly social and already eating away at traditional media.

Time for a Facelift

After several years of benign neglect, Delphi has maintained a membership base that’s remarkably resilient. More than 1/2 million people use Delphi per month.   Even though the usage numbers are strong, the interface has fallen out of date.  The good news is we had the foresight to develop the most efficient way of navigating discussions. The bad news on a superficial level it looked like something you’d find in the way back machine.

So, we have the foundation of something great — “good bones” as builders would say — but an upgrade is clearly necessary.  We set out our goals for reinventing Delphi forums as a 2015+ era service. Our goals include (a) making Delphi mobile-friendly so it will work well with any computer, tablet or phone, (b) making it easier to integrate external media such as photos, videos, presentations, articles, blog posts and (c) simplifying the pricing and packaging so it was aligned with the goals all types of forums hosts and business partners.

The business case for Forums

Over the past few years I’ve been working with startups and investors.  I know the key question is whether this is scalable business that solves a real market need.    And, most importantly, does it have a proven business model that drives revenue.  Here are 8 points about why we see this is a big business opportunity:

1) There’s a need for “long-form” discussion.  Twitter revolutionized interaction by limiting the size of Tweets to just 140 characters.  It was a artifact from its beginnings as a texting service, but it proved to be a valuable distinction from other services. It also fit perfectly with the explosive growth of mobile.   But what’s referred to as a “conversation” on Twitter is really just a sequence of blurts that don’t ever convey the nuances and context that surround real discussions.  Well-organized forums and threaded conversations are the only efficient way to achieve this.  Luckily it’s not a question of one or the other.  Discussion forums can serve as a nice complement to short-form Tweets and Facebook updates.  Meshing these two approaches can lead to rapid growth.

2) It’s better to be group-centric than self-centered.  Think about it.  What do you see when you log on to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and most of the other social networking services?  The constant flow of updates is all about what other people are doing — their dinner, games, vacations, check-ins, kids photos, dogs photos, cat photos, and goofy videos.  Delphi is different. It appeals to people who are looking to be part of a group rather than a disparate stream of updates.

3) People are reassessing what it means to be “friends”.  Nearly everyone has expanded their connections well beyond true friends.  And even for real-life contacts you care about, you probably don’t want to share baby pictures or questions about a health condition your experiencing with a huge group that consists of business colleagues, neighbors, high school friends, college buddies and random people who were just hard to say no to.   There’s a big difference between connections and friends.  Casey Neistat recently wrote a great piece on Medium called “Yes I unfriended you.  Don’t take it personally.”  In his post he says:  “Despite Facebook’s very best algorithms my feed is mostly posts I don’t want to see.” “I used to have 200 friends now I have 1500. There is no way I know 1500 people.”  A lot of people feel like this way and are looking for something more private and personal.  

4) Empower people and they’ll bring value to others.  While other services focus on end-users, Delphi views everything through the lens of people who create and run online forums – the forum hosts.  If we do our job well, Delphi members feel a stronger connection to the forums they frequent than to Delphi.  In that way Delphi is more like a TV network than a show.  The the success of hosts, the efficiencies of the self-serve business model and the cohesion of self-organized communities makes Delphi highly scalable.

5) Moderation is Differentiation.  Good hosts are essential, but running a good forum takes special tools.  We’ve built the best.  With years of experience we have the most extensive content management and discussion moderation tools available.  A host can highlight specific discussions, post announcements, enlist help from other members, automatically filter out inappropriate words, ban trolls, delete off-topic or out-of-date posts, restrict access, lock out unruly users, invite friends and much more.  This further supports the efficiencies of our self-serve business model.

6) Privacy has value.  Facebook and Twitter are free.  Well, not really.  The price people pay to use Facebook is privacy. More people are becoming attuned to this economic trade-off.  Forum hosts on Delphi have the option of making their forums and sub-sections private – accessible by invitation only.  They can opt-out of search engines and choose pseudonyms rather than their real names.  These options create a nice combination of ad-supported and premium services.  The current revenue mix on Delphi is evenly split between premium services and ad revenue.  We intend to maintain a good balance going forward.

7) Community Elements in Everything.  Several years ago we developed Active Content and we coined the term “pervasive community”.  At that time it was a novel concept of meshing pieces of content with some way to react, respond, rate, review, comment or discuss.  Obviously over time the market agreed and the use of widgets, embeddable elements and “mashups” became commonplace.  We were right then and we believe this trend is going to get stronger.  We’re extending Delphi so elements of conversations can be embedded in blog posts, web sites, newsletters and other editorial content.  We see this as significant area of expansion; we also plan to pursue partnerships where forums can help companies transform their content marketing programs into engagement and advocate marketing.

8) The market is ready to go boom.  The average age of current Delphi members skews much older than most services most likely because it’s been around so long.  People have literally grown up with Delphi.   We see this as a good thing.  Boomers are the fastest growing demographic on all social media services.  We’re happy to welcome users in the 40+ age bracket.  The dynamics of forums fit very well with the interests of a more mature user base.  Some of the most popular topics include health, travel, crafts, hobbies, cars, financial planning, and current events.  While the latest trends for teens get a lot of attention, the business opportunity related to targeting boomers is huge.

Looking Forward to the Future.  

So it’s an exciting time.  Things do move in circles, but they’re never exactly the same size, speed or dimension.  We have a lot of work ahead of us to tailor Delphi to the current landscape, but we have no doubt that the future is in forums.