Hackforums Enhancement Suite - Case Study

PHP, MySQL, Javscript, CSS3, HTML5
Notable Points
  • Over 5000 users.
  • Earned over $4000

Intro

HF Enhancement Suite (HFES for short) is a userscript designed for the popular HackForums.net web forum. Userscripts are cross-browser addons that can add additional functionality to a website. HFES adds a variety of functionality including the ability to subscribe to forums, quote multiple posts at once, and a complete interface overhaul of the private messaging system. Over 5000 people have installed this popular application.

Building a User Base

At the time of I began developing the script, I was already building a good reputation across the site as a trustworthy and knowldgeable user. Like any internet forum, the website was filled with many cliques and I quickly started networking with other "high quality" posters. This networking was important, because when I started this passion project, these influential people were able to quickly become strong champions of the brand I built for myself.

HFES began as a passion script, trying to solve small problems and frustrations I was having with the website itself. It was not until I started discussing it with my colleagues that I realized the problems I were having was shared by other people. I realized, quickly, that tool could become something very special.

I began a small trial with some popular and well respected influencers on the website. As they were heavy users of the site, they would be a prime test subjects and could offer their own advice with their intimate knowledge of the platform. I collected a lot of feedback and held several brainstorming sessions on how to solve these problems with these select individuals. This ended up not only getting great ideas, but also the committed buy-in from these important users.

As soon as I released the script publicly, I encouraged these new brand ambassadors to post their reviews and help other users with any questions. This lent credibility to the project, something very important with a userbase as paranoid as on a site like Hack Forums.

At this time, I decided to focus on growth of the platform. Sourcing new features from the userbase helped early adopters feel apart of the process, exponentially increasing the userbase. The script spread almost entirely by word of mouth, with people volunarily advertising in their post signatures (a valuable marketing location placed on every post they make).

Monetization

When my userbase started getting into the hundreds, I began adding more ambitious features that needed backend support. I realized I needed to monetize it to keep it self-sustaining. Understanding the forum and the nature of a userscript, there was no way hide access of the script's features behind a paywall. Not only is it not technically feasible, but I would lose the large userbase entirely and a competitor would pop up immediately.

HFES had to stay free and open, so I decided to choose a freemium model. I could not add any pay-only core features, but I could add non-intrusive cosmetic perks that were visible to all users using the script.

I ended up selecting some small features that added a little icon next to a user's name, an animated username, or a gold bar present at the top of every post. Each feature was progressively more expensive in order to limit overal supply. This ended up making each feature considerably more popular than I originally thought, with people regularly purchasing the most expensive feature or all three at the same time.

Takeaway

In the end, the userbase extended over 5000 individuals and earned me over $4000. However, the money was not the most valuable takeaway from this project. Instead, despite this being one of my first projects, I learned some great lessons:

  1. Your personal brand and reputation is a valuable commodity.
  2. Engaging respected influencers can quickly build up your own product's reputation.
  3. If you respect your users, they will respect and support you.