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Interview with Michael Rielly of ClausNet.com

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(Note: This is the full, unedited interview with Michael Rielly of ClausNet.com.  It contains much more information than could possibly fit into a blog post.  Thank you to @Michael R for agreeing to be interviewed.)

How many members, posts and years you've been around? How did you start the site?

In 2019, the ClausNet Santa Claus Network (ClausNet) will be going into its 12th year. I started building the site in November 2006 and we went live in the beginning of 2007.

Back in October 2005, I attended the world-famous Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School. It was a Christmas present I received from my wife. She had seen the school featured on the news one day and thought it might make a nice gift. At that time, I had already been portraying Santa for 34 years. I first put on the red suit in 1971 at the ripe old age of 8.

At first, I was a bit skeptical of what I would get out of attending a “Santa School”. I told my wife, what could I possibly learn after 34 years? My grandfather, James D. Rielly – a famous Santa Claus in his own right – started portraying Santa Claus in 1927 and continued to do so for the following 62 years right up to his passing. So, along with a lot of practice at being Santa, I also had one of the greatest mentors. But, since the school is in my wife’s home State of Michigan, we thought it might be fun to make a vacation out of it. So, while I attended the school, she got to visit with family and friends.

Up until that time the only other Santa Claus I knew was my grandfather. He portrayed the role longer than anyone else and is one of the inaugural class members of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus Indiana. In his honor, I founded the James D. Rielly Foundation – a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides charitable and emotional support to the children and families of military and first responders hindered by economic status, physical or mental challenges. You can learn more about our organization and what we do here: https://jdrfoundation.org/

At the school I got to meet Santas from all over the World! It was a wonderful experience and many of the folks I met in 2005, I am still friends with today. What I loved most about the school was the sharing of ideas, experiences, and stories; but what I enjoyed most of all, was the camaraderie I felt with my fellow brothers (and sisters) in red. This was the catalyst in creating ClausNet.

I wanted to somehow recreate the same feeling of fellowship I felt at the school. A place where Santas and Mrs. Clauses could come together to help one another and learn from each other. Many of the folks getting into the role have no experience and are unsure how to act or what to say to children. I wanted this to be a place where seasoned actors could pass on their knowledge and the traditions of portraying Santa and Mrs. Claus to the next generation.

I knew that whatever I built, that the exchange of ideas and discussion would have to be at the heart of it. So, I began to do some research. Facebook was just launched a year earlier and back then it wasn’t really an option. I knew it had to be a website – like a blog but more. For years I had been a frequent visitor to various blogs, Yahoo Groups, and other forums – including a few IPS sites.

Finally, I decided that IPS would be the platform where I would build the ClausNet Santa Claus Network. It was a struggle at first. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing. Much of the initial content and design I created myself. But with my vision in mind and a lot of help from the IPS community, ClausNet was born!

With over 2,900 members, ClausNet is the world's largest online community dedicated to the faithful portrayal of Santa Claus (St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Père Noël, Kris Kringle, Sinterklas, Babbo Natale, Ded Moroz, Joulupukki...), Mrs. Claus, Elves, Reindeer Handlers, and all others who devote their time to bringing the magic of Christmas to children and adults throughout the world!

I know in comparison to other sites, 2,900 isn’t a lot of members. But based on some estimates it’s about two thirds of all the Santas and Mrs. Clauses on the planet!

We are also very selective who of we approve for membership. In addition to IPS’s validation process, I personally email each person who registers for an account. I do this to help eliminate trolls and other Grinchy people, but mostly to keep out the prying eyes of children. Keeping ClausNet private helps us to preserve the Secret of Santa and keep the magic alive for children of all ages!

All things considered, we have a pretty active community. Regular members post almost daily and a good percentage of our members check in 5 or 6 times a day. Participation is even higher when there is a good debate going on or when the latest controversy hits the Santa Claus Community. You would be surprised how many there are actually…

One thing that is unique about our site is the average age of our members is over 60. This makes for some challenging support issues. If I had a dime for every time someone sent a message through the Contact Us form thinking they are posting to the forums. Ugghh. Many of the members on my site are, in their words, “nOT VERY GOOD AT THE cOMPUTRS”.

It’s a good thing I have a background in technical support. It comes in handy. I have been known to help folks in email, over the phone, and even in live video sessions. I’ve created written tutorials and have even held in person workshops on the use and navigation of my site.

As you might imagine, ClausNet takes up a lot of my time. Just ask my wife. She constantly reminds me, and everyone else, of this fact. She also likes to remind me of how much money it costs to run. We run ads on the site, but as most of you know, it’s a futile effort. We rely heavily on donations from our members. In the end though, this is a labor of love. I don’t do this for the money. Nor do I accept money for portraying Santa Claus. I do this for the love of the character and to keep the tradition alive for generations to come. If I can help someone be a better, more convincing, Santa Claus or Mrs. Claus to a child, then that’s all that matters.

What apps do you use? Do you use any apps in a unique manner?

We have all the IPS apps and several third-party add-ons.   

We don’t sell products on the site but we do use Commerce for donations. Members can purchase Supporter Level Memberships for $15, $25, and $100. I wish more members would take advantage of this feature. I probably should do a better job of promoting it.

We use Pages for posting short stories and opinion pieces. We used to use Blogs for this but Blog participation has dropped off sharply. I don’t think anyone uses it any more – including me. I mainly use Pages for that sort of content.

The new Clubs feature was very popular when we first introduced it. We use Clubs for regional and local groups as well as other very specific topics such as prop making and costuming. Before Clubs we segmented many of these topics into their own discussion forums. My plan is to move more of these forums to Clubs next year.

The Downloads app is also very popular. We use Downloads for sharing files such as example contracts and business card templates.

The Calendar app is also a great resource for our members in notifying and scheduling regional get togethers, workshops, schools, and training sessions. Our biggest limitation with Calendar is participation. I often find myself copying and pasting information from forum posts into the Calendar.

Uploading pictures is popular with our members but always challenging. Members want it to be as easy as Facebook. IPS has done a great job with Gallery in recent months, but they should really use my members as an example of how simplistic the user interface and navigation needs to be.

ClausNet also used several third-party apps and plugins. One of our favorites is Adriano Faria’s Links Directory. The Links Directory app is especially useful for allowing members to share online resources for various supplies such at suits, belts, and boots.

Christmas is probably a huge time of year for your community.  What do you do to prepare for Christmas?

Actually, as we get closer to Christmas it tends to slow down a little bit as most of our members are busy in the season.

The highest participation in discussions usually start around September and October as we lead up to the season. Members are posting on upcoming events and getting advice for the upcoming season. As we move into November about half of our members are already making appearances. Santa is in high demand starting in early November and if you haven’t booked your Santa by the first weekend of November, it’s a good chance you won’t be able to find one for your party in December. The good ones are booked months in advance – sometimes as early as February.

By late November and early December, we always see a spike in new registrations. These are typically first-time Santas and Mrs. Clauses looking for advice and/or resources.

Much of the discussion in the days and weeks before Christmas are around current gigs, issues, cute stories, and sometimes, not so cute stories. After Christmas, the discussions are more about self-improvement, performance, new suits and props, and upcoming events such as schools. Many of our members plan meetups and workshops immediately following the new year.

Do you face any seasonality of interest, and how do you keep members engaged all year?

There is no seasonality here when it comes to interest. Most of the members here, including myself, are Santas 24/7/365. I have made visits on Christmas Day, January 6, and the middle of July. There is always something to discuss. You would be surprised to learn how much drama there is in the Santa Claus community.

What are some other unique engagement activities that you do?

Despite what some IPS admins say, it is very difficult keeping your users engaged – especially when you have to compete with Facebook. So that means I have to work that much harder to keep our members engaged. Throughout the year we run several activities designed to do just that.

Annual Raffle

Usually in the beginning of the year we hold an online raffle. Each year, several members will donate items as prizes for the raffle. Suits, belts, bags, and even a free website are just some of the prizes we have raffled off. It doesn’t bring in enough to fund the site, but every dollar helps.

Member of the Month

Each month, I select a different member of our community to featured. Once selected as our Featured Member of the Month, we interview the candidate and post the interview on the site. The interview is also included in our monthly newsletter. We have featured a different member every month since we launched the site. It is a This wonderful way to engage with members!

The ClausNet Gazette Monthly Newsletter

As I mentioned we also send out a monthly newsletter. We use MailChimp for our newsletters. Most of the content comes directly from the forums. I include excerpted articles and news items with links back to the site. Surprisingly, it’s the first time many of the members see this content. It is a great way to keep members coming back to the site. On Christmas Eve we send out our Special Christmas Eve Edition of the ClausNet Gazette. This is a PDF download and is 10-12 pages long. This is the most popular issue each year.

Annual Countdown to Christmas

Our Annual Christmas Countdown is a yearly thread we kick off in November. Each year we begin a new thread. The countdown is sort of a diary of events leading up to Christmas. In the thread, everyone posts something they did on that day in preparation of Christmas Day or as part of their Santa Claus / Mrs. Claus appearance. The posts are usually one or two sentences – with or without a picture – and can be as mundane as: “Polishing my boots for tomorrow”. Mine are often: “Man I am exhausted. I‘m going to bed!” haha!

Christmas Card and Ornament Exchange

Our Christmas Card Mailing and Ornament Exchange are probably the two most anticipated annual events we hold. Members can participate in either one or both. Enrollment for these events start in September.

Members participating in the Christmas Card Mailing add their mailing address to the list. On Thanksgiving Day, the list of members is sent out. Members then put together and mail out Christmas cards to their fellow members and then wait for cards to them to arrive in the mail.

Like the Christmas Card Mailing, our annual Ornament Exchange is where members sign up and are randomly paired with another member. The members are then sent the contact information and mailing address of their exchange partner. Members then send each other Christmas Ornaments in the mail. It is very exciting to receive a Christmas Ornament from another part of the world!

Picture Contests

A couple of times a year we run some sort of Picture Contest. Members post pictures from that season and vote on their favorites. As you can imagine there is no shortage of Santa pictures on our site. The contests vary from Cutest Picture to Worst Picture to Funniest Picture. We’ve done a few Caption This Picture contests too.

We use forums and gallery to run the contests. It’s a little clumsy but it works. It would be really nice if there was an app for this. Just sayin.

Latest News

Another technique I use to keep folks interested is in posting relevant news items. Over the years I have found that just posting a link to a news item from another website is not enough to spark conversation. So, we have a standard format for posting news articles – which include the headline, byline, an image, an excerpt of the content, and a link to the source. I even have a dedicated News Moderator that will move and edit news items.

How long have you used Invision Community and what are some of the most innovative features that you've embraced?

Well I’ve been an IPS user for a long time. I frequented a couple of sites built on IPS back in the early 2000s. It’s probably the reason why I eventually decided to build ClausNet on IPS. I believe it is the most robust platform for building online communities. A good friend of mine runs a hug site on a competing platform. I am also a moderator on his site. I tell him all the time, this would be so much easier on IPS!

As I mentioned, we really like the new Clubs feature. My plan is to move more of our discussion forums to Clubs next year. I think Clubs has a lot of potential and I am looking forward to future enhancements.

Pages are probably the best thing that has happened to IPS. I know there is much more that can be done using this feature. I only wish I was smarter to be able to take more advantage of Pages. As a one-man rodeo here, I spend a lot of my time managing the site and users. That leaves very little time for experimentation. So, I end up just paying people to do stuff. Of course, that brings us back to my wife’s second complaint…   

You run the jolliest community in the world.  What are your holiday wishes to other Invision clients and clients-to-be? 

As many of you know, Christmas is my favorite holiday – a holiday that lives in my heart year-round – second only to Independence Day! May this holiday season be one of health and happiness for you and your loved ones. No matter how you say it, the sentiment is the same: Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Festive Festivas, Fröhliche Weihnachten, Nollaig Shona, Boas Festas, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Merry Christmas!

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