What is the best platform for a niche social network?

A friend of mine posted this quesiton on QuoraWhat is the best platform for creating a niche social network on? Here’s my reply:

I would recommend one of three options:

1) Ning: if you want to scale your network. They offer three plans (all paid), the least expensive of which lets you really get a good feel for the platform at a very low price. You can go with the full feature set and premium support for just under $50 per month.

We have been running two networks on Ning, with nearly 19,000 and 13,000 members respectively, since 2007 with very good results.

Pros:

  • You can heavily customize your network.
  • You don’t need to worry about technology too much, since they run the backend.
  • They offer a good balance between features/service and cost.

Cons:

  • You don’t host your site. It is hosted by Ning.
  • An implication of the first con is that you are dependent on Ning for running your site. If networks on Ning are down or unavailable, so are you.

2) Buddypress: I can’t talk about scalability with this platform (I don’t have enough experience with it), but to the extent that Buddypress is a plug-in that ties in so well with the world’s best blogging platform, I can’t think of a better option if you prefer not to use Ning.

Pros:

  • If you host your Buddypress-plugged-in WordPress blog, you are dependent solely on your hosting service’s uptime to be available.
  • You are tied to an Open Source solution with a long history and a large # of developers behind it.

Cons:

  • You need to factor in development and hosting costs. I can’t speak to these compared to Ning, but it’s important to not think of this solution as a “free” alternative, because it isn’t.

3) GroupSite: If you don’t have plans to grow your niche network too much, I can share the experience I have seen with a 30-40 member network of artists that runs on GroupSite and works beautifully for what they need. It is a platform that is best for you if you need your members to not just interact and connect but also actively collaborate.

They still run under a Freemium model (a free option that is ad-supported… which I am sure will disappear eventually for the same reasons that Ning’s free option went away). The paid Pro option for small groups (under 50) is competitive in pricing with Ning.

For even more options, I suggest reading this list. In the list you will find many other options, most of which are variations on the same themes.

Ning in 2011: Transparent Evolution

Fresh into the second quarter of 2010, we were faced with news about the change in the Ning business model. It hasn’t been even a year since this news… yet I felt compelled to write about the way Ning looks moving forward.

This morning, I got an email from Ning titled What’s in Store for 2011, with information about features on Ning that have been rolled out in the past few months and plans for coming quarter or two. And something dawned on me: Ning is really laying out their product roadmap for users (and competitors) to see. In the words of their Chief Product Officer:

There are several reasons why companies don’t do this: It might reveal too much to the competition. It might force commitments and limit flexibility. It may feel like a burden. Plus, don’t customers like to be surprised when they sign in and spot a shiny, new feature? Under-promise and over-deliver, right?

There are several ways to look at it. But there’s one extremely good reason a company like ours should publish a product roadmap: Quite simply, it will make our customers happy. Making customers happy is a core part of our business.

Know what? I loved that they did it! It helps US (network creators) plan for the future, knowing what will and won’t be available and when (at least in the coming six months). As for competitors, they seem to be moving forward not minding as much that competitors may know what will they be doing or when. As long as Ning delivers on their promise (roll out functional features according to their product map), the moment features become announced on the Product Map, they are being put in the open, so… I don’t think they are losing that much competitive edge by opening up their six-month product map to the world.

Another thing they are doing very well is to help people develop the best networks they possibly can, through an assortment of Best Practices and a Getting Started guide combined with Troubleshooting Guides and a public Known Issues page.

All these elements speak to me of transparency and, combined with the features one can learn about through the roadmap, also tell me of evolution! 2011 promises to be a very exciting year for anyone using Ning or considering to do so.

Do you have any thoughts or comments on Ning in 2011 and beyond?