Software options for niche social networks

So you want to create a niche social network? And you’ve read the prior post on overall issues to consider? Here’s an overview of over a dozen software platforms you might consider.

Host yourself with Open Source.

If you have the technical resources on hand, by far, the least expensive option is to use a well-respected open source system. These platforms are robust, reliable, and allow you to infinitely customize. They do not come with any guarantees, but they have active developer communities who fix bugs and security holes, and have tons of ways to extend and improve the site.

The costs will include a staff or consultant to (a) design a look & feel, and choose the features you want; (b) create the templates for the site; (c) install and configure the software; and (d) cost for hosting, e.g., on your existing web server, or a service like MediaTemple’s VPS for $30/month. One server can server millions of anonymous visitors, and thousands of logged-in members who access content which is personalized for them.

BuddyPress —  From the same team that created WordPress. A key advantage is that it is a blog-based approach, and BuddyPress can be added to an existing WordPress blog. It’s relatively easy to set up. See some sites running BuddyPress. Features include activity streams, extended profiles, friend connections, private messaging, WordPress blogging, extensible groups to discuss specific topics, discussion forms, and hundreds of plugins. Runs on PHP and MySQL on Apache. 

Drupal — Another well respected and solid platform. Drupal is also a generic content management system, and is more flexible than WordPress. The tradeoff is that Drupal is more complex to set up, but flexible if you want to add pages in your site which are neither blog pages nor social network pages (e.g., database-driven pages). If you set it up yourself, look into nginx for load balancing, and Varnish for caching. Runs on PHP and MySQL/PostGresSQL/SQLite on Apache or IIS. 

For more info on BuddyPress vs. Drupal, see thoughtful discussions and reader comments by Zen and the Art of Nonprofit Technology or Jennifer Hodgdon or Jennifer Lampton.

Overall, the quality of leading open source projects (e.g., BuddyPress and Drupal) is on par with leading proprietary/commercial systems. See my post about Open Source vs. Proprietary software.

Hosted systems.

Acquia Drupal — Provides hosting and support  for Drupal’s social publishing system. Customers get the cost savings and high quality of open source; as well as the accountability and support of a proprietary/commercial system. It’s a growth company, and they just raised  $15 million in series D funding.

Acquia provides hosting via Amazon’s EC2. This is a smart approach if you need your site to scale to millions of active users (meaning your site will need to run on a “cluster” of more than one server), as Acquia has figured out the details for scaling your site on EC2. Acquia charges a markup on Amazon’s prices, which is still a good deal. If you have a lot of logged-in users, you will need a more expensive plan. See “Dev Cloud” pricing. The comedian Chris Rock currently runs his web site on their system, and uses the “5 ECU” plan. See an article on Forbes’ blog on how Al Jazeera hosts with Acquia. They currently have 180 customers of their managed cloud.

In addition to hosting, Acquia offers support for Drupal via Acquia Network subscriptions. For $2.5k and up, your Dev/Ops staffperson or contractor can submit support tickets to fix problems with your site, and one of Acquia’s 20 customer support staff will process the request and forward it to one of 30 developers who answer questions and solve problems. According to Mr. House, a typical question would be to help choose which of the many modules for connecting a site to Twitter are best for your site. Between support (Acquia Network) and hosting (Dev Cloud), a typical cost for customers is $30-50k/year.

Bazaarvoice – Hosted service focused on controlling a message, and using social media for commerce. An example is including product ratings in the Macy’s online store (e.g., “How does your skirt fit? Too small, too large? Too short, too long?”), adding Q&A’s to product pages, or short profiles from customers. Approx 800 clients representing ~1.2k brands. Pricing not disclosed.

INgage Networks – A suite of hosted products focused on serving large organizations with existing networks. INgage currently has 50 clients, and their solutions cost from $75k to over $1m per year. The company was previously called, “Neighborhood America”, changing their name in 2010; and the product was previously called “Elavate.” Their platform won the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA)’s CODiE Award for ‘social networking solutions’ in 20082009, and was a finalist in 2010. (No general-purpose social networking platform won a CODiE in 2011.) And their customers have won a variety of industry-specific and regional awards as well. Their system includes all the typical features of a social networking platform, see a spec sheet PDF. Customers include CBS, Adidas, Omni Hotels, and Nexxus. Their system can also be considered “social business software” (see below).

Get Satisfaction – A totally out-sourced site for delivering customer service. Members of the public can ask questions, share concerns or praise, and reply to questions. Optional private communities are useful for beta product support. Representatives from your organization can have accounts to provide official support or refute criticisms. It’s mostly designed for companies with brands or products that need online support. Prices range from free to $289/month. At prices of $99/month and higher, you get light customization to integrate with your site. Custom plans are also available with complete brand control.

Higher Logic – Designed to create private communities for not-for-profits and associations, with  integration to association management system (AMS) — e.g., to link billing & membership information with a member’s online profile and who/what they talk about. Mark Lowry, executive vice president of sales and marketing, says their product is less expensive than enterprise vendors, and that business intelligence about what members are discussing is valuable for choosing topics for conferences, or how to advertise new products and services. Higher Logic is not designed to post content  into public networks like Facebook or Twitter. Higher Logic has approx 250 clients. Like Acquia, they host using Amazon web services. Their Connected Community Product Suite runs on Microsoft .NET. The cost is approx $5k to deploy, and then $500-5k per month.

Jive – Provides both hosted (SaaS) and on-premise applications, and a suite of consulting services. They have typical features: community software, collaboration software, social networking software, and social media monitoring capabilities. Examples of not-for-profit clients are Operation Smile, Mercy Corps, The Clinton Global Initiative and TechStars. Their analytics are designed for marketing staff to monitors advertising campaigns, sales reps to track potential customers, and technical staff to monitor problems. Monitoring consists of issuing automated searches of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter using keywords and phrases you define. Jive Mobile is a web-formatted version of their web interface. Product documentation is locked behind their cumbersome membership process. Runs on Linux. Pricing not disclosed.

KickApps – A comprehensive suite of social tools and features, such as social networking; comments, ratings and polls; gamification with points, levels, badges and contents; private and public chat and messaging; groups; blogs; and calendaring. Create integrated experiences across your site, mobile app, Twitter, and Facebook. Customers includes Social Media Week, The Weather Channel, and several television shows. Monthly licensing starts at $5,000 per month, for hosting and basic support. Consulting services are extra.

Lithium – A hosted service. They have over 500 customers of their community platform and social media monitoring products. Their main focus is setting up sites for customers with likeminded love of a brand, but according to Erin Korogodsky, who heads marketing, Lithium also works for likeminded ideas. Two nonprofit clients the Taxavist site from lobbying group FairTax, and the WeAreTeachers community. In addition to typical features, Lithium includes principles of gamification, to encouraging engagement, e.g., by setting up activities with gaming dynamics with kudos, leaderboards, and voting up/down replies. Their analytics go beyond diagnostics (e.g., members, content, traffic), and include predictive measures (reputation, responsiveness, interaction, liveliness). They have strong links to/from Twitter and Facebook. Pricing is $12-15k/month, plus some upfront costs.

Ning – A hosted social network, analogous to creating a blog on Blogger, or The advantage is that it takes 5 minutes to set up, offers limited customization to the appearance, and handles all the technical details. The limitation is that the cheaper plans have limited options for customizing the appearance, and regardless of the plan, you are limited to the features and overall user interface that Ning offers. Networks can be open to the public or closed. Pricing ranges from $20/year to $600/year, depending on the number of features and members. It’s free for North American K-12 and Higher-Ed, with fewer than 150 members. See pricing.

OmniSocial Suite – From Mzinga has all the typical features. They also have suite of features for delivering and assessing online courses. They emphasize that they deploy mobile applications, but do not explain how that works. If you have an in-house community (e.g., of staff) and you use Microsoft SharePoint, OmniSocial will integrate. They also offer several consulting services, for creating online courses, or keeping spam out of your network. Pricing not disclosed.

Software on your server

Two additional options worth nothing, which run on your server:

Elgg – Free, open source engine used by several well-known organizations. Activity streams push content to members; flexible API. Intended uses range from campus wide social networks for a school or institution, internal collaborative platform for an organization, or brand-building tool for a company and its clients.

SocialEngine – A content management system with social networking features. Costs $300-680, depending on the features, and your developers have full access to the source code. Runs on your own server, uses PHP. For scalability, use APC, memcached, and bcmath. See review.

Social business software

Unlike social networking software which is optimized for community members to connect with each other or share and discuss generally with the community, social business software is a bit different.

One branch of software is designed for customers to have controlled interactions and community (e.g., fans of a brand). This software has tools for monitoring chatter about brand on online networks, moderating or censoring undesirable content, providing online customer support, or collecting feedback/reviews from customers. This could be suitable for fans of a zoo or museum, but is not appropriate for a community of zoologists or curators.

Another branch of software is designed for employees and stakeholders in an organization to communicate, e..g, discussing documents or meetings.

Here’s a few…


OutStart Participate – General system for social networking, collaboration, and knowledge sharing (e.g., wikis). Integrates with Microsoft Office. Designed for use within an organization, not high volume use. Emails users about activity in the community. Pricing not disclosed.

Parature – Customer service software including customer support, help desk software, knowledgebase, case management, and trouble ticket helpdesk software. Pricing not disclosed.

Pluck by Demand Media – Provides software run on your own server for providing member profiles, groups, comments, reviews, blogs, photo and video galleries, and forums. Management tools for monitoring what user’s say. Used by major brands like NFL, USA Today, Kraft and Lowe’s. Runs on .NET. Flexible API. Pricing not disclosed.

Telligent Social Enterprise Suite – Includes all the typical features of a social networking site, including web sites formatted for mobile devices. Organizes content by type, groups, authors, and tags. Designed for in-house use, and will email employees daily or weekly email digests. A key feature is adding social context to Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft Lync. Pricing not disclosed.

And some others who were lower-rated in the recent Hypatia Research report: Alterian, Day/Adobe, IBM Customer Experience Suite, Ingeniux Social Software SuiteLiveworld, OutStartRamius/Sixent, and Small World Labs.

Sources: Interviews, and public information from vendor sites. Data from Hypatia Research is from their 2011 research study “Benchmarking Social Community Investments & ROI: Best Practices & Vendor Evaluation Guide.”

Update 22-Jul-11: Minor edit to INgage Networks; moved text about Open Source vs. Proprietary software into a new post.

6 comments on Software options for niche social networks

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21 Aug 2011, 8:27 pm

great list of software to build your own niche network


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