Hi all.  New member, so I hope I'm posting this in the right group!

I am in the process of setting up a private, paid network for small business owners that will be a combination of online (social network) and offline (real world networking events and a shared office space) activities and features.

I have spent hours looking into alternatives for the online component, but don't feel like I am getting any closer to a decision.  I am strongly in favor of paid options because I don't want to invest time in building an online community only to have the platform providers go out of business or lose interest.  I also want to be able to expect/demand a certain level of service, and want to pay so that I am on strong ground when I do that.

So, if it's not too much of a "how long is a piece of string" type question, if you had a budget of $500 to $1,000 per year for an online social networking platform, which one would you choose?

Okay, too hard a question?  Here are the features I do and don't need:

Forum - must have
Groups - must have
Customizable profile fields - must have
Subscriptions and member levels - highly desirable
Link sharing/voting/rating (like Digg/Pligg) - highly desirable
User points/credits - highly desirable
Calendar/events - nice to have
Chat - nice to have
Pictures/Videos - don't need

Here are my thoughts on my leading options so far:

Ning (Plus or Pro) - generally positive, but don't like the recent discussion from unhappy members (relating to poor support rather than the decision to eliminate fee accounts) and the fact that Ning sites look like Ning sites and it appears hard to make a site not look like a Ning site.

Social Engine - need to learn more, but from the outside can't see the benefits over cheaper alternatives

JomSocial/BuddyPress - like them both, and am leaning towards JomSocial because the Joomla add-ons seem better supported (because they are commercial options?) than Wordpress.  However, I find that relying on plug-ins makes is difficult finding the right combination of core and add-on versions so that it's all compatible.  For example, if one add-on requires an update to the core, but other add-ons haven't yet been updated, you have to choose which add-ons you can live without.  All-in-one solutions don't have this issue as the provider ensures compatibility before adding or updating features.

vBulletin - great option for forum, and with vbcredits it will give me the user points option, but would need to be bridged with another CMS and the vb CMS looks a bit underdeveloped.

IPB - another option with the emphasis on forums.

Google Apps - was close to going with this, but there is no google or third party (with single sign on) discussion forum.  Google groups would work if it had categories, but without it its more like an email list than discussion forum.

I could go on but I might have lost too many people already.  Hopefully there are some members here that are interested in having a good discussion on the major paid/premium options for social networks and will join in.

So if you have $500 to $1,000 a year to spend, which would it be?


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Replies to This Discussion

First. I do not know of any hosted social network that has all of your requirements. Ning has most and their "road map" indicates they are in the planning stages on the others. Also, they are a VERY big company with many millions invested so even if they went out of business (unlikely, right now)...somebody would absorb them. You can ignore the carping of people who are unhappy about them doing away with the freebie sites. Nobody is every happy when you have to pay instead of getting it for free. And there support is average. Sometimes above average. However, networks are such a technical challenge they sometimes take extra time because they are learning how to do it, before they advise you.
Secondly. I would budget at least $1000 because any network you choose will require subscribing to scripts that you will probably need...extra video storage etc.

My suggestion (if you have access to a hosting account on a server like GoDaddy) is to look into Wordpress ... not .com but rather wordpress.org and host it yourself. With the thousands of plug ins available you should be able to accomplish all of the above...however, there will be an extended learning curve. You can add the Buddypress plugin and turn the Wordpress blog into a combination of Blog, Pages and Network.
If you are starting from scratch. I suggest that. A server account will cost you around $8 a month an initially that will be your only cost since Wordpress is open source and free. Buddpress at this time is also free as are most all the plug ins. If you decide to go in that direction, I suggest using the bundled theme with the child theme Ten Weaver for the greatest versatality in design. Don't let the CSS and HTML stuff scare you...if you don't know anything about it...you will in a short time.
Thanks for taking the time to reply, and for your suggestions.

I'm leaning more towards Ning the more time I spend on this. I still am worried about my site looking like all other Ning sites, and there are a couple of features I would like that aren't there, but I might have to get over that.

I have experience with Wordpress, and have my business site plus a couple of others on that platform. i have also played around with Drupal and Joomla sites in the past. Tonight I also set up an Elgg site to see how that went. With all of these options the reliance on (largely hobbyist) add-on developers is my biggest reservation. I may pick an option today based on the one with the best set of add-ons, but if one or two developers lose interest in updating their products then a major feature of my site may be lost. It seems like once you stray form the very largest add-ons, there is usually just one person working on it and very little chance of someone taking over the project if they stop updating it. Relying on one company to keep their product alive is one thing... relying on a half a dozen add-on developers to stay interested is another.

Finally, a budget above $1,000 is fine, provided I'm getting value for money. I am willing to invest in my network and back myself to make it at least moderately successful, and that investment includes both days of my time and at least $1,000. Even if i only value my own time at $10 an hour, my time is almost sure to end up being the biggest investment, and I'd like to think my time is worth much more than that!

Does anyone else want to chime in with any thoughts on the range of paid options out there?



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