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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Social Network Tools

I'm hoping you can help a reader with thoughts and likely help others of us …

A medium size nonprofit and lobbying organization is working on a designing and creating a social / work network for experts, students, volunteers who are willing to help through campaigning, lobby, sharing knowledge, working on solutions (writing documents).  They currently don't have any kind of solution.

Via the network people will be able to communicate with employees, organize activities, collaborate on documents, communicate with each other, etc.

They are considering a variety of solutions but are willing to balance functionality vs. cost.  In other words, they could live with a lesser solution if they can save a lot of money.

  • Document sharing and collaborative editing
  • Custom branding / image
  • Ability to create groups and control access to those groups
  • Shared calendars
  • Invite other people into the network
  • Moderation of content
  • Exports (users, content)

Some questions:

  1. What do you call this kind of solution?
  2. Given this high level description, what would some initial questions/criteria that might differentiate what solutions to consider?
  3. What do you think some of the safer choices would be in terms of solutions, i.e., who will have the biggest market share in the future?
  4. What tools might be on your short list for them to consider?


Benjamin Duffy said...

The thing that come to mind are the Google Suite Sites, Docs, Apps etc. It has all your reader is interested in with permission and group administration features they need.

Registered non-profits with current 501(c)(3) status in the U.S. now qualify for Google Apps Education Edition.

See for more information.

The company I work for with 9,000 employees worldwide is studying the feasability of wide scale deployment.

Unknown said...

Another possible alternative is Zoho business suite.

Quite similar to google app.
Both are providing API which make easier potential integration with existing or future application.

Those 2 options are great, cost effective and scalable.

They offer a complete set of features but lack in term of quality specially for the authoring part.

You can import and export various format available but the rendering is not always as accurate as expected.

Those are the software as service application quite known.

For a better content management you should go for usual solution like microsoft sharepoint or alfresco but your cost might increase.

Sharepoint is offered on a SAAS model too, for Alfresco not sure but u could still install in on Amazon EC2.

If you're searching for a scalable solution which could be quickly available after few click, easy to administrate go for the 2 first one :)


Anonymous said...

We've found that Google Docs works very well for ad hoc teams, projects, etc.

I just looked for and found that it's now WebEx's WebOffice (, which looks good.

Here's a long discussion of collaboration tools with a lot of helpful product names:

Matt said...

Either set themselves up as a group wthin a pre-existing social network site, like LinkedIn, or use a ready-made solution like Ning:

DrBob said...


high quality solution, open source, takes a little setup.

Had this/similar problem a few weeks back - this is what we have more or less ended up with..

Anonymous said...

It sounds like there may be two things needed. If some of the other social network features are desired and they are willing to be flexible with branding, they could look at setting up a Ning site, which I believe can also be used with a custom domain.

I'd also recommend the Google Apps route. There's a little more management involved, but you could tie the two together via the domain name and the Ning network would give you a lot of the more informal collaboration and conversation tools like comments, posts, discussions, etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm setting up a number of social media/networking platforms for my clients (both in education and business) using open source Elgg - You can see a trial site at

Anonymous said...

What do you call this kind of

I'd probably call it a Content and Collaboration Management System, but most would probably call it a project management system.

Given this high level description, what would some initial questions/criteria that might differentiate what solutions to consider?

What is the average web-literacy level of the employees, volunteers and other stakeholders?

How much control does the organization want over the branding of their solution?

How energy do they want to spend creating and maintaining their system?

What do you think some of the safer choices would be in terms of solutions, i.e., who will have the biggest market share in the future?
What tools might be on your short list for them to consider?

At the low end (price and effort): 37signals Basecamp. It does essentially all of the things that you have outlined, it does them cheaply, and the system is very easy to set up and maintain. They will not need any outside experts in the process. Basecamp is limited by the ammount of customization users can add (colour scheme, some graphics), but 37signals opened their API last year, so it is extensible.
Basecamp is used by millions, and is growing fast.

At the high end (of effort and possibly price): Moodle. It does all of the things that they want the system to do, but it is much more technical to set up and maintain. And if they need any customization it could run up a serious bill(it is so ugly out of the box that customization is virtually guaranteed).
In terms of its market share, moodle has been doubling every 18 months since the turn of the millennium. Moodle has a broad user base in the education field, and a growing following in the business world as well. What all this means to new users is that there is a great support apparatus for Moodle installation, because it is open-source, the Moodle community is growing and evolving the system all of the time.

With either of these solutions Open Office would be a perfect companion. It is free, and compatible with pretty much everything (MS Office), and it can create pdf documents from anything. Everyone would be on the same page.
Google docs and Buzzword have a lot of the same capabilities, but neither is as rich an environment, in terms of the scope of the tool-set. Also, if your non-profit wants, they can host open office on a server, and have the community create documents there. For this functionality you would need someone from the Open Office community to do the work - I have an OO application similar to this, and would be happy to supply the name of the guy who put it together - michael (at) acovan (dot) com).

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

As many other folks have commented, the solution could very well be Google. More specifically, Google Apps for Your Domain (GAFYD), which pulls together your group under one umbrella but using Google's tools. It's free for a limited amount of things and $50/year for a whole bunch of things. Using GAFYD, you can add a domain name, customize start pages, have access to all of the Google Docs suite that includes web design and doc collaboration (and more), email addresses, Google Groups, Google Shared Calendars, and well, GAFYD is pretty impressive. You can learn more here:

I use it for and items and it works fairly flawlessly.

Paul Angileri said...

I'll start from the back and work my way forward. There's always OpenOffice from a traditional pure content production and editing standpoint, as clunky as it sometimes is to use. GMail would also allow for the shared calendars feature, as well as its unique discussion format for email. And I think Ning or Elgg might be the first place to start for designing the communal aspect of the effort, though a wiki could also suffice on some level.

I realize some of my own offerings here tend to be based in the more traditional Web 1.0/1.5 world, but they are widely available and still accomplish the tasks listed.

The questions I would ask would have to do with the dynamics of how the work is accomplished. How often do meetings take place? Will the majority of work occur within defined group sessions, or will it occur through dynamic individual effort at all hours of the day? Are there any major time sensitivities that would place one solution's importance over another? How many people are we talking about? Etcetera.

As far as naming such a solution, I'm not sure I could or would give it a specific name. After all, the features required of the effort technically could be supported completely by, for example, Microsoft's full Office suite with SharePoint. Other Web 2.0 tools will cover many/most features, if not all. I am not seeing an entry point for a new descriptor here.

Anonymous said...

* Document sharing and collaborative editing
* Custom branding / image
* Ability to create groups and control access to those groups
* Shared calendars
* Invite other people into the network
* Moderation of content
* Exports (users, content)

1. What do you call this kind of solution?

I don't think that question really has an answer, because what you call the solution depends on which solution you actually pick. If you fix a broken chair leg with glue, the solution is glue - fix it with a nail, the solution is a nail.

I think some possible tools are 'social networks', 'collaborative tools', 'Wikis', 'Blogs', etc.

2. Given this high level description, what would some initial questions/criteria that might differentiate what solutions to consider?

a - How many users? Can the solution handle that many?
b - Ease of setup/administration. In particular, can that responsibility be fairly easily passed on to another member?
c - Longevity ... as pointed out in the next question. Is the product/platform going to survive? A reasonable indication of that is, how long have they already been around? Also, how do they plan to make money? Too expensive, they don't survive ... and there are lots of very good free options, but they too must have a way of making money, or they won't survive either.
d - Does it need to be PRIVATE?
e - Does it offer email notifications? (important to me)

3. What do you think some of the safer choices would be in terms of solutions, i.e., who will have the biggest market share in the future?

Again, depends on which solution. And it's hard to predict. Current performance, market share, capital investment, etc are all decent indicators I suppose.

4. What tools might be on your short list for them to consider?

Blogs, especially WordPress. Very stable, very big, very cheap, very popular, etc. Free, but options available at very low cost. Since it's 'just' a blog, it may not do all you want, but sometimes you can combine tools. (Ex, Google Docs of something)

Consider Ning, WetPaint, WebJam.

I finally chose something called GROU.PS, which is a social networking solution. It is an amazing product, lots of features, FREE, your own branding ... it INCLUDES a blog, forums, wiki, chat, etc.

I picked it because it can be private, but still send email notifications when someone posts a forum message for example. Most of the solutions can't do this once you make the community private. This was VERY important to me because without it (that is, without email notifications) it is very difficult to 'engage' your community because they tend not to check the site. With email notification, they get an email when there's any activity.

The service is pretty new, and is having growing pains. I was hesitant, but finally went for it because it offered so much.

Tony Karrer said...

What fantastic feedback! I'm still trying to process all of this and I know that it's been helpful already to the person who contacted me.

I also received an email with the following ...

I work for a non-profit professional association and we have looked around at a few social networking tools, although we haven’t committed to implementing one, yet. When I was looking, I found Their pricing is reasonable, and it looks like it can handle all of the things you are looking for, but they are more geared toward associations. We are not currently using any type of social networking tool, but we do have a presence on facebook. That might also be a temporary solution while you’re looking. If you’re looking for a way to collaborate and / or teach via an online social network, UDUTU might be of interest, as well. It allows you to create courses and launch them through facebook, and is very inexpensive.

As for questions – if you’re a non-profit, I can bet you and the other staff don’t have a lot of time (if you have paid staff!), and you’re often faced with times of transition – duties change, employees move on, and tough economic times can lead to cutbacks. As a person working in the non-profit sector, one of the most important questions that I always ask is, “How much time does this take?” You want to ask how much time it takes to start up, how much time it will take in ongoing administration, and how much time it will take to train a new person to use the system. Those are the key factors in decision making when I look at any new technology.

Hope this helps!

Autumn Secrest

Programs Coordinator

Kelly Walsh said...

I recently posted about a number of low cost project management tools that might fit this need nicely, and cost effectively:

Anonymous said...

Microsoft's Office Live Workspace is a free service that allows up to 100 users to collaborate around the same set of files. From a single workspace users can edit documents, spreadsheets, pdfs, etc. It also integrates easily into MS Office programs, which saves time from always having to log into a separate site to upload your files. Depending on the size of the non-profit and how much storage space is needed, Office Live Workspace could be a great, free solution.

Office Live Outreach Team

Adam said...

Provide a cogent response: they are looking for a social media platform on which to launch several best-of-breed collaborative applications. If they have SharePoint, this would be the lowest-cost solution. Otherwise, a suite of open source software would provide the best bang for the buck. Avoid Google docs if you want to retain ownership of your info. Tony, you've already received several good responses, but let me add my two cents. The Google apps suite is good for a shoestring budget - Google will maintain all of the apps, they're all web based, etc. However, if the organization wants true control over their content, they'll need what I would call a "social media platform" (Question 1). This would, from a tech perspective, start with the LAMP stack and an admin who knows how to make it all work together.

On this, I would recommend starting with new social media applications:
- A social networking app like Elgg or Dolphin. These allow individuals to create profiles, calendars, etc.
- A wiki like MediaWiki. This will provide the central knowledge management platform that the client is looking for.

As for your other questions:
2. initial questions/criteria: do you have in-house tech/admin support? what collaboration/communication technologies do you currently use? what is the nature of the CULTURE for moving to social media?

3. safer choices: while at first glance, Microsoft and Google would seem "safe," I would strongly recommend open source solutions with large developer and user bases

4. tools on my short list: mentioned above, though you could eventually expand to incorporate blogs, social bookmarking, and a Twitter clone.

The key in any new social media deployment is to start small and find a core group of users to gain initial adoption quickly (target your innovators/early adopters). Then let the utility of the tools speak for themselves and let word-of-mouth grow the adoption in a grassroots sort of way.