There is no lack of websites offering online community and social networking tools. Some are rudimentary and cumbersome, some are cool and addictive, some are slow to catch on, other are quick to propagate - and quick to fizzle out. There are many different ways and contexts people are using community tools so there is no single tool which will be ideal in every situation (even if MySpace and Facebook are trying hard to do that - I simply do not think it is possible).
I have been doing a lot of thinking around these topics lately. Our product - Wild Apricot - has originally been envisioned as a tool for administrators and webmasters of various communities - associations, clubs, non-profits, interest groups. Our focus was on "How do we make the best tool to automate membership management, registration and related administrative tasks?". We have made a lot of progress in this area during the last 15 months - with a release every few weeks we kept adding features, polishing and removing rough edges as well as listening to feedback from people using it.
And now we realized that we have been answering the wrong question. Or, rather, missing out part of the question. Yes, administrators and webmasters have been using our automation features and website services and giving us lots of positive feedback. However they kept asking us "When will you add discussion forums?", "How can you enable our members to contact each other online?", "Can you add online presence indicators?". In other words, not only were they looking for website and membership administration tools - but also for tools to let their supporters and members connect and interact online. Seems pretty obvious in retrospect - but it took us a while to realize that - so we kept pushing those requests to the end of the development queue. Hey, we obviously are not super-smart eggheads after all! ( only apricot heads :-) )
What do we do now? Basically we are reallocating our focus and priorities to spend much more effort and scale up online community, collaboration and social networking capabilities of our software. We do have some good basics in place already - member profiles, member directory, blog module, members-only website section, releasing a discussion forum module in a couple of weeks. But there is much more we can do and plan to do.
Now to my real question of this post:
What should take priority? Which ones of the myriad of potential features we should focus on?
Hence the question to all of you - in the context of small to mid size associations, groups, communities and clubs:
In your experience - which online community, social networking and collaboration features have you found of most practical use? Which ones do you consider to be gimmicks and which ones are really useful?
One of the first people I turned to with this question was Priscilla Christian of the La Habra High School Alumni Association - quoting our email thread with her permission:
On 10/11/07 11:08 AM, "Dmitry Buterin"
By the way, we have finally worked our way through a bunch of other
things and now starting to shift our priorities to online community and social
networking functionality. As one small step, forum should be released in a
couple of weeks.
From your perspective what are the top 5 community/social
networking features we should put at the top of the list?
for asking. I realize this are way more than 5 things. This is much more than
you bargained for. I think you can consider these things listed in order of my
priority. While I have multiple items requested in several categories consider
Email the first priority and so on. It’s all
about basic communication capability, the ability to find friends, and then
there is the ego (the all about me) stuff.
The ability for members to send email to other community members yet
maintain privacy at the same time. I’ve tried mashing up chat but its too
difficult for me and my members to figure out. So email is the best bet.
directory Customization of the information that the Members directory
columns display. Currently, Name, Organization, Membership. It would be nice if
admins could pick which columns appear in those columns. And be able to sort on
those criteria. If I can only have 3 columns, I would pick: Name (last name +
first name, Class of, and Membership type (to encourage and recognize paid
memberships). Don’t display the Directory listing text in the directory list.
Some people type too much information there and it takes up a lot of room in the
directory. Save it for profile display.
profiles A more attractive template for member profiles, please. I
want members to login and be more inclined to visit the profiles. Making them
more attractive will help. I recommend:
- Consider not having profile data
sections to occupy the whole width of the page. See example attached.
- Put the Name section at the top
of the profile and only allow the name to appear one time (right now members
names display twice in our profiles).
- Allow profiles with photos to
display the photos next to the members name.
- The directory listing displays
bold text in the profile (too over powering, plus its at the top of the profile)
- A buddy list in the profile would
be real fun. You contact a fellow member and request they become your buddy.
Then their photo appears in your profile at the bottom so you can boast who your
- Forum Once we have a forum, I hope we
- Establish moderators (a new level
in the user list for forum moderation only)
- Enable admin/moderator email
notifications of postings, if desired
- A badwords list (prevent
- Ability to vote for people in the
- Avatars In most virtual communities the ability to
display avatar graphics for forum postings lends an element of fun. Having a
small catalog of graphical avatars and let the WA admin upload some avatars.
Maybe even let the members upload their own. It would also be wise to grant the
admin the ability to review and approve/disapprove uploads from members for
profiles and avatars before they become visible.
online module To see who is online and logged into the site in real
time would be awesome. An icon or word displayed next to the members name in the
Members directory (not in the profile), or be able to sort the directory based
on who is online right now, or in the forum an icon or “online” status next to
the members posting, or a special online module that appears under the navigation buttons on the left side of all pages. Or even just a specific functional page
that admins could choose to use or not use, would be great. If I had such a page
I would make that the landing page for login. Then when we login we see who else
is logged in right at that moment.
We hope to drive more and
more traffic to the site and sell advertising. I have more wish list items
but these are the community needs. I have other features that I’d like
to see for advertising, business, content management. Yes, I am a slave
driver and completely obsessed.
This was very useful feedback as it validated some of our own thinking as well as introduced some points we have not considered.
I sincerely hope that some of you will find time to share your thoughts and feedback on this matter!