Online Community, Collaboration and Social Networking features of most practical use

Dmitriy Buterin 15 October 2007 14 comments

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"  wrote:

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?

-------------------------------------

Hi Dmitry,

Thanks 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.

  1. Email 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.
  2. Members 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.
  3. Member 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 friends are.
  4. Forum Once we have a forum, I hope we can
    • 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 profanity)
    • Ability to vote for people in the forum
  5. 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.
  6. Who’s 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.

Thanks again,
Priscilla Christian

 -------------------------------------
 

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!

 

 

 

 

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Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot]

Posted by Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot]

Published Monday, 15 October 2007 at 9:00 AM

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Comments

  • Au-Co Mai said:

    Monday, 15 October 2007 at 1:32 PM

    I like the list that Priscilla Christian prepared.

    Here's my suggestions that I think are valuable:

    1. Speed of making updates and changes are painfully slow.  Drives me nutz.  During some parts of the day it's faster.  Not sure if it's my equipment, but I work with a lot of different asp's and it's never this slow to make updates.

    2. Enable the blog so that it is public, or at least having the option.  Blogs are especially important for social communications and SEO, if you make it private by password protecting it the search engines can't index it.  At this point it is only for current members.  It will do a lot more good if it's public to existing and future members.

    3.  Excellent example of blog portal and community is Popsugar.com - to me the perfect social mass media product will be a hybrid of a blog and a forum with merchandising functionality.  Being able to integrate personalization features, images, avatars, polling and surveying information.  

    4. Part of the challenge of memberships is collecting information and preferences of the members to ensure that we deliver relevant content and member activities.  Currently we are piecing together this information through a combination of traditional methods and other online applications i.e. pollmonkey, zoomerang and surveymonkey.

  • Tim Nicklin said:

    Monday, 15 October 2007 at 2:08 PM

    My usage of Wild Apricot is probably far from typical, but what attracted me was the ability to to use the online memebership management software to easily create an on-line database with a very focussed objective.  In fact many of my "members" are not actually people at all but locations where a particular service may be obtained.

    Of the human members most (if not all) have joined through links from other social networking / discussion groups such as (http://www.g-wiz.org.uk, http://batteryvehiclesociety.org.uk/forums/index.php, or http://autos.groups.yahoo.com/group/electriccarsUK/).  The these groups already provide discussion forums and networking capabilities, but none provided the toolset to enable the creation of my site.

    Now that the site is becoming established I can see little benefit from duplicating the functionality already provided by these other services for me.  Even if I did want to do this the basis of membership is different.  For most of the discussion groups the user operates fairly anonymously and reveals little personal information.  On the other hand the basis of my service requires that users be prepared to disclose their address and contact details, so the requirements are very different from a discussion forum.

    Others looking to use Wild Apricot may of course be starting from scratch and may wish to integrate everything with a single user ID and password to provide social networking and discussion tools in addition to the membership management database, but I don't anticipate requiring such functionality myself.

    Regards,

    Tim Nicklin

    on behalf of the EV Network (http://www.ev-network.org.uk)

    Electric vehicles charged from renewable electricity provide the only commercially available form of zero-carbon motoring.

  • Kurt Paccio said:

    Monday, 15 October 2007 at 3:15 PM

    Wow! These are some lofty goals. I would bet there is some significant programming that would need to be done to offer these tools in the high quality, flexible format that we've come to know and expect from Wild Apricot.

    IMHO, there are just too many good, strong tools that are capable of all of these features and MORE!

    Have you seen Ning? (http://www.ning.com) In a matter of minutes a social networking site that closely resembles your Wild Apricot site could be live and working.

    The only major hurdle, it seems, would be integrating the user or "member" database.

    Is it possible for Wild Apricot to partner with Ning or another strong BYOSNS (Bring Your Own Social Networking Site)to integrate with their services?

    It just doesn't seem to make sense to reinvent the wheel.

    In today's information-driven society, it makes sense to find your strengths and do it well. If someone else is offering related or extended services, partner with them!

    My 2 cents.

    KP

  • KStompor said:

    Monday, 15 October 2007 at 6:48 PM

    Well, this will be short but over the 10 years we've had groups I found it very hard to get members envolved online with other members. Our member forums, blogs etc sat empty no matter how we tried to start them going. It could be our clients. Our clients are health and beauty not tech people.

    Though we are trying to main stream everything we do online

    for me forums,blogs etc are not a need for us.

    Right now its more important to us to make the registration part easy, login easy, communication easy.

    We actually have live support (http://www.providesupport.com/)which has been helpfull but we are still working on getting it on the main page.

    I think one of the big things I like about WA is that they actually WANT feedback. Which is refreshing.

    I think that each of us have different needs and I can see how making sense of what to do next for WA is hard to judge.

    For us and my two associations right now its making things easy. Not adding more things to do....or design like forums etc.

    Thats my 2 cents, Thanks for reading. Kim

  • JenCinclair said:

    Tuesday, 16 October 2007 at 6:23 AM

    I am very pleased to see a new focus on the online community elements!  Priscilla gave a very good list of some of the similar things that we are looking for, especially in her example of member profiles.  The components that I would love to see, in order of importance are below.  

    -Forums; I am pleased that these are in the works and hope that they allow for incoorporating links to user profiles and events.  

    -Multiple Member Sub-groups; for special projects and/or differing levels of membership.  Allow administrator to grant access to a variety of private areas including informational pages and forums.  

    -Organization Memberships; allow organizations to purchase a membership that would allow a certain number of users to have a profile.  For example, we would like to have three tiered membership levels depending on the number of employees an organization has.  

    -Allow for API integration; as is was stated in a previous comment there are already many great tools out there and this would allow better utilization of these.  

    -Option for customizing text and backround color in RGB coloring codes without CSS customization.  

    Thanks for always being open to your users ideas!  ~ jen cinclair

  • Kathryn Lagden said:

    Wednesday, 17 October 2007 at 8:21 AM

    Lots of great discussion about community features. Interesting that Ning came up as I've played around with that a little. It does have a lot of the features I'd want but the big drawback is asking members to create a profile on a site that is completely separate. If those features are available on our wild apricot site I can better serve members by having everything in one spot and sell advertising/sponsorships on those pages. As others have mentioned there might be a way to integrate.

    I see the value of letting members 'connect' to each other ala facebook   as fairly nominal. I'd much rather have members communicating with each other regardless of whether they're 'connected' or not. And give members the option to edit their profile and indicate what others can see and how they can be communicate with. Member subgroups would be great, especially if those subgroups could communicate via email with each other. Discussion forms - great idea.

    i think having the option to receive email notifications on everything is a must. most people still rely heavily on email and don't just log in to check what's new.

    great to see wild apricot always thinking big and seeking opinions!

  • Sergei Peleshuk said:

    Thursday, 18 October 2007 at 12:13 AM

    First of all I have to say that for me Wild Apricot has been a powerful tool simplifying a lot of work related to web site content and membership management. It’s amazing how fast you guys managed to integrate a lot of great functionality in just a year or so!

    As for going forward, from my perspective it would be nice to see improvements in the following areas.

    For administrators:

    • Easier ways for communicating with members

    o  Multiple newsletter template possibilities

    o  Save/update templates

    • Closer backend integration with related service providers, like Google Analytics, polls, blogs, imaging, etc. I mean it’s a great advantage already that we get tips from Wild Apricot on how to integrate certain widgets and drive more traffic to the site. But if there was a closer integration with these service providers in one way or another that would be a great benefit.

    • Easier ways for formatting page content – at the moment you always need to edit HTML or use third party tools for ensuring proper page formatting.

    For members:

    • Easy way for adding/linking/copying profile details from other popular networking sites/messengers (Facebook, Yahoo, MSN, etc.)

    • Easy way to provide feedback/comments to articles (with email notification on updates as an option). I guess this is a standard blog or forum functionality? It would be nice to get a photo of the person who left a comment next to the comment if it exists in his/her profile

    • Presenting user profile in a nicer layout (perhaps give a few profile layout options for administrators to choose from?) – Priscilla gave a good example.

    For site users:

    • More clear site navigation – menu tree displayed on top, for example, showing where you are

    • Search box – ability to search pages on the site by key word

    • Easy way to forward a link or content/article to friends (option to add “Send to friend” field to pages)

    • Easy way to raise questions / new topics for discussions in relation to published content

  • pcgs51 said:

    Thursday, 18 October 2007 at 8:02 AM

    Sergei,

    I really like your list! Recently I sent out an email to my community. I now need to resend it to a select few and it sure would have been nice to have saved that email as a template somewhere within my system so I don't have to re-invent it.

    I like the breadcrumbs, search, profile templates and forward links ideas. Very exciting to see what ideas and needs other WA clients come up with.

    I recently realized another community related need. I would like to not allow my registered users the ability to unsubscribe from our mailing lists as it is a requirement of our community to join. Events, fine, they can unsubscribe--but general or targeted updates, no. We need to be able to reach them without digging through their profiles.

  • Eric R. said:

    Sunday, 21 October 2007 at 9:25 PM

    Core competency is the main issue here. Online community features are important but they are best left to destination sites like myspace, facebook etc. The goals for most organizations are to galvanizes support and membership toward common goals.

    With our varied background in helping not-for-profits and for profits, anytime we OVER-implemented social tools they lessened the overall effectiveness of the actual organizations efforts.

    Being informed is good and playing a part is better, but focusing efforts towards a common goal is paramount.

    Social tools and widgets are good, but don't loose focus of being a "killer app" for non-for profits. Simple and effective is great, but staying effective is the hard part. Please stay focus on all key features and make them bulletproof and flexible.

    Keep up the great work!

  • Andy Sernovitz said:

    Wednesday, 24 October 2007 at 4:02 AM

    I suggest keeping it simple:

    1. Basic discussion forum

    2. Forum with documents so a committee of members can work together on a project.

    3. Include RSS updates for both.

    Thanks!

  • Asad Akbar said:

    Monday, 29 October 2007 at 1:33 AM

    Hi everyone,

    Great suggestions so far, its interesting to see what fellow wa members are looking forward to.

    I guess I have felt this for a while but haven't really expressed it. I love wa, and think that this has the potential to be awesome. I mean so far it has been great for our organiz. But over the past few months and culminating with this post, the focus of wa has gone from organization and member management to one focusing on the social side of things. I have no doubt that some of these features are what people want, but there are things to say about that.

    I have always felt that focus is the greatness to wa, you dont try to do all things for all, you focus on a niche and serve it well. Very few companies are doing innovative things. How many Youtubes or Flickrs are there out there. But going down this path of social network is changing this dynamic entirely. Wild Apricot does one thing, it focuses on bringing organizational management under one roof, the website, the members, the finances, the events, everything. The goals should be to make this better. I will point out one glaring example, emails. Organizations all have a web presence and rely on sending emails to their members. Yes its not active 2 way discussion, but it is the basis to all organizations web presence. Yet this has not in the least bit worked upon in wa, except for one update where previous emails can be copied. There are many open source or for-profit systems that can be integrated or atleast linked through to wa, which would give customers great functionality. Currently there are text only emails that can be sent out, thats about all the options one gets. Right now I am paying for a WildA site and a Constant Contact account for email. I would much rather give this money to wa and have one system. Yes, wa might not get a system as robust as CC, but as Kurt Paccio said above, there is no reason to

    reinvent the wheel.

    One thing I have loved about web2.0 is that I can easily use the products from multiple companies and create awesome websites and collaborations. Why not work with these companies to implement their system with wa? For a while ppl have been asking about image posting and slideshows, and it has been suggested to use one of the image companies and integrate one of their slideshows into ones site until wa has its own if thats what it decides to do. You have to understand, much of the appeal of wa is that everything can be don under one roof, and thus advertising oneself as a place for organiz. to get organized and then sending them of to some other company for images is not helpful. Why not integrate flick or zooomr or

    one of these other systems to offer your customers features that they would have to wait a while for wa to code. You could very easily have an image company integrated with wa so that say a church can integrate a slide show of an event. Integration of image system would be available on paid wa accounts, so that wa would get a cut of the new account the image company gained as well. The same thing could be done for the email system. Constant contact or any other email system could be integrated into the wa account, everything in one place.

    These social features, such as presence indication and others, while good, are hardly along the lines of where wa should be focusing if it wants to stay dedicated to doing one thing right. How many countless social networks are having trouble gaining new members in the face of myspace and facebook. I think the organizations on wa who think that their member base will heavily use these tools on their sites with all honesty are mistaken.

    They see all this buzz about organizations on facebook and myspace and web 2.0 and think that the kids will flock to their site because they can now post their picture. I dont mean to demean any organization, but I am a young project manager for a non-profit and have unique insight into these issues, and this is what I am seeing. Yes people might set up a profile, if that, but they wont keep coming back, as kids are already overloaded with the social networks, the twitters, the flickrs they are using, managing and taking part in their religious or housing development social network wont be

    too high on the list of priorities to manage. Linked In, with such a strong base in the business community and focused direction, is now starting to loose its steam to Facebook. This might seem irrelevant, but all this social goodness is starting to pool into the bigger potholes, and focusing on offering the same services that are being pulled into those big potholes isn't going to help your company.

    How many companies offer what you do? Just about none, trust me, I've looked. You can piece these things together, but very few offer everything in one. Sooner or later, someone is going to realize you are one company in a market, and they are going to jump in. Build on those tools that will keep your company in the lead in the niche you are offering, so that when others do jump in, you already are far ahead of the pack.

    Organizations are looking for traditional organizational tools, in one place, easy to use web 2.0ed up, and looking good. Build it yourself or connect up with other companies systems, whichever way will get you the product you need. There are tons of API's out there that can be hooked into to offer up tons of services, while mutually marketing for yourself and them, without paying 10,000 a month to Techcrunch. For example, zoho is great company that I use at work and personally for their office products. Several online storage vendors have integrated zoho writer to enable editing of doc files saved there, such as box.net. Using zoho's api, you could integrate their products to offer organizations office software in their backend, so that I could save and work on organization documents that can be seen by other directors or employees of my non-profit. Many organizations want outlook web access for their employees through their site, why not integrate zimbra and offer this to organizations out of the box. I use these as examples, but things like these offer real practical tools for organizations to use, that they would love to have in one complete solution. The best part is, you dont have to write this all yourself, just integrate. If you really feel strongly about everything being one ui, integrate a system, then while the customer is getting to use the product, work on your own so that the customer has the product and you have some breathing space to work on your

    own version.

    Look, you guys cant do everything for everyone. When you spread yourself thin, you'll offer your customers the taste of cream cheese on their bagel, not actually cream cheese, for ex. the text only email system with a reply stating "we will never be able to offer a system as robust as constant contact." So do the things you will offer completely and fully, and let other companies do what they do best, and that is your product. Flickr might want to offer video, but they will never be as good as youtube, and vice versa.

    A few tools for organizations:

    Emails: as stated above, email marketing is hugely important, and graphic email, not text.

    Financial Management: This has been left completely untapped. You could integrate financial management tools such as those being offered by web2.0 companies that are comparable to quickbooks. Integrates with website, members, and donations. Very easy to monetize.

    Site Design: Offer easier site design functionality without the need of code, similar to SiteKreator.

    Fundraising: Much is needed, Recurring payment, members can view all donations made and print out receipts, can set up and schedule multiple donation payments, if members dont feel comfortable with credit card system can set up with their paypal account. Easy creation of chipin or other fundraising widgets.

    Social Networking: Rather than creating ones own network, tools to integrate into others. Easy creation of badges for members to grab and place on their own myspace or facebook pages. Easy creation of cause for facebook causes application. Easy digg this button or other social network or web2.0 software buttons on pages or blog articles. If members really do want their own social network, integrate ning software so that organiz. can easily turn on the social network feature and create the social network through ning software on wild apricot. Would integrate members etc.

    While I could go on, I think I shall stop this novella before it becomes a novel, and leave it at that. I have some thoughts on your pricing and focus on trade show associations as well, but lets leave that for the next chapter. :)

    Asad

  • Tom Quinn said:

    Monday, 12 November 2007 at 12:55 PM

    My suggestion echoes the comments made by Kurt Pacchio above. WA does a lot of things well. Don't try to dilute it by creating something that is trying to be all things to all people. For me, the key areas of strength are the membership module and the content management piece. I may be technical but my users and administrators are not, so  simplicity and good execution are the key.

    There are several white label social networking sites out there. With the advent of Google Open Social and the Facebook application platform, try to integrate with one which already works rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. WA is not a social network per se, and jumping on the bandwagon by trying to make it become one is counterproductive IMHO.

    I do think that features such as expanded member profiles, allowing the ability for people to email me if they are also a member, and a simple discussion forum would enhance the functionality of WA without it becoming YASN (Yet amother social network). They probably would not take too much time to implement.

  • Dmitry Buterin said:

    Monday, 12 November 2007 at 12:57 PM

    Thanks Tom and everyone. We are digesting your input!

  • Lawrence said:

    Wednesday, 19 December 2007 at 7:41 AM

    Do you have any email/newsletter templates?

    Is it possible to track who has read the emails sent and whether they clicked on any links?

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.

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