10 Tips to Pick Your Best Social Networking Platform

Not sure which social media platform is right for your association? These 10 tips will help.

In the past year an onslaught of social networking platforms have emerged targeting the association and nonprofit market, leading many associations to wonder which is best for them. Every association is different, so there's no one right answer. But there are some key issues you should study before making a decision.

1. Security. If you intend to have any kind of "members only" content on your website, you'll want to look at how well a platform can handle permissions and groups. Can it distinguish between the different member types, event attendees, committee members, chapter officers, and so forth pulled from your AMS and allow you to assign separate permissions for the different areas of your social platform?

2. AMS exclusivity. Ask your vendor how many other AMS systems they have integrated with and how many of them have been done recently. Some vendors are creating exclusive deals with AMS vendors, which means you won't be able to take the platform with you if and when you ever move away from that AMS.

3. Know your vendor. Two critical questions for any social platform vendor: What is your experience in the nonprofit space? And what percentage of your business deals with associations and the social web? Associations aren't businesses, and it's smarter to work with somebody who understands a volunteer leadership structure as well as the compromises associations try to reach between retaining member benefits and giving enough away to entice new ones.

4. Pricing. "Per user" and "per community" pricing models can be risky for associations. The former means you might wind up paying for inactive users; the latter can get expensive fast if the vendor has a loose definition of "community" (for example, you get charged if somebody launches a book club on your site). I prefer the "size of organization" model, which attaches the platform cost to membership size or annual revenue. Just be clear about how the vendor is measuring size.

5. CMS issues. What happens when you want to put your latest blog posts or discussion contributions on your main website or have a universal search feature which will search both your main website and your social platform in one go? Your platform should provide web services (tools that connect the social platform to your main website) for the most common requests you'll make.

6. Component and chapter strategy. Anybody can create a public or private social platform for any reason for free—including your components. Think of that as an opportunity: Many components will want their own social network, so why not give it to them? My former association, RIMS, provides each chapter with its own simple CMS and 25 design themes to choose from. As members build networks on the chapter sites, they're also adding data to the overall site.

7.Cloud computing. It's a common misconception that buying software means installing and running it locally. If the vendor offers "Software as a Service," that's an indication that their product uses a decentralized or "cloud" system. SaaS can offer significant cost savings, though your IT department may protest that it doesn't integrate well with your existing AMS. Web services can clear this hurdle, though, and going the SaaS route means IT folks will spend less time applying patches, fixes and upgrades.

8. Internationalization. Internationalizing your website isn't just a matter of handling multiple languages. Other issues include currency conversion, date formatting, text layout, and more. If you have any sort of international presence or are planning for one, have potential vendors show you the internationalization features of their product and describe their strategy on internationalization.

9. Event management. For techies, it's nice to imagine that everything can be done virtually. But the reality is that people for the most part do like to meet in person. A key consideration for RIMS's platform was enabling chapters to create and manage events in a common calendar and allowing for online registration and event management. Don't be fooled into thinking you'll only want a monthly meeting registration. Inevitably you'll want more—if not for your chapter, then for that book-club community one of your members just created.

10. Advanced functionality. Friending and group creation are old hat after a while. Ask your providers to tell you the most creative things their customers have done with their software—it will give you an idea of the software's flexibility and extensibility. For example, you might want to ask what their strategy is around mobile applications versus mobile websites (very different things) and also what their strategy is around viral applications.

Andy Steggles is the former chief information officer of the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS) and is now chief operating officer and social strategist with Higher Logic. Email: [email protected]