Ten leading platforms for creating online communities

Creating online communities of customers and workers has been one of the hotter topics in business and technology this year. Whether you're on the business side, in IT, or are just trying to build virtual teams around shared goals, online communities are rapidly becoming a popular way to organize people and accomplish work in a highly collaborative manner. It's beginning to be understood that communities aren't just for socializing but for getting things done.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Creating online communities of customers and workers has been one of the hotter topics in business and technology this year. Whether you're on the business side, in IT, or are just trying to build virtual teams around shared goals, online communities are rapidly becoming a popular way to organize people and accomplish work in a highly collaborative manner.

Learning how to design an effective community is something we’re all going have to get better at in coming years.It's beginning to be understood that communities aren't just for socializing but for getting things done.

The open source world has been using vast collaborative online communities to develop complex software products successfully for nigh unto a decade. That communities produce robust results is hardly news to them. So too with other early examples of community like some newsgroups and wikis, particularly Wikipedia. The rise of social networking and fundamentally user-powered Web 2.0 applications as a common daily activity has further helped move online communities into a mainstream business topic this year. Social media -- and blogs in particular -- are also helping raise awareness of the power and reach of community-based communication and collaboration.

Like many technology advances, network-based communities are taking a while to trickle down to the business trenches in a meaningful way, but it is now clearly getting there.

I covered some compelling examples of online customer communities in my recent best practices post and by all accounts, too many online communities today exhibit worst practices such as lack of sustained community management, a tendency to use communities for "push marketing", cross wiring business and consumer motivations, and lastly, starting with the technology first. Part of this is that we're in the early days yet and online communities are a new discipline for most of us, having only recently begun a large-scale move form the edge of the network and more into the center of our daily work.

That most of us are not fluent community facilitators is something that will almost certainly be addressed as a vital new workplace ability and one that we will have to acquire diligently to work effectively in the future. Those that can reach out, engage, and elicit useful participation over the network will increasingly have the advantage when it comes to achieving directed, collaborative problem solving, often known as tacit interactions.

Note that this also informs the Enterprise 2.0 story since community is a particularly important issue when we talk about the success of social software in the workplace. This is because community forms the foundation and virtual tent within which network-based collaboration occurs.

Learning how to design an effective community, whether it's on-the-fly for a small, ad hoc team effort on an upcoming project or a large-scale, long-term customer community of millions of users, is something we're all going have to get better at in coming years. A good place to start to see the type of subject matter we have to master is the online community entry on Wikipedia. This means delving into academic subjects such community membership lifecycles (show in diagram above), Kollock's Framework, the diffusion model of user adoption, and other esoterica.

One can also just dive into a community and learn the ropes with direct experience. However, as is typical with so many aspects of software and process, there are points of leverage that -- if isolated and optimized for -- can produce the best results for the least effort. Consequently, the best source of knowledge is likely some hands-on experience combined with some distilled formal knowledge, after which only then is one ready to tackle the technology side of community.

Community platforms: Technology enablers of social computing

So, once you've done your homework and you have a good sense of how communities work, have established clear goals, assigned capable talent as well as made a commitment of time and energy, and began to understand what your community is about and what it would like ot do, you're now just getting ready to get a sense of the technology landscape. I've made a point to put this community knowledge pre-amble in front the platforms list since we have learned from recent case studies that technology decisions should come towards the end of a community. Otherwise the vagaries of the platform itself tends to shape the community effort too the extent that the community design is beholden to technology decisions made too early.

Which platform a community effort should use is much better driven by the high-level goals and a co-developed design, with the technology subsequently selected to support them. However, it's also naive to think that most organizations don't already have a preference for a certain technology stack or even a specific community platform, which they may have already acquired or used previously. In general, however, we are learning from this year's studies that when technology drives the community, the outcome tends to suffer. Lastly, shaping the community design too much in a vacuum is also a common antipattern. As always with modern development processes, involve users as early as possible and often.

In preparing this list, I encountered literally hundreds of content management (CMS) and portal products across a great swath of maturity and capability levels. Along the way, it became very clear that extending the CMS and portal worlds into the community product space is a natural evolution that many vendors and open source projects have made, if not often achieved with great effect or distinction. However, a few products stood out head and shoulders from the rest, old players and new alike, with a couple of surprises. I also attempted, to the extent possible, to remove bias with an objective scoring system based on a number of external criteria. That being said, this is my own list, and I'm certain others will have a different list. To those, I ask that you please add your own picks in TalkBack below.

The list below is in rough order of general industry popularity.

Ten leading platforms for online communities

1. Open source, based on PHP, and a fork of the Mambo project, Joomla is one of the most widely used content management systems and community platforms. It includes the usual page posting, discussion, blogs, polls, etc. Joomla has an extensive community of its own and the number of 3rd party plug-ins is very extensive, with over 3,700 currently listed, making it one of the richest community ecosystems in existence.

2. Drupal is one of the darlings of the community world and would come first on this list for many in the community business. It's a highly capable, mature, and extremely popular community platform that includes the usual features as well as a workflow subsystem, support for OpenID, granular user security, and much more. Drupal is developed in PHP, is open source, and has several thousand 3rd party modules available for it as well.

3. One of the older CMS/community platforms, PHP-Nuke doesn't have the flair of the first two on this list but is still one of the most widely used community applications available. PHP-Nuke is eponymously named after the language it uses, is open source, and have several hundred add-ons available for it. Despite being one of the older and more traditional community platforms, PHP-Nuke continues to grow marketshare rapidly.

4. The platform formerly known as PostNuke is now called Zikula and is a fork of PHP-Nuke 5.0. Rounding out the top four, Zikula is one of the older, more established offerings. It is also open source and developed in PHP.

5. Microsoft's Sharepoint is the first commercial product to make the list and is also one of the most mature and popular. Though Sharepoint can be used to develop collaborative environments that have few community features, the most recent emphasis and the majority of uses I encounter are for community-style deployments. With the advent of the Community Kit for Sharepoint which adds "best practices, templates, Web Parts, tools, and source code", the product is now a capable contender in this space. Sharepoint has very extensive enterprise penetration and will be on the short list for many organizations given that they often already own it, though the warning above about "technology first" should apply.

6. The first SaaS community platform to make the list is Lithium, an innovative and fast-growing solution for customer communities that is seeing broad uptake according to my metrics. One of the advantages of Lithium is the extensive support around community developers and managers that it provides. One of the disadvantages is that it does not have an open source ecosystem so the the amount of extensions and plug-ins available for Lithium is limited to standard Web widgets.

7. The second .NET plaform (after Sharepoint) and the first open source .NET community platform on this list, the capable DotNetNuke has been going through extensive maturation over the last year. Written in VB .NET, DotNetNuke has an extensive set of 3rd party modules through its Marketplace service, which enables for-pay modules to be developed and sold, resulting in some high-quality offerings.

8. One of the few .NET blog platforms has evolved into a full-blown community product. Community Server is now aimed squarely at the enterprise and has been used in very large scale, for example, it is currently used to operate MySpace's customer forums for over 70 million users.

9. KickApps is a relatively new up-and-comer that is getting wide distribution in a relatively short time period including major wins with large public Web sites for ABC and the BBC. KickApps is a SaaS-based solution like Lithium that is extensively widgetized for maximum integration flexibility into existing Web sites.

10. ClearSpace Community from Jive Software has been getting a lot of attention lately, particularly with its popularity in the enterprise space. Over 15% of the Fortune 500 currently use it and while it's highly likely that the open source products at the top of this list have higher penetration, Jive has consistently focused strengths in areas where open source products tend to be weaker, particularly on enterprise issues around security, integration, and customizability.

It was interesting to see how the technologies and platforms shaped up in terms of open source and commercial software as well as software packages vs SaaS. We're seeing a healthy mixture of options available for just about any requirements, though the open source options tend to be richer because of their extensible nature and the large number of contributors building plug-ins and add-ons.

A number of interesting offerings didn't make this top 10 cut and so I thought it would also be worthwhile to include the next 15 candidates since we are likely to see them more often in the near future. They made the list due to overall popularity, innovative features, early groundswell, or a combination thereof:

11. Mambo - Popular, old school PHP community-platform.

12. Lotus SameTime and Lotus Connections - IBM's answers to community with many integrated capabilities.

13. OneSite - White label, on-demand social network and community.

14. BoonEx - SaaS community that is extensively widget-based with many features and capabilities.

15. Crowdvine - Used to power the community for the popular Web 2.0 Expo conferences, Crowdvine has full community, content management, and external site integration.

16. Facebook Open Platform - Use the Facebook platform for your community with the open source version of the platform.

17. Mzinga - A solution designed for industry verticals such as HR and marketing, Mzinga is seeing strong uptake.

18. Leverage Software

19. HiveLive

20. SocialGo - On-demand SaaS community service.

21. IglooSoftware - A relatively new entry, Igloo is focusing on the enterprise user with ease-of-use and simplicity as a top feature.

22. GroupSwim

23. SocialCast

24. Tomoye

25. Pinax - Brand new and feature rich. Pinax is getting considerable early adopter interest. Based on Python, Pinax is open source.

As always, please add your own in TalkBack below.

Coming up soon: Community management: What it is and why it matters so much. Also, a long-overdue examination of the uptake this summer of the term Web Oriented-Architecture.

What's you're favorite community platform and why?

Update: A reader pointed out that Lotus Connections is part of IBM's community solution so the list is revised above.

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