What is the best platform for a niche social network?

A friend of mine posted this quesiton on QuoraWhat is the best platform for creating a niche social network on? Here’s my reply:

I would recommend one of three options:

1) Ning: if you want to scale your network. They offer three plans (all paid), the least expensive of which lets you really get a good feel for the platform at a very low price. You can go with the full feature set and premium support for just under $50 per month.

We have been running two networks on Ning, with nearly 19,000 and 13,000 members respectively, since 2007 with very good results.

Pros:

  • You can heavily customize your network.
  • You don’t need to worry about technology too much, since they run the backend.
  • They offer a good balance between features/service and cost.

Cons:

  • You don’t host your site. It is hosted by Ning.
  • An implication of the first con is that you are dependent on Ning for running your site. If networks on Ning are down or unavailable, so are you.

2) Buddypress: I can’t talk about scalability with this platform (I don’t have enough experience with it), but to the extent that Buddypress is a plug-in that ties in so well with the world’s best blogging platform, I can’t think of a better option if you prefer not to use Ning.

Pros:

  • If you host your Buddypress-plugged-in WordPress blog, you are dependent solely on your hosting service’s uptime to be available.
  • You are tied to an Open Source solution with a long history and a large # of developers behind it.

Cons:

  • You need to factor in development and hosting costs. I can’t speak to these compared to Ning, but it’s important to not think of this solution as a “free” alternative, because it isn’t.

3) GroupSite: If you don’t have plans to grow your niche network too much, I can share the experience I have seen with a 30-40 member network of artists that runs on GroupSite and works beautifully for what they need. It is a platform that is best for you if you need your members to not just interact and connect but also actively collaborate.

They still run under a Freemium model (a free option that is ad-supported… which I am sure will disappear eventually for the same reasons that Ning’s free option went away). The paid Pro option for small groups (under 50) is competitive in pricing with Ning.

For even more options, I suggest reading this list. In the list you will find many other options, most of which are variations on the same themes.