Thinking Out of the Box About Communities


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A significant segment of the enterprise social software landscape has gone comparatively under-reported: white label community services. These commercial offerings allow companies to use their platforms to create branded online communities. They employ a mixture of social applications—discussion, blogs, podcasting, profiles, tagging, rating, and so on—to get customers, partners, and employees interacting.

Customers of these platforms include large, consumer-oriented brands, such as Campbell’s Soup, AT&T Wireless, and Dell, as well as small, emerging professional and enthusiast networks, such as Barrista Exchange, a thriving community for people who pull your daily espresso.

There are dozens of white label community suppliers out there, but arguably the most well-known are these:

  • Lithium (www.lithium.com), a discussion-oriented service emphasizing peer-based customer support
  • Pluck (www.pluck.com), a social interaction service designed to bolt on to traditional media sites
  • Ning (www.ning.com), a platform for building custom networks and communities
  • Mzinga (www.mzinga.com), an online community service from a company with a background in elearning

These platforms don’t really come "in a box." They are more like communities "on a box"—somebody else’s box. Indeed, part of the appeal of these services is their software-as-a-service (SaaS) approach: You don’t need to involve your own IT staff or support potentially very spiky traffic out of your own data center.

Perhaps more importantly, many of these services provide professional support and human guides to help build and nurture an online community, reward productive members, and moderate destructive participants. In fact, for a service such as Lithium, you could easily pay more in ongoing consulting and support than for actual hosting. A lower-end platform such as Ning assumes that you have already mastered the alchemy of participation and just need a set of social tools.

It is important to understand that different suppliers bring quite different functional and technical capabilities to bear. Some provide awesome tools for supporting user-provided video, while others simply point to YouTube. Some offer more comprehensive "troll control" administration than others. Search is a pervasive shortcoming in this marketplace, as it is in most others. Several major vendors have a bad habit of placing their logos at the bottom of all "your" pages. (Perhaps we should call those "gray label"?)

As with other SaaS providers, integration with enterprise systems can present a difficult challenge. Some vendors help embed their services into your websites and applications using widgets, while others assume that you seek a freestanding community at arm’s length from other enterprise systems. Note that if you don’t want to go the SaaS route, you can obtain community technology in the form of installed software from Jive (www.jivesoftware.com) and the open source Drupal platform (www.drupal.org).

Whether you go with SaaS or installed, expect to encounter scalability issues. Performance can become a problem for social software behind your firewall (a topic for another column), but when you try to build a vibrant community in the wilds of the public internet, well, you’ll just have to expect the unexpected.

For example, hot topics can multiply activity in a matter of minutes; multimedia upload, encoding, and delivery can clog even the widest pipes; robots and spiders will scour your communities with abandon, gathering information and seeking to emplace spam; pages crammed with widgets and interaction modules take time to assemble and don’t easily cache; and there’s a whole lot more to worry about.

Of course, part of the appeal of a SaaS-based community service is that performance is someone else’s problem. Just because you pay for a hosted service, however, doesn’t mean you won’t experience outages or delays during peak traffic periods.

So, I’ll close this inaugural Technology Watch column with a lesson I’m sure to repeat often: If you know what business scenario you’re trying to achieve, you stand a much better chance of finding the right technology fit.