Thursday, January 8, 2009

10 Things to Look for in a Social Membership website Solution

Most social network solutions are advertising based revenue. While this works for companies like Facebook and MySpace, a more realistic revenue model would be to use a hybrid social network but with membership fees instead.

If you are looking for a membership solution, here are 10 things to look out for. Of course, these are just my opinions and I'm sure there are other features I haven't thought of. Ideally, your solution should have some, and preferably all of these.

1) Easy Installation and Management - Yet flexible and powerful
The solution should be easy to install and setup. Most open source solutions are relatively easy, although you will likely require a “geek” to install in on your own server.

The assumption here is that you have your own server. If not, it is fairly inexpensive to rent a server. Virtual servers can go for as low as $59 per month. Do a search on “web collocation” to find a good host provider. I’ve used, and they are a pretty good outfit.

Make sure that once installed, the software is easy to configure and customize. In other words, you can change your logo, set up new membership packages on your own without needing a geek to do it for you.

Hosted solutions in general are easier to install and all you need to do is to customize it.

2) Easy and Convenient User Experience
Some solutions are prettier on the eyes than others. Also, your solution ideally should make the users feel comfortable and be intuitive. Users should not feel lost, or overwhelmed with too many things on the screen.

In some instances, it is better to have "too little" items present than too much as people can get easily confused and intimidated. If users feel frustrated or confused, they will be more likely to leave your membership site.

You should look for a solution that has an intuitive user experience.

3) Social Media
As of 2008, videos are becoming common place. Your solution should be able to support streaming videos. Videos are useful for teaching concepts and ideas, or just talking to people. You could record a tutorial video teaching people on the perfect golf swing and make these available for "members only".

Simularly, your users will want to upload their own videos too. Your system should ideally support this also.

Of course, videos come at a heavy price. You will need to properly plan for server space to support this. Videos need to be re-encoded to support streaming format...and encoding takes tremendous server resources. Not to mention the disk space required to store all these as well as the bandwidth to support it. For a smaller membership site, a single server could serve this purpose, but for larger networks, you will likely need to build a cluster to handle load balancing.

Having a hosted solution will negate the need to worry about these concerns. The trick is to find the right solution that support this.

4) Customizable
Make sure the solution you selected can be customized to support your business needs.
There are two axis of customization you need to investigate: Image and functional.

With an image customization axis, you have a degree of control on the layout, the colors, the images you can customize to fit your image brand and site’s appeal.

With a functional customization axis, you have control over the feature set of your solution. For example, if the solution does not support a shopping cart, and if it is important for your business, that you can have that function programmed in. Most Open Source solutions support this, although some off the shelf software does not.

While both axis of customization are important, you will need to prioritize what is more important for your business model. Of course, the ideal solution will have high customization in both but you will more likely have to pay for it in the price tag.

5) Integrates a detailed Member Profile and Search function
Make sure your solution supports the Web 2.0 paradigm and the ideals of a social network. People expect these features in their solutions. It strengthens the building of bonds and community. Most membership solutions are based on the old "BBS" forum structure (for those who are not familiar, BBS stands for a Bulletin Board System as popularized in the 80's and 90's).

Having a detained member profile allows members to put in a detailed write up about who they are, what they want, what they are looking for and a way for others to connect with them….much like Facebook. Unfortunately with many existing membership software solutions, they fall short on this area as their focus is in the membership access control, and not on the user experience.

Ideally, members can locate each other based on interest, location, industry, and profession…to mention a few criteria.

6) Integrated e-Commerce
Perhaps you sell books, CDs or DVDs. Why not have these available on your membership site for your members to purchase. Better yet, why not have the ability to offer "members only" prices that are substantially cheaper than "retail"? This gives people an incentive to become a paying member.

It is even more important to have this function integrated if your system supports an integrated affiliate tracking system. This way, when a member buys something, the referring member gets paid a commission.

7) Event Calendar and Registration
This feature is important for someone operating an information marketing/seminar company, event promotions such as concerts or conferences. Having an integrated system for your members to buy tickets right from your social membership site, and track commission is a powerful way to market your events.

Having an integrated event calendar means you don’t have to wait for your web master to update your event calendar all the time.

8) Integrates an affiliate tracking and payout system
Having an integrated affiliate tracking system is a powerful and effective way to grow your social network as it gives your users a financial incentive to refer their friends and associates to your network.

Imagine saying to your members, "refer your friends to join our network. Should they decide to buy a product from us, come to one of our events or upgrade to premium membership, we will pay you a commission."

Unfortunately, very few membership systems have this feature.

9) Classifieds/Reverse Classifieds
Ideally, your solution offers a classifieds system for your members to post ads. This gives your members…particularly your paid premium members an incentive to stick with your network….and gives your free members an incentive to be premium members so they can post ads and gain clients from your network.

Some systems support a Reverse Classifieds system where members can post “I am looking for” ads. Why is this cool? Imagine if you can have a place for your members to post ads such as “I am looking for an investor”, “I need tickets to next week’s Madonna Concert”, “I need to find a mentor in Marketing”.

10) Free and Paid Member hybrid
Most systems fall into one category or the other;

if it is a free network, it is called a social network - like Facebok and Ning.

if it is paid, it is called a membership network.

An ideal solution is one that supports both a free member and a paid member. This way, your network can grow by attracting free members and then upgrade these to become paid members. Ideally, your solution should also support multiple membership package definitions such that each package has its own access rules ie. "who has access to what".

Other Considerations

In addition to these features, you should also keep in mind the following important infrastructure considerations.

Scalable Secure Server Maintenance and Backup
If done right, your network will grow. Be careful that your server can handle your growth from 10 people to 10,000 people…or more. Make sure your hardware has a RAID drive array so it can still be operational should you experience a drive failure. Without this, even if you have a backup…restoring from a down drive can take you offline for days...and this could destroy your business.

You will also need to install a firewall. Most solutions will require you to store your client’s credit card numbers on your own system (so you can charge them month after month). This also means your system will be a target for hackers. You will need to hacker proof your system to ensure maximum security. It is advisable to hire someone familiar with internet security to audit your site.

Of course, backups are crucial. Your solution should have a backup solution that is NOT backed up to the same drive as your main machine. This is because should you experience a drive failure, having the backup on the same drive will be disastrous.

On of the benefits of using a hosted solution such as Ning is that you don’t have to worry about this. Frankly it’s a pain in the behind to deal with this and it is not a productive use of your time and energy.

Ongoing Maintenance and Development
This is the most important part of the puzzle and often the most neglected. Companies treat their software as one off projects. This is not true. When deploying a solution, be sure to have a budget for maintenance and bug fixes. Not all software is 100% bug free, if you use Open Source…you may run into bugs and need to hire people to fix it.

Also, keep in mind that your needs (as well as the needs of your customers and the environment) often change. Companies often hire a team to deploy a solution and let the team go, then 6 months later; realize they need some other feature. It is difficult to track down the same team as they may have moved onto other projects.

This is one argument in favor of hosted solutions as they will always be there to handle your needs as they change.

If you are looking for an affordable, yet powerful social membership platform, you might want to check out our solution at It has most of the features described here and you can get started with as little as $2.