Membership organisations and community sites

This post is inspired by the demise of Ning’s free online community and membership platform. Member’s of a Ning group are provided with a tight, customisable bundle of features such as member directory, member profiles, member blogs, discussion forums, events calendar and even sub-groups. The for-fee NIng product will continue, as will its software-as-a-service model. For the thousands of Australian membership and community organisations out there, our recommendation is to opt for a self-hosted Open Source solution.

What is a membership or community website, and why are we clubbing them together?

If you’re a business or organisation with members, it is highly likely an expectation is access to an online platform with member-specific information and tools to share with like-minded peers. You therefore provide your members with an online community platform, probably by leveraging one of the many out-of-the-box options. Some of the features of online communities:

  • member-only section (extranet);
  • join, and if applicable pay membership fee online;
  • pay membership renewal fee online; &
  • connect and discuss with other members.

Apart from the fee payment, there is much overlap of the requirements for both membership and community sites.

The following examples demonstrate a broad, consumer-oriented community (Booktagger), niche, researcher and arts oriented communities (CAMRA & Pool, respectively), and fee-based industry membership organisations (Association of Engineering Education, Real Estate Institute of NSW, Economic Society of Australia):

Out-of-the-box solutions for community and membership websites

The now infamous Ning, and its ‘software as a service’ ilk offer features such as multiple user logins (for all of your members), discussion forums, blogs per member, comments on blog posts, activity streams. The drawback? If they suffer a setback, as did Ning, they can close up shop or cease providing their services without making your content available to you. The convenience of software as a service means you don’t have to fuss with hosting and maintenance, however it also means you have minimal control over your content.

Took us a while to get here ;) but our recommendation is Drupal. What it offers out of the box:

  • unlimited user accounts;
  • user roles (e.g. full and limited membership);
  • member-only section (extranet);
  • blogs per user; &
  • discussion forum.

And a few add-ons to enhance the usability of your site:

  • rich text editor:

  • custom theme:
  • and payment options if yours is a fee-based membership:

You now know the solution options available to you and how to frame your requirements; so, no more excuses not to offer your members a rich online community platform.

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