Now there’s no free Ning.

Recently Ning made a bit of a shock announcement that they would no longer be providing a free platform for networks but would be “going premium“. I have to admit that at the time this didn’t mean that much to me personally as I don’t run a Ning community, I am a member of one but assumed that the people who run it would find some other alternative with no problem. So I merrily continued to take the super features of the Ning community I am a member of for granted and thought nothing of it all. Until…. a couple of weeks ago I overheard a colleague talking about setting up a community website for one of our new projects at Waverley Care. Being the nosey parker I am I jumped in and suggested “something like Ning”.

Confident that other people must have already done the work and found a good alternative to Ning I offered to find a platform and set up the community. I did a little bit of googling and found a few helpful articles including this one from Mashable, which gave me a place to start. There are a lot of alternatives to Ning out there it seems! My next move was to look for some advice from others who were also on the search for alternative free community platforms so I headed to LinkedIn. After setting up my profile I joined a couple of groups and had a look through some of the discussions taking place about networks. This really helped me to narrow down the field, if you’re not on LinkedIn get over there and join some groups in your niche, chances are you’ll learn something.

I had a quick look at various different sites and found that there are some great platforms out there. As a WordPress blogger myself I’d love to give Buddypress a go as it’s built on the WordPress platform which is so easy to use. Unfortunately Buddypress is currently not a hosted platform and as a small project with an even smaller budget we weren’t ready to host our own site.

I picked 3 fully hosted sites and set up a group on each to see how easy it would be to use. The sites I picked were GoogleGroups, BlastGroups and BigTent. Google groups was functional but not very pretty to look at and possibly problematic for my group.They had already to set up a Yahoo Group and found it difficult to use so I ditched that one – sorry Google!

My two favourites were BigTent and BlastGroups. Both are really easy to use and rich in functionality. Both give options to make the group private so it can be viewed only by approved members. Both are easy to navigate and customise although we decided that Blastgroups had it on looks alone. Shallow maybe, but the clean and friendly look counts for a lot when trying to persuade service users that they can benefit from joining an online network. However, there was a major sticking point – we couldn’t get member invitations to work, major issue when you’re trying to build a network! After reading all the help info on the site and emailing 3 different email addresses at BlastGroups, with not a single reply, we waved goodbye to Blastgroups.

Maybe it was fate but our disappointment with Blastgroups left us with BigTent and boy are we glad! This is a great network building tool whether you want to build a large public group or a small private group. You can even set it up to charge a fee for membership of the group. You have great control over your group invitations to the extent that you can even see how far through the sign up process someone is. You can choose what services you want your group to have from news and calendars to forums and photo and video sharing. You can choose to give different members of your group admin privileges to different areas within the group allowing you to share responsibilities and workload among you. The site is very welcoming, has a very good help facility and even resident Coach Jaine who runs tutorials on group use and is there to help with questions. They also have some very handy widgets that you can drop into your own website which will allow people to request membership of the group or sign in if they’re already a member.

Overall this is a great tool for creating a free hosted network, a pretty decent alternative to Ning so we’ll be using it for our women’s network at Waverley Care and keeping our fingers crossed that they don’t go premium too!

Photo credit: foggiegee

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