Elizabeth Dunn at Small Dots, and Beth Kanter have been discussing social networking strategies for non-profits. They are discussing whether organizations should install their own white label social networking solutions, or use existing big box solutions such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc. They are discussing this relative to the non-profit sector, but their discussion is relevant for any organization considering using a social network solutions to connect with their community, be it a community of donors, supporters, learners, voters, etc.
This is something I've given a lot of thought, and there aren't easy options. Beth's start at a decision tree is quite interesting: Social Networks Decision Trees. I don't have much to add to the discussion other than our personal experience. Mind you, ours was a limited test but it was our reality none-the-less.
We'd just begun to create some beta communities in Facebook when we discovered the white label social networking solution Elgg. We saw how Elgg was being used in a couple of communities similar to ours, and it was obvious that it was flat working. From the perspective of an organization it offered all of the functionality of Facebook and more. Plus it was open-source: no lock-in, no advertising, it scaled to very large numbers, it had open profile data, and most importantly it could be mined for use in our other applications. I fell in love with Elgg. Sure it had some rough edges, but what software doesn't? (Don't even get me started on Facebook's rough edges). Elgg had everything we needed, and it offered solutions that we were desperately needing. Sounds wonderful, hey?
So we embarked on getting some people to help us kick-the-tires on Elgg. We "invited" our advisory committees. People we knew well and that we had easy access. And we invited, and we invited, and we invited. We couldn't get even 50% of our advisory committee members to even try it. They never once logged-in. Mind you, they didn't even have to create an account. All they had to do was login using their existing identities. We also tried to work with some of our select, and mostly progressive communities to give it a try with zero uptake.
In the mean time, we'd already started our beta groups in Facebook. With almost no effort at all our groups exploded. We saw growth that we never could have imagined. I can't begin to tell you have easy it was to create functioning and engaged communities. It was so successful that I have considered closing down some of our old ways of reaching these people. I don't think we need them anymore.
If I was adding something to Beth's decision tree it would be something about ease of creation? Building your own communities is hard work. It might be next to impossible. White label or big box? Our experience has been that you'll have far more success going to where the people are already assembled.