The news may overflow with stories about the social networking giants, such as Facebook and MySpace,
but a horde of companies are doing their best to reduce the fundamental
features of these websites to mere commodities. These up-and-coming
companies provide so-called “white label” social networking platforms
that enable their customers to build their own social networks (often
from scratch) and to tailor those networks to a range of purposes.
The idea of white labeling a network is to make the platform
provider as invisible as possible to the social network’s users and to
brand the network with the builder’s identity or intent. While
definitions of “social networking” may vary, social networks are
primarily defined by member profiles and some sort of user generated
There are roughly three types of companies that have emerged in the
space of white label social networking. The first provides hosted,
do-it-yourself solutions with which customers can largely point and
click their way to a brand new social network. Companies of this type
interact minimally with their customers and rather focus on providing
the network-building tools that they demand.
We have taken a sample of nine of these companies – Ning, KickApps, CrowdVine, GoingOn, CollectiveX, Me.com, PeopleAggregator, Haystack, and ONEsite – all of which provide free baseline services, and reviewed them individually below. We have also included the chart on the right
summarizing all of these companies’ offerings. Credit for initial
research into these companies goes to Jeremiah Owyang who compiled a comprehensive list of white label social networking services.
The second type of company provides social networking software for
download and installation onto one’s server. The third type works very
closely with clients to build a social network based on their needs.
These companies might suite your needs much better than any
do-it-yourself social networking service, so you may want to check out
companies such as Social Platform (a personalized service) or phpFox (a downloadable solution). We’ll take a deeper look at these services in Part 2 of this post.
Out of the services that we review below, we found that Ning
provides the best platform for setting up good-looking, sophisticated
social networks with minimal effort. KickApps provides the best
platform for integrating social networking components into existing
websites. CrowdVine and Haystack are viable options for organizations
that are looking for simple social networks to improve personalized
communication online. CollectiveX is most suitable for existing groups
that want to collaborate online. And GoingOn provides a promising
hybrid solution with capabilities shared by both Ning and KickApps.
More details on each are below.
(which means “peace” in Chinese, in case you were wondering) currently
provides by a wide margin the best platform for setting up fully
functional and visually appealing social networks from scratch. While
Ning attempts to provide essentially the same out-of-the-box service as
GoingOn, Me.com, PeopleAggregator, and ONEsite, none of its competitors can yet match the professionalism of its product.
The company’s superior execution has so far earned it 76,000 hosted networks (although, browse Ning’s list of “popular” networks and one gets the strong sense that the vast majority of these networks were set up by tire kickers and promptly abandoned).
The standard Ning package allows affiliates to build at no cost an
ad-supported network with all of the features that they offer. This
entails a point-and-click setup process in which an affiliate chooses a
theme, tweaks appearances, and loads features such as photos, videos,
groups, and blogging. Within minutes, the affiliate has created an
impressive, fully-featured (albeit rather cookie-cutter) network that
is ready to accept its first batch of members, which can be invited by
email or Ning ID.
most affiliates, the ease in which you can set up a solid network will
be the selling point. However, Ning also has offerings for more
advanced affiliates that allow networks to partially break out of the
standard Ning format. Affiliates can disable ads or run their own ads
for $20 per month, and they can mask their networks’ URLs for only $5
per month. Furthermore, they have access to Ning’s comprehensive Developer Documentation
and an API for when they desire advanced customization. Effectively,
their API allows developers to take the standard Ning network and
retool it, whereas KickApps (discussed below) encourages advanced customization by providing developers with a bare foundation on which to build.
While the Ning platform can be made almost entirely invisible by
removing the top Ning toolbar and masking the URL, all networks hosted
by Ning share the same user base. When a user joins your Ning network
as a member, he or she obtains a Ning ID that works with all other Ning
networks. On the one hand, this system facilitates the process by which
users sign up for more than one network. On the other, it serves as a
constant reminder that the network is actually hosted by a white label
social networking platform. Many affiliates will not mind this system
at all, but others who want to completely brand their community will
consider this a detraction.
Whereas Ning holds your hand from start to finish as you construct your social network, KickApps
is targeted more at web developers (and companies with web developers
on staff) who want to incorporate social networking features into their
existing websites without going through the hassle of coding and
maintaining those features on their own. As such, when you begin to
construct your social network with KickApps, you will be presented with
a pretty bland, default template that you then must mould to create
anything decently attractive. Ning helps you customize your network
with premade templates, but KickApps gives developers more immediate
control over header and footer code and CSS styling. Consequently, it
takes more time and expertise to get a KickApps network looking good,
but in the end it may very well look more seamless and professional
than any network hosted on Ning.
features provided by KickApps emphasize the intention for its social
network components to integrate nicely into an existing site. The
company allows you to customize your network’s URL for free so users
don’t feel as though they are leaving a main site. Also free of charge:
unlimited storage and bandwidth for all that multimedia content (video,
audio, photos, etc.) you want your users to upload. Furthermore, each
network is given its own user base so that members feel as though they
are signing up for a particular network, not a platform (as is the case
with the Ning’s universal ID system). To top it off, the company is
willing to work individually with affiliates to make their platform as
invisible as possible (by removing all references to KickApps, etc).
advertising scheme is particularly unique. Whereas other platforms
charge a flat rate to turn off the advertising that supports their free
service, KickApps follows a pay per performance model in which
affiliates who opt to turn off or run their own advertising only pay
KickApps in amounts proportional to their networks’ traffic. With the
free platform package, all but a single skyscraper area of an
affiliate’s network are controlled by KickApps. However, once an
affiliate decides that it wants to control advertising it pays roughly
$2-5 for every thousand visitors to its network, with rates decreasing
as traffic grows.
KickApps also provides the most robust set of widget creation tools,
which is intended to help affiliates promote their networks through
viral marketing. The widgets that affiliates create with an easy-to-use
control panel display content shared or produced on a particular
network and can be embedded on other websites or social networks. These
widgets drive traffic to one’s network by channeling anyone who
interacts with a widget back to the network from which it comes.
KickApps’s 4,000 networks may pale in comparison to Ning’s 76,000
but the company appears to be gaining traction as it continues to roll
out features. The recently released v2.2 of its platform improves the
platform’s video and content moderation capabilities and suggests that
the company is moving towards providing better tools for quick and easy
customization, thereby competing more directly with Ning for the
patronage of laymen. Concurrently, KickApps is developing an extensive
API (currently in private beta) that should reinforce its primarily
role as service providers for web developers.
may not be pretty or intricate but it’s not meant to be. Until recently
a one-man show embodied by Tony Stubblebine, CrowdVine provides the
simplest, most basic solution for those looking to set up their own
main features of CrowdVine are member profiles, blog posts, and public
messaging. You won’t find any rich media sharing capabilities, such as
photo and video, in the basic package because Tony intended CrowdVine
to be all about connecting people and not about sharing their forms of
self-expression. As such, the platform has appealed mainly to
conference organizers and attendees, alumni (of businesses and
schools), intranet users, and professionals.
The lack of control over the look and feel of one’s social network
corroborates the idea of CrowdVine as a utility provider. So does the
fairly unique feature of having all members respond to network-specific
questions, the answers of which become tags that facilitate the
browsing of members by criteria. For example, new members to the PodCamp Atlanta
network are asked about their interests and expertise, and their
answers become linked tags on the homepage of the network that enable
visitors to view members, for example, by their interest in “blogging”
or expertise in “video production”.
Tony is not rushing to add features to CrowdVine, he is happy to work
with affiliates to add functionality to their networks. The Foo Camp network
has taken advantage of the Tony’s accessibility by integrating calendar
and wiki support as well as color coding of members. Tony is also
willing to work with affiliates to set up custom URLs and deactivate
ads (for a fee of course), thereby achieving more of a “white label”
Representatives for GoingOn
(still in beta) admit that their site is ugly (and, I should add, quite
disorganized), but appearances tend to mask the potential of this
company’s platform, which is intended to straddle the divide between
those of Ning and KickApps. Built on top of Drupal, GoingOn provides
easy network setup a la Ning, but the company is also partnering with
media companies (with results such as Forbes Office Pranks and the American Superstar Mag Lounge) to integrate social networks into existing websites a la KickApps.
GoingOn executes neither of these services as well as Ning or KickApps.
However, its platform does provide a wider range of features than
either of these two companies (unfortunately, most of these features,
or “modules”, are currently half-baked). If you demand features that
neither Ning nor KickApps currently provides, it may very well be worth
dealing with all of the imperfections that come along with GoingOn’s
There are structural and strategic aspects of GoingOn that make it
worth tracking over the coming year. Since it is based on Drupal, the
company claims that it can more readily deploy open source software
packages on its platform. This translates into even more features over
time, which may help it maintain its feature lead on its major
competitors. Its Drupal heritage also facilitates the creation of a
Drupalesque API, which the company tenatively plans to roll towards the
end of the year.
the self-described “network of networks”, maintains a shared user base
for its hosted networks. Unlike Ning, however, it explicitly plans to
take advantage of this shared authentication system by providing
networks within networks. For example, teachers at one point may be
able to join a nation-wide network that contains sub-networks for the
country’s school districts. The possibility of nesting networks may
give GoingOn the edge with hierarchical organizations.
Affiliates can opt for one of five GoingOn network packages, each of
which provides progressively more customization capabilities. Most
affiliates will probably choose between a Free Network and a Pro
Network, of which the latter costs $20 per month but allows affiliates
to manage their advertisements. Custom URLs are free of charge for all
is a borderline white label social network platform. Its
questionability arises from its orientation around exclusive groups
(”groupsite” being its word for “network”) and from its very narrow
range of customization options. Additionally, members of a CollectiveX
group cannot friend each other, so it lacks a basic feature of
virtually every social network (apparently, it is presumed that
everyone within a group knows each other).
beyond these idiosyncracies, CollectiveX provides an impressively
refined way for people to share information and content within a
controlled, social network environment. The main features of a
CollectiveX site include a calendar, forum, and file area (for general
uploads and photos in particular). These offerings are not extensive,
but the mantra “quality over quantity” certainly applies.
Unique to CollectiveX is the ability of a network’s members to list
personal objectives and to declare any “key connections” (read:
relationships) they have with particular individuals. These features
reinforce the feeling that groupsites are meant primarily for business
professionals who are looking to network (in the business sense of the
word) in addition to collaborating online with associates.
CollectiveX’s free package is supported by advertisements as with other
platforms, the company’s strategy seems to be particularly focused on
earning money through selling premium features. For $9 per month,
network admins can remove advertising, but apparently there is no way
to run your own advertisements. For additional payments of $9 per
month, admins can also gain more control over group permissions,
enhance network security with 128-bit SSL encryption, and increase
storage capacity to 3 gigabytes. For a one-time fee of $99, CollectiveX
will “white label” your network, which basically entails just dropping
your own graphic into the header and importing members from another
which runs on top of software called SNAPP, is the MySpace of white
label social networking platforms (and I mean that derogatorily). The
idea, as with Ning, is to set up a network in a minimal number of
steps. However, each of Me.com’s themes is an eyesore and, worse, the
organization of elements throughout the default network is horrible. If
you like this MySpace approach to user interface design, then you’ll be
right at home. I, for one, get a headache just looking at the thing.
considerations aside, Me.com provides an abundance of features,
although many of them are poorly implemented. The audio and video
sections, for example, don’t support file uploads; you actually have to
record the media directly into the browser using a webcam or similar
The most bizarre feature is the cars section in which you can
actually list the cars you own/once owned/want to own/dream about, etc.
Criticisms aside, Me.com does integrate a pretty slick chat applet into
each network and the same can’t be said for most of the other platforms.
Network packages on Me.com come in three flavors, which are conveniently compared to one another in a features chart.
The biggest differences, of course, are between the free, ad-supported
package and the other two. For a minimum (!) of $199 per month,
affiliates can control advertising, customize their URL, and implement
basic site branding (color schemes, logos, etc.).
Broadband Mechanics’ PeopleAggregator
is an experiment in building social networks around open standards so
that people can easily move between networks, whether or not those
networks are run by the same owners or contain the same features. If
the social networking world were run the way Broadband Mechanics’ CEO Marc Canter
envisions, Facebook users would easily be able to carry their identity
(including all the information they owned on Facebook) over to MySpace,
Orkut, and Friendster. Then any changes to their identities on those
networks could be brought back over to Facebook.
a model for this sort of interoperability, PeopleAggregator (which
comes in both hosted and downloadable versions) implements the OpenID authentication system
and strives to support all open standard identity schemes. Broadband
Mechanics also provides an API that is meant to enable the import and
export of data to or from a PeopleAggregator network. As a long run
strategy, the company entreats web service providers to embrace open
standards that facilitate interfacing between social networks and
non-social networks such as Google Calendar, YouTube, and Yahoo
years from now, we may look back on PeopleAggregator and consider it a
pioneering product. However, in its present condition the platform is
clunky and unsatisfying. Others seem to agree: the largest network on
PeopleAggregator, Poker Players Alliance, with 499 members gave up on PeopleAggregator and moved its operations to an old school, phpBB forum.
PeopleAggregator could be improved in a number of obvious ways. For
starters, the company could and should promptly clean up the platform’s
which is littered with nonsensical text that doesn’t exactly create
sellar a first impression. More substantially, the company ought to
allow for at least some management of advertisements and to permit more
control over the structure and styling of networks. Unless you are
banking on open standards as the way of the future, there’s not much
for you here.
Haystack, a Cerado
product, is a social networking utility that is even more stripped down
than CrowdVine. Networks (or “haystacks”) built on this platform are
very simple, both visually and functionally. The main features consist
only of profiles and group blogging.
are so plain because their intention is fundamentally different from
those of most social networks. While we generally think of social
networks as ways for people to interact with one another within a
network, haystacks are more outwardly focused as they are meant to
provide visitors with detailed information about people in a particular
organization. According to Christopher Carfi
of Cerado, the initial idea for Haystack was to enable organizations,
and particularly businesses, to present interactive information about
externally-facing individuals (such as those in sales and support).
CrowdVine, Haystack makes good use of tagging as a way to find people
according to criteria. Members across all hosted haystacks can search
for each other by the tags they have assigned to themselves, and there
is even a handy Google Maps integration that shows you where the people
in your search results are located across the globe.
Recognizing that the default haystack layout may cramp some people’s
styles, Cerado provides an API that can be used by developers to take
advantage of the haystack data structure and create applications on
one’s own sites.
ONEsite, a subsidiary of the hosting company Catalog.com,
provides a hybrid social networking/website hosting solution. They
allow you to mask your social network’s URL so that it meshes with an
existing website, but they won’t offer you their free social networking
solution unless you buy a domain with them. In the limited time of this
study, we weren’t able to set up a network of our own.
the showcased networks, however, gives one the sense that ONEsite’s
platform is not half bad. Some of the networks (such as the CEO’s Crull Zone) follow a standard, ONEsite template with simple customizations while others (such as iVillage connect)
are more fully integrated into existing websites. However, it is
unclear whether the more fully customized networks are designed by the
ONEsite team under the expensive, $2,500-per-month Enterprise package
or created by affiliates themselves with ready-made tools. I suspect
that the former is the case.
Regardless of the platform’s quality, ONEsite’s offerings are
steeply priced and their user limits are a bit draconian. The free
offering only permits 100 users on your network, the $30-per-month
offering permits 1,000, and the $200-per-month offering permits 10,000.
I suppose no one is really intending to build the next MySpace on this
platform, but from a cost point of view, the difference between 100 and
10,000 users for ONEsite is probably near nothing.
If you have created a network with ONEsite, please let us know about your experience with them in the comments.
Originally Published @ TechCrunch