I run a professional community of travel bloggers, vloggers, and influencers and we have a private Facebook group for members. I originally created the FB group as an afterthought — a simple way for members to communicate with each other and for me to communicate with them outside of e-mail (as to not blow up their Inboxes constantly) — however it's since turned into one of the most valuable and engaged parts of the community. For that reason, I'd like to take it off Facebook.
Pros to running a FB Group:
- Most of my members are already on Facebook, so it's easy to facilitate, as opposed to having them join a new membership website, create a new username/password, download a new app, etc.
- The technology is fantastic. To replicate the functionality, speed, and ease of using FB Groups in a different app is very costly I've been learning. It's a great free tool for organizing groups — technologically speaking.
- It's easy to engage with FB Groups because it's part of your normal Facebook browsing habits. No having to check a separate app; the group is part of your every day social media experience. Which can be a blessing and a curse.
Cons of running a FB Group:
- Facebook controls my engagement. Inactive groups get pushed to the bottom of the algorithm and don't get the same visibility as more active groups within News Feeds. This is a problem for me because I'm not a fan of bullshit for the sake of engagement. I see it in other groups, but you'll never see me ask questions like, “What are you working on today?” or “What's your favorite part about blogging?”. Those are low hanging discussion questions asked purely for engagement and they don't add much value to the conversation. I'm of the opinion, especially with a professional network, that less is more. I'd rather have LESS higher level conversations than daily fluff for the sake of engagement. This, however, is contrary to winning Facebook's algorithm.
- There's a segment of my professional network who are NOT on Facebook, another portion of folks who have left or are leaving, and another segment who are just inactive. (Like me with Instagram. I have the account still, but never login.) Why should my community be tied to the rise and fall of popularity of Facebook? We're on the up and up, whereas Facebook fights a new privacy/brand/reputation battle every week. I'm not saying with certainty that FB is going anywhere anytime soon, but why wait for it to sink? The handwriting is on the wall that changes are brewing with our relationship with social media as a society — Facebook on the obvious forefront of that change. The trend being that people / families / communities would rather be more closely connected to each other, than loosely connected with everyone. I see the trend happening even with my friends and family who use apps like PhotoCircle to share family photos instead of Facebook or Instagram. Being able to connect with the entire world isn't a novelty anymore, it's an expectation, and the new currency has become the ability to connect with those who you want to connect with and filter out the rest of the noise. Privacy, uncensored communication, and personal closed networks are the future.
- Facebook controls what I can post in my own group. For example, last week we started a thread of Black Friday deals, sharing deals on products and services we found that may benefit other members. Well, Facebook blocked us from sharing certain links because “This websites goes against our Community Standards.” And these links were to credible companies. But that's just one example. I've been blocked several times from sharing links to particular websites in my own group, or blocked for including TOO many links in one post, or if not blocked entirely, Facebook just doesn't show the post to anyone so it gets no views or engagement. And what's crazy is that I don't even push the needle in regards to the type of content I post. I run a strictly professional network of travel bloggers. We're not some radical political group, but we still get blocked and censored to conform to a set of ever changing “community standards” that aren't transparent and no-one can keep up with, and there's no-one to ask about them. It's my community, I should be the one to set the community standards.
- It's easy to engage with FB Groups because it's part of your normal Facebook browsing habits. No having to check a separate app; the group is part of your every day social media experience. Which can be a blessing and a curse. LOL, as you can see I include the exact same thing as a CON that I did as a PRO above. So as much of a benefit as it can be for easy engagement, I might lose just as much engagement on the flipside of the coin from members being distracted by Facebook notifications while they're in the group. It's MY group, and even I can't finish writing a single post in it without opening FB in a new tab and doing other things at the same time.
- Facebook's algorithm pushes older posts into no man's land regardless of how valuable they are. I know you can set some as Announcements to keep them up at the top, but in general, they lack in this department. There's not really a great way to organize, prioritize, or link back to your most valuable posts. Their search functions leave a lot to be desired too.
Why I personally want to move my group forum off Facebook Groups
Above are some general pros and cons that most people can probably relate to who run Facebook groups, but I also want to mention a few personal reasons in addition to the cons above that I feel like it's a good move for my community.
- First is from an authority standpoint, I don't want to be just another FB Group competing against other similar groups for your attention and engagement. Fuck, I mean, Facebook even PROMOTES those groups WITHIN my group on their platform as suggested groups!
- We are a strong enough community at this point (650+ members) that I believe we can survive on our own as a resource and community without the benefit of already being on Facebook. I couldn't say this from day one of course, but 2+ years later, I believe that we are there.
- Continuing the topic of authority, I think that having a separately run forum and branded app would separate our community from the rest. There's no barrier of entry to starting a FB group — which is a good and a bad thing — but I feel like as community, we've grown past “zero barriers of entry” as a big perk. We're engaged enough that members will sign up, create a profile, and install an app to continue growing the community. Even if only 30% make the transition, a little streamlining of the group down to it's most involved members isn't always a bad thing. I'm okay with taking a couple step backs in terms of membership before taking my next ten steps forward. I'm okay with the group shrinking to 200 members before it grows to the next 1000.
All that being said, you can only expect people to go through so many growing pains with you as you migrate a community to its own platform. It's not like every 3 months I can be like “Now we're on this app.” and expect everyone to make the transition again with me. That's why it's so important to choose a great solution that suits my needs today and also offers flexibility and scalability to grow into in the future.
Here's what I'm looking for in a Facebook Group replacement:
White label social networks and community forum services I've discovered to replace Facebook Groups
I know that I'm asking for a lot, especially as an out-of-box SaaS, but for some reason I assumed that there was a big enough need for it that everything I wanted would be available. Turns out not quite. I do believe that there is a need for this, but it's a growing need, and the solutions are still forming.
Below are my notes about each potential solution I've found in my search to replace my Facebook Group with it's own platform. Turns out I'm looking for a cross between a “white label social network” and “forums”.
If all else fails, and I can't find a solution that works for my needs, I'll start exploring custom development. First, however, I'd like to break down the capabilities of my existing out of box solutions. By doing so, I'm learning a lot about what I want and don't want.
I initially started these notes as a post in the Conscious Marketing Academy Facebook Group, which I was editing to keep up to date, but the notes got so big that I decided to separate them onto a blog post. Keep in mind when reading below that these are live notes. This isn't a traditional “best Facebook alternative app” blog post that is designed to steer you towards a particular solution. It's just my notes (as this entire blog is just my notes), so don't expect good grammar or a complete breakdown of each app. These are just my personal notes for each app. However you may find some value in reading through them. The apps are listed in no particular order.
I'm disappointed with Disciple Media so far, and it looked the most promising. I installed their Demo App on Android. You can't upload more than one item of media (photo, GIF, video) per post. There aren't nested replies in comments. There's no formatting options for posts (bold, italics, H1, etc). There's no advanced engagement like Like, Love, Dislike, or Upvote/Downvote. The default and only option when you click on an existing Comment (to Reply in my mind) is to “Report Comment”. There isn't any Profiles — only a username and a photo. I was hoping for at least a place to put a description, URL, social links, etc. The app feels like it was skinned by a designer to look like an older version of FB, but it stopped at the design and didn't continue to the functionality. I may be wrong, and this is just their Demo app with limitations, but I can't imagine that they'd leave off critical functionality on their primary demo.
I'm going to check out Mighty Networks next like a couple folks recommended. I'll keep y'all in the loop as I search for a solution. Maybe this thread will save the next person some time in the future.
I wrote Disciple Media my feedback above and they replied back. A few corrections about what i initially thought:
I've corrected the bullet points that we do have the functionality for below:
You can't upload more than one item of media (photo, GIF, video) per post. – This is correct. It is something that we're looking into
There aren't nested replies in comments. – Do you mean threaded comments? If so, you can reply to other peoples comments
There's no formatting options for posts (bold, italics, H1, etc). – This is correct. It isn't something that has been requested so far to be honest
There's no advanced engagement like Like, Love, Dislike, or Upvote/Downvote. – This is correct. Again, something that there hasn't been a need for yet
The default and only option when you click on an existing Comment (to Reply in my mind) is to “Report Comment”. – This is incorrect. You can reply to someone else's comment. It isn't enabled in the demo app yet.
There isn't any Profiles — only a username and a photo. I was hoping for at least a place to put a description, URL, social links, etc. – This is incorrect. You have the ability to add additional user fields to a person's profile that will populate their profile. This is done in the sign up process and you can make these mandatory fields.
PAUL: How much is Disciple?
MOHAMED: Our basic package is $389 a month, billed quarterly. Is that in line with what you are looking for?
PAUL: It is, if the Basic package includes the native iOS and Android apps at that tier. Does it?
MOHAMED: That’s correct, it is native iOS and Android. Capped at 100 members. You can purchase an extra 100 members for an extra $26 a month or 1,000 members for an extra $130 a month or an extra 10,000 members for an extra $650 a month.
PAUL: I see. So with my 700 members, I'd be at $389/month + $130/month for an extra 1000. And I assume when I surpass the 1100 members, I can purchase incrementally at $26/mo or $130/mo as needed? What's NOT included in the Basic plan? Do you have a breakdown of features vs plans you can show me?
Looks like a powerful solution for a web based community, but doesn't offer branded native apps for the iOS or Play stores. Not a solution for me.
This looks powerful but it's beyond my technical skills. It appears to be software that you purchase licenses to, and then you install and go from there. I'm looking for something hosted and managed, so it's not a solution for me. Although it may be something to look into later as a framework if I go down the custom development route.
This looks like a great solution for running an online community except it doesn't offer native apps, so not a solution for me. Perhaps if I end up scrapping the app idea (which I don't want), I revisit this one.
–Native App. Geographic Check-In feature. No pricing listed. I need to look into this one.
–Recommended by a couple folks in the original FB thread.
–I reached out to Mighty Networks. To get the branded native apps that I'm looking for, I'd need their ‘Pro' plan which starts at $30k/year. It's unfortunate because their $47/month ‘Business' plan seemingly offers everything I need in terms of in-app functionality, except that one crucial thing I'm looking for, which is my own native apps. That's a big price jump. Perhaps I'm underestimating how much work/expense goes into publishing native apps, but I'd think that publishing 100s of the same app under different names with a customizable skin would be pretty scalable at this point. I'm going to continue searching for other solutions for now because I'm not ready to give up on my goal of having my own branded native apps, but the $30k/year price tag is overkill for my needs of merely wanting to replicate a FB group.
–Looks like it might be able to handle the job, but the price jump from their Free to their Premium Plan ($799) is pretty substantial and still doesn't included privately branded apps. That's only in their Enterprise plan, which pricing is not listed.
–This looks promising. $24/year + $2/month/member for white label? Maybe I'm misreading that. Based out of Wilmington NC.
–I created a Demo App to see their backend and didn't love it. It wasn't the Facebook-esq style I'm looking for. For example, leaving a comment required a pop-up. There aren't nested replies. The platform doesn't look very sophisticated. And also a little confusing with separate sections for Convos, Bulletins, Forum, Social… those all seem like the same thing for me. Doesn't look like it'll be a fit.
-Hosted white label social network starting at $9/month.
-Doesn't offer native apps.
-Looks good for what it is, but not a solution for me.
–Looks very promising. Offers native apps for iOS, Android, and Web app.
–Starts at $300/month (up to 500 members), $500/month (501-1500 members), up to $1800/month (up to 10k members), then Custom pricing.
–I downloaded their demo ZAP Community App to get a feel for the software. I posted a couple questions within the App and a guy named Jeremy Ross followed up via e-mail with some answers, which is cool. They seem responsive to suggestions, but not everything I'm looking for is in place yet. For example, Jeremy said that multi-photo uploads are coming soon.
–Things I Like: The UI of the app is nice and streamlined. Easy navigation. Native apps. Customizable down to the “Like” button. Hostable on my own domain. Pre-approve members. Moderation capabilities.
–Things I Don't Like: No formatting options for posts. No multiple photos per post (in the works).
This looks like my best option so far. I'll need to demo the admin area and web based version of the software, but the app looks good. I left it installed for a few days and received notifications from other testers trying it out. The notifications looked good and were exactly what I was going for.
Create Your Own Social Network
–Looks like a modular way to build your own social network. No pricing listed.
-This looks simple in a good way. White label branded native messaging apps starting at $259/month.
-However is built mostly as a white label Chat App replacement like WhatsApp or Telegram as opposed to a FB Group alternative. It doesn't have the “Posts” setup I'm looking for. Looks like a great solution for a company wanting an internal chat app though.
-Native iOS and Android mobile apps starting at $57/month for up to 10k users, 50GB Storage, 250GB Bandwidth. I THINK that the native apps are branded as well, but need clarification because their features page is a bit confusing on that one.
-This initially looks impressive for the price. I like their UI. Although I'd want to disable most of what they offer and streamline the navigation even further from what I see in their demo. Will have to come back to this one.
–Built for artists to connect with fans. Doesn't list price. Perhaps it could be used for my needs. Offers native apps.
–Open Source? Offers native apps. Used by 300k sites. It requires self-hosting and your own development to deploy it. Not a solution for me as I'm looking for hosted / managed.
-Lauren Nicole Peters (who also recommended Mighty Networks) recommended this app. Probably not a solution for me as it starts at $25k onboarding.
I have to put this research on hold until 2020, so check back then for updates. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for me, please drop a comment below. I'll update these notes as needed moving forward.