“phpFox is a powerful social network platform for niche communities.”
The above value statement from their site is an excellent start, but is it good for a spiritual community?!
I will review this software, keeping in mind the criteria from here: Choosing a software platform for a Spiritual Community.
1. Paid Membership – The list of features claims that they can indeed have a paid membership on the website, Even working alongside a free tier. Unfortunately, their DEMO back end does not seem to work. You can set up a paid membership, but it still shows a free tier when you save. This problem is a bit upsetting, and you would need to clear it up with them before buying this software.
2. Basic CMS – I could not find one, but you can create “Pages” like the ones on Facebook that could be used to promote the platform to the public.
3. Privacy Concerns – phpFox is a self-hosted solution, so you get to keep all the data that your community generates.
4. API – Yes. There is a restful API (but only with the PRO and ULTIMATE plans.)
5. Server Requirements – It was difficult to find this, but I did. It requires PHP 5.6 with at least 128MB memory limit. However, they recommend PHP 7.x. And if you want to use the instant messaging app, your server also needs to support Redis Cache and NodeJS. To get an idea of what kind of hosting you would need, check out their hosting services offer.
6. Maintenance Costs – If you have a tech person on your team, it should be easy to follow the documentation to install and maintain the software. If not, in the best-case scenario, you would need to pay a one-time $30 installation fee, and then you should be able to update the platform from the back end when needed easily. Unfortunately, things may go wrong, so you will need to call support to help you out. With their PRO plan, you get a “60-day ticket support.” If that means you need to wait 60 days for your ticket to be updated, that is useless to me. If it means that after 60 days, you no longer receive support, that could work because you can buy other support packages later on. I see on their support policy page that they have a 1-day response policy—very confusing messaging. My personal feeling is that support is not all that good. There are a lot of roadblocks that you need to go through to post a ticket. In my mind, a paying customer needs to be able to ask for support at any time. However, phpFox is a self-hosted software, so it may be targeted towards those who are comfortable doing that. I will end this discussion by pointing out that you need to include your hosting costs and backup storage hosts. If you expect your community to grow, so will the hosting cost.
7. Can you do backup easily – Backup and restore is included only with PRO and ULTIMATE. On the features page, I can see this comment: “The site will be put into maintenance mode while the backup is in the process.” This downtime can be troublesome if the backup takes too long. It may be “good enough” if you are not a technical person, and some backup is way, way better than no backup. But for a social network to be placed in maintenance mode while a backup is running, it could mean killing the engagement. I know backing up is a resource-intensive process, and data integrity is an issue, so I understand why they use “maintenance mode.” But there are other ways to do the backup, using a mirroring system for your database server and files. With this approach, you could do regular backups without having to take your community offline. You have to decide how important it is to you to now stop the community from running.
8. Google Analytics – You can do this according to their documentation by creating an “Ad Block” where you paste in the code from Google. I understand why they did it like this, to reuse a code that’s already there. Still, from a user experience point of view, I would not have thought to use “Ads” to place the Google tracking code on my site. However, the documentation is clear, so I’ll give them a pass.
9. WebPush Notifications – I was not able to find any documentation that this is supported. They do have Mobile App, where I am sure this works, but I wondered if it would be an option in the browser experience. Since iOS is still not on board with this technology, you are not missing all that much.
10. Easy Sing-Up with Google or Facebook – Yes.
11. Accessibility – They don’t seem to have a concern for this. I could not find any mentions on their website or in the documentation. The software may very well be accessible, but if it is, it’s not explicitly stated.
12. Bookmark system – I could not find one. Most users can work around it by using a note-taking app or their browser’s bookmark system. Not ideal, but not a big problem either. Also, this can likely be implemented with a custom app.
13. How is the onboarding experience – There were no tutorials, but the layout is clear enough that most people should find their way around. It would be nice to send the users who login for the first time to a specific page with tutorials.
14. Notification Center – Yes.
15. Rich text editor for posts – Yes. There is a good one. It looks a bit unpolished, but otherwise, it does the job.
16. Does it work on Mobile – Yes, it does. And I am pleasantly surprised with the responsiveness of the site. I have to keep in mind that I am the only one using the demo, so I don’t know how it performs when 50, 100, 500 people use the app at once.
17. Dedicated Mobile App – Yes, according to docs. I did not test it. I have tried to download it, but it failed a couple of times. I see in the reviews some complaints about performance, and I worry about that too.
18. Private Messages – Yes.
19. Profile Pages for users – Yes.
20. Activity Feeds – Yes.
21. Media Upload – Yes.
22. Calendar – There is an Events screen that works just as well as a Calendar.
23. Moderation Tools – There are some anti-spam tools; you can block a user. And there is a reporting feature that you could use. Yes.
24. The Back End – Here, I was a bit disappointed. The Front End looks very polished, but the back end is lacking in that area. The demo site was kinds of sluggish. It takes a long time for pages to load. I tried to update some apps/plugins, and that did not do anything. Some of these features may be disabled on the demo. What was missing from the back, and I think it is pretty important, was a page to monitor the server and look at your community’s stats. There is a “Site Statistics” page, but that is super basic with only four counters and a daily average. For large communities, you need charts that track items through time, and you also need to be able to dig deeper if needed. At least for the ULTIMATE tier, this should be an option.
26. Reactions to post – Yes.
27. Emoji support – Yes.
28. Search Capability – Yes. It has a search across the entire network and specifically on the forums. The forum’s search can be finetuned to narrow down the search. The results were pretty fast too, but again, the test site barely has any content, so it is not that relevant as a test.
29. Tagging Users – Partial support. I was able to use it on the activity page, but not on the forum.
30. Hashtags – Yes.
31. Email Notification Settings – Yes.
32. Mass Mailing Capability – I could not find any built-in mass email capability. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Sending emails reliably is a complex problem just by itself. I could find a custom integration with MailChimp, which suggests that it is possible to integrate with other newsletter services or CRMs.
33. Instant Chat option – Yes, but it seems to it requires some specific server capabilities: Redis Cache and NodeJS. This requirement is not surprising. Useful chat tools are challenging to write, so it makes sense that some special tools be required.
34. Member Blogs on Personal Pages – Yes.
35. Gamification – Yes, but it seems to be very basic. You can likely extend it with custom code.
Learning and Training
36. Content Libray – It does not have one, but I can see being able to create something using the blogs, pages, groups.
37. Sub-Groups – Yes. This feature can be a big plus if your community gets large enough. It looks advanced enough to make it very useful in creating and managing sub-communities.
Customization and Extensibility
38. Theme Customization – Yes. You can buy themes and, according to the documentation, you can create your own. The code is not encrypted, so in theory, you can change it as you want. Not sure if that will break the update system or not.
39. Feature Customization and Extensibility – Yes. There is an API you can integrate with. There are a plugin system and store where you can buy plugins. The code is not encrypted and written in PHP, so you could hire someone to help you out if needed.
At first, the pricing seemed too high. But after having reviewed the platform, I see that there a lot is going on. A social media platform is a complex software that needs to feel exceptionally smooth for people to engage with it.
I don’t think this is the right choice for a free community, because you will never cover the costs. But if you are making money with your membership, phpFox is a strong contender. It will keep your users happy, and it has many tools to keep them engaged and encourage collaboration.
My main concern with this tool is performance. I did not see any big issues with the test site, but that is not relevant. I want to test a community with hundreds of members and 2-3 years’ worth of content and see how fast it moves. A small community does not justify the costs, so high performance with a large community is a must.
The Support page also has the attitude of: “We don’t want to be bothered with support.” From a developer’s point of view, I get that, but if the end-user does not feel that someone will be there for them in case of trouble, they may not want to buy.
Another concern that I have is with the English language they use. In many places, it feels off. They are US-based company, so I don’t understand why this happens.
Also, in the back end demo, many things don’t work, making me nervous. I would have to check with pre-sales before making a purchasing decision.
The self-hosted part is good because you own all the data, and if you have a tech person on the team, it makes business sense. But this is not for everyone. Taking care of software by yourself is not easy, especially with the ever-changing ecosystem.
I would personally use phpFox. Because of my developer background, I am confident I will not get in any “disaster situation” where I risk losing all my good work. But before making the purchase, I’d like to see some evidence of high-performance when powering a community with, say, 200-300 members.