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Wandering vs Leading

When you start a new project, you can find yourself on any point on the following spectrum: on the far left, there is wondering, and on the far right, there is going straight at a target.

When you are wondering, you don’t know where you want to go. You don’t have a destination. You try this; you try that, your ideas keep shifting, the way you talk about the project keeps shifting, your questions change.

You have this niggling feeling that you want to do something, but you cannot easily articulate what it is. And so you open your senses up for exploration until you discover what you clearly like and you dislike. And a vision starts to emerge. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you know where you are going. You have a map, a plan, and a guide you can call in case of trouble. You are super focused at this stage, your thinking is crystal clear, and your ideas are very stable. You know what is a distraction and what will move you along the path. 

Where are you on this spectrum? 

The way I see it, artists tend to be on the far left side. And they are comfortable in that space of exploration, of the unknown, of continually shifting ideas. It is a place where you are focused on self-discovery, on looking inside to uncover what that niggling feeling is about. 

On the far right side, you find the manager who cares only about the mission, about getting there as effectively as possible. The focus is no longer inwards because the vision is clear. The focus is on the team, on the project, and on being of service. 

In the middle of this spectrum is a place where you have found your vision, so you know where you are going, but you haven’t mapped out the road yet. 

I feel extremely uncomfortable on the left side, the wandering side, where you need to face “not knowing,” making mistakes, and “wasting time.”

I am used to being an A student, which means always having the “right answers” and not making mistakes. 

Being on the extreme right, where you are the manager and just executing the plan, feels more comfortable, but it can also be a place to hide. There is little risk involved. There are little unknowns. And if you fail, you can blame the map or the plan. 

As you move towards the left, things become more and more uncertain and risky. It’s a place fit for adventures—those who are OK with going into dead-ends and having to backtrack and try again. 

No point on this spectrum is better than the others. You can subjectively feel differently about it, as I don’t enjoy the wandering around part, but a project goes through all the phases.

Getting stuck is the problem.

You could wander forever and look busy in your constat search, but how will you sustain that? How will you take care of your family? Or how will you bring positive contributions to your communities?

You can also get stuck in the middle, looking for the “perfect plan” and trying to avoid mistakes. 

The best way to make sure you are making progress is to base your “why” on the good of a larger community. To try to find out how your endeavors will help others, not just you. And then, maybe, you can seamlessly move from crystallizing your vision to efficient execution.

So I ask you again: where are you on the spectrum? And are you making progress, or are you hiding in your favorite place? 🙂 

(credit: ideas inspired by Jonathan Stark – The Business of Authority )

phpfox - spiritual community software

Is “phpFox” a good option for a Spiritual Community?

“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.

Business

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.

User Experience 

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.

Community Building

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. 

Engagement

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.

Conclusion

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.

Choosing a software platform for a Spiritual Community

Building your community on the wrong platform is very costly. So it pays to do some research and make an informed decision.

This post aims to create a comprehensive list of items to consider when you shop around for a software platform for a spiritual community. 

The Specific Needs of a Spiritual Community

Apart from the generic online community requirements, a spiritual community has a few specific characteristics:

  • It needs to provide a space for in-depth communication and exploration. This means a clear, distraction-free interface. It should allow composing long essays if needed and have text formatting capabilities to help with the longer posts’ readability. In other words, it needs to encourage deep thought and make it easy to express that.
  • It needs a good way to track and come back to a discussion maybe months later if there are new insights or new posts on that topic.
  • It needs to be beautiful – while this is a very subjective criterion, you can look for good design, harmonious color palettes that make the pages aesthetically pleasing.
  •  The interface needs to be user-friendly. As intuitive as possible, with a straightforward mobile design and no jarring or unexpected changes or updates. 
  • It should allow for more detailed profile pages for the members. On that page, individuals can show their personality, interests, and story and connect with other members one-on-one.
  • Take into account the privacy concerns: who is ultimately the owner of the data shared by your members. (Hint: if you use a social network for this, the network is the owner)
  • The technology providers that enable the community need to be integrity.

With that in mind – let’s jump to the list of requirements.

Comprehensive list of requirements for a Spiritual Community Software Platform

Since the list is so long, I have divided it further into subsections.

 

Business Requirements

  1.  Support for paid membership – not only does this keep out trolls and energy vampires, but it provides a way for the members to support the community back and make it sustainable.
  2.  Basic Content Management System – allows you to create public pages that explain what your community is about. These can be very focused landing pages or a blog.
  3. Privacy concerns – do you care who stores and who owns the data that your users create? There are three camps here: self-hosted solution: you store, and you own everything. Hosted solution: the platform provider stores the data, but you own it. And social media: they store it, and they own it, and you are a guest there. The choice here is straightforward: if you have an able developer on your team, then self-hosted makes sense because you will handle any maintenance in house. If not, go with a hosted solution. If you go with self-hosted and don’t have a developer, the maintenance costs are likely to burry you. 
  4. Does it have an API for integrations – this is optional for more basic communities but a must-have for larger ones that will require more automation to manage. An API allows you to extend what the platform can do by integrating it with other services like email automation, learning management systems, automatic zoom call registrations, etc. Think Zapier. 
  5. Server Requirements – if you buy a self-hosted platform, then you’d better have a tech person in your team who can figure this out. Else you might buy something that you cannot use, or the server’s costs required to run it are too high for you.
  6. What is the maintenance cost – if you have to hire a developer to maintain the platform, that will quickly become your highest cost. Keep this in mind if you are contemplating a free, self-hosted community software. It can get you started with no fees up-front, but when you need help (and you will!), it will be challenging to find someone trustworthy and pay them to update the software or fix the problem. Because of this, I now recommend to anyone who is non-technical to choose a paid hosted solution, where someone else keeps things running smoothly. Maintenance and free vs. paid is a complicated discussion; drop me a line if you’d like to hop on a call. 
  7. Can you do backup easily (or export the content) – if you plan to build a business around this community, backups are the best insurance policy against data loss or hacking. Even with hosted services, those who claim they have “internal backups” do not trust that. Ask how you can do your own backups that you can save on your computer. I cannot stress how important this is in the case of a business. It also prevents “lock-in” to that specific platform. Content that you can export, you can later import elsewhere with some help. 
  8. Google Analytics Integration – as a business, you need to track what works and what doesn’t. The platform may offer its Analytics tools, but that may not be enough.

 

User Experience

  1. Web Push Notifications – this is a technical term that simply means getting notified on your phone or your computer browser that there are updates in the community. It is not a must-have, but it helps with engagement and real-time events where it is important to be there on time.
  2. Easy Registration with Facebook or Google – this goes to the user experience side of things. If they can log in with an already existing account, it means one less password to remember. This choice does create some privacy issues if you connect via a third party provided (like Facebook or Google), but that may not be important to some of your users. You should always keep the alternative of a simple direct sign-up.
  3. Accessibility – can people with disabilities use the platform effectively? 
  4. Bookmark system – allows users to save in their profile posts or other locations of interest.
  5. How is the onboarding experience – can you direct users at first login to a particular page with tutorials? Is there a good help system? Are there pointers around the interface to help the new users find their way around? This feature is more of a “premium” option, but it could help members move from trial to paid.
  6. Notification Center; do you need Facebook like notifications in the top-right corner? They enable your membership to stay on top of important updates.
  7. Rich text editor for posts – specifically for spiritual communities, to allow for long and thoughtful responses. You should also be able to quote or partially quote a previous post that you are responding to.
  8. Does it work on Mobile – this is a must. The platform needs to be optimized for Mobile, not just “barely work.” At the moment of writing, in the communities I have access to, 60% of users are from Mobile, and that number will continue to grow.
  9. Dedicated Mobile App – you don’t need to worry about this unless the performance is an issue or mobile notifications, or you have a need to integrate with the device sensors to create some kind of customized experience, like a meditation space or mindfulness reminders. This feature is highly advanced and not something most communities care about. 

 

Community Building

  1. Private Messages – allows for one-on-one exchanges between members who want to connect and share details that would not make sense to post in the open community.
  2. Profile Pages for users – this would be the user’s personal space inside the community to showcase their interest and make connections with other individuals. As a bonus, this page can also list the person’s activity for anyone interested to find their posts and updates.
  3. Activity Feeds – they provide a quick look at what is currently happening on the platform. 
  4. Media upload support for images, audio, and possibly video – sometimes a picture says it best. So the platform should be able to handle media uploads as smoothly as possible. I would be cautious with video uploads, as they use up both disk space and bandwidth. (Depending on your needs, it may be best to share video via unlisted YouTube links).
  5. Calendar – useful to help the community stay in sync with regular updates or live calls. Make sure it works well on mobile devices too.
  6. Moderation tools – you need to issue warnings and eventually remove bad actors from the community. Moderation tools are a must. And anything except tiny communities needs to have a “report” button that alerts the staff that needs attention. 
  7. The Back end is important too – for large communities, you need to monitor what is going on, not only in terms of content and activities but also in server resources.
  8. The support system;  for large communities, you may need a ticket system or a chatbot to help with common problems.

 

Engagement

  1. Reactions to posts – it’s always nice to receive and send gratitude. At the minimum, it should have a “Thanks button.”
  2. Emoji support – should be a non-issue with modern software, but worth checking.
  3. Good search capability – this is very hard to do. It is not essential initially, but as the community grows, it is more and more relevant. Since this is such a challenging problem, I will give a pass to any software with a basic searching capability that works. If a “good search” is a must, you will spend extra resources to connect with services like Elastic Search that can help you out.
  4. Tagging support for users – this becomes super useful as the platform grows, and it is difficult for one member to keep track of everything. It allows other members to say, “Hey, you, your attention is invited here!” 
  5. Hashtags – are useful for large communities. Allows members to categories the topics, easily find them later, or follow a specific tag like “#manifestation” and get notified when someone posts something like that.
  6. Email Notification Settings – each individual has a different preference for how much incoming email they like. The platform should allow some granular configuration of that. A simple On/Off switch is the bare minimum, but ideally, multiple switches are best: for new replies, being tagged, daily digest, and so on.
  7. Mass Emailing capability: This is very important for announcements, reminders, and event invitations. It is different from, say, a reply notification because you need to email everyone at once, not just one or two members. You can solve this problem with dedicated email services like AWeber, but you need to make sure it is easy to integrate that service.
  8. Instant chat options – instant chat messaging is not an easy problem to solve. A bad experience will make the feature useless, but a good one does require a lot of technical expertise to get it right. You will need to figure out if this is something that your community wants and if you can add it later. Some hosted solutions provide this feature for you. 
  9. Member blogs or personal pages – does it make sense for your community for users to create their own space inside it?
  10. Gamification – I am adding this here for completeness – but I find that for spiritual communities this is not helping with engagement. Creating connections is much better than playing a game.

 

Learning and training

  1. Content Library – it makes sense for a spiritual community to have access to a private library of books, audio or video recordings, and other materials. Another thing to consider here is if only the staff updates the library or if the users can also contribute. 
  2. Sub-Groups within the community – this is incredibly useful for study-groups or accountability-groups. It allows a handful of members to make the journey together and have each other’s backs, isolated from the community’s entire buzz, and not generating buzz themselves that other people don’t care about. Used wisely, these sub-groups can bring the community together. 

 

Customization and Extensibility

  1. Theme Customization – it is best if you like the platform as it is—fewer costs for you and zero chance of messing up the colors. However, sometimes brand colors are essential, so in that case, you need to make sure the platform allows for that.
  2. Feature customization and extensibility – this can turn “mission-critical” later on. If you discover that you need specific functionality, can you easily add it? Can you buy a plugin? Can you hire a developer to write the code? The online environment is in constant change. I would recommend that the platform be either extensible through plugins or have a developer in your team help you out. Changing the software can cost you a lot of money and a drop in membership. So it pays to be able to make incremental updates to your system. 

How to Use this list

Likely, you don’t need all the features, but it pays to be aware of them. The way to use this list is to extract the features you need and sort them by priority before you shop around for a community building software. The sorted list will make the choice process much more comfortable!

Caution about free software

Free software has zero money costs upfront, and it is very tempting to start that way. You could use it as a test pilot, but as soon as you see it working, you need to either move to a paid platform that includes updates and maintenance or look for a developer that can do that for you. Do not wait until an emergency shows up, or your costs will skyrocket, and the choice of “free” might cost you the community. 

Do you still need help?

Let’s talk and find out what you need. 

Building a learning community website

The Challenge

Build a learning community website with the following requirements: 

  • subscription-based (behind a paywall)
  • forum for discussion
  • library with classes and materials
  • live calls with the students and the teachers
  • newsletter 
  • easy to use for both the young and older audiences 
  • accessible 

The solution

– base platform: Joomla!. In my experience, it is more secure than WordPress. It is component-based, which to me, makes more sense when you want to build a platform. Also, because it is component-based, it can be faster than WordPress that has to load all the plugins all the time.

– for the forum, I’ve used Kunena. I cannot say I like it a lot, but it was the natural choice for a Joomla! based platform. The interface is also common enough to make sense for an older audience. I have considered using Discourse, but it failed for the accessibility requirement.

– DocMan was the choice to manage our document library. The good part is that it can protect documents from being publicly accessible. The bad part: it feels clunky to navigate on the front end, and for some reason, the download feature is not working correctly on iPhones (but that could be Apple’s fault)

– after trying a couple of things, Zoom is the clear winner and choice for the Video Live Call that we have at least once a month.

– for the newsletter, the AcyMailing component is the professional choice. I like the flexibility of it better than MailChimp, and we get to have all the data. The challenge here was that our server is not doing well with email deliverability, so we did have to get an external mailing service like Mandrill (from MailChimp) to plug into this component. A big lesson learned here: if email deliverability is important to you and your users go PRO with a paid service. It will save you a lot of pain and headache. And in the long run, it may actually save you money by simply providing a reliable experience for your userbase. 

– ease of use was accomplished with custom modifications for the mobile version and by using a user experience that most people are accustomed to. For example, I have discovered that Discourse tends to not make sense for people used to the older forum software.

– accessibility meant we could not use Discourse. And to also consider a high contrast theme for specific users.

– for handling the subscriptions, I have used Community Builder and their CB Subs plugin. I cannot say I love it, but after a lot of customization work, it does the job right and reliably.

Add-ons and Customizations

– added a calendar to help better organize events in the community. DPCalendar does a great job with this.

– added a private messaging system – Udeimm – the code base is super old, and it tries to maintain backward compatibility with older Joomla! software. But it works. And with some custom work, it works very well. I like the fact that it integrates with CB and Kunena. (Oopsy… looks like development for this component has ended. Which is a shame. It was the best PM solution for Joomla!)

– for the forum, I had to code it a tagging system to allow users to tag each other using the @username system. This increases engagement and makes it easier for the users to let each other know if there is something of interest on the forum

– I have installed JChatSocial – it was a “cool thing” in the beginning, but I don’t see it as a popular feature. Also, it is not accessible, and the developers do not plan to make it so. With this plugin, I also have some performance concerns. I don’t think it can work for large communities. 

– added a custom made notification system to make it easier for a user to know when something important is happening: like an event, or announcement or someone tagging them or sending them a private message

– added web push notifications (for those that use Android or the desktop) – allows for better engagement and for users to more quickly respond to what is happening on the platform

– added a custom Joomla component to allow users to track their progress through the material on the website: the classes, the events, and assigned homework

Why a custom build? 

If I were to start again today, I would probably look for a platform that has all my requirements built in. I would also consider a hosted service. This would free me up from having to maintain, update, and secure the software. And I could use the free time to engage in other community-building activities. 

However, I am a nerd at heart, so I would miss the flexibility that I currently have to get my hands dirty and customize the entire experience in the way that I or our users like it. Because of this, the platform has grown and adapted to our users instead of forcing the users to adapt to a “ready-made” solution. 

This is a choice that I constantly have to make: do I want to be “the developer” or “the manager.” The developer can feel more rewarding as it appeals to my coding skills. But the manager is enticing too as get to focus more on the human aspect of it, and less on the technical side. 

I will conclude that I am proud of what I have built for WalkWithMeNow.com. 🙂