Create Your Own Social Network

According to comScore, social networking sites reach 82 percent of the world's online population, which represents 1.2 billion users across the globe. And Nielsen claims that nearly 23 percent of time spent online involves social sites - making it obvious why today's small businesses must maintain a presence through social media channels.

But instead of - or in addition to - relying on the usual suspects such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr and Pinterest, to name a few, why not start your own online community so that your niche audience can communicate directly with each other and with your brand? There are numerous ways that a small business can create and launch its own customizable social network, including the following five options:

Ning: Well-established platform Ning enables users to engage and grow an online community. Business owners can start designing their sites by choosing a theme and utilizing one of more than 80 design settings, and design professionals also have the ability to customize the design via CSS. The platform integrates with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube so that users can maximize their audience reach. Additional extensions provide users with extra social functionality such as live video streaming, photo editing and email marketing, and businesses can collect revenue through memberships, donations, premium groups and content, advertising or selling branded merchandise. Ning offers a 30-day free trial, as well as a limited Mini plan for $2.95 per month, an advanced Plus plan for $24.95 per month, or a scalable Pro plan for $59.95 a month. enables its users to create a niche social network such as a photo- or video-sharing site, a fan club or hobby community. The easy-to-use platform utilizes drag and drop functionality to provide users with the ability to add features such as groups, events, video-conferencing, blogs, forums, comments or ratings. The open-source platform also offers a variety of free themes and allows users more control over and the ability to move their social networks at any time. Pricing starts out free for an ad-supported option and ranges from $10 to $150 per month for additional features such as more disk space and bandwidth.

SocialGO: This platform features customizable design options while enabling businesses to use their own domains, create an unlimited number of pages, publish blogs and incorporate activity streams and real-time chat functionalities. SocialGO also helps its users create a stronger connection with their audiences by collecting information from new members, including email addresses and social profiles. Users can try SocialGO free for 14 days, and then choose between the Premium plan for $29.99 per month or the Concierge plan for $99.99 a month - which comes with additional features such as custom design, premium support and best-practice advice.

BuddyPress: BuddyPress provides its users with everything they need to start their own self-hosted WordPress-powered social network. Features include the ability to add activity streams, user groups, multisite blogging, extended profiles, discussion forums, private messaging, as well as providing a user's audience to make friend connections and customize their settings. Because it is a WordPress plugin, users can build or use other plugins to extend or run alongside BuddyPress. Another great aspect of the platform is that users have the option to turn off features.

JomSocial: This Joomla-based platform enables users to build social networks and community websites with collaboration tools and Facebook-like features. The solution provides more than 300 JomSocial add-ons and access to 7,000 Joomla extensions. JomSocial also enables users to share photos and videos from popular providers such as YouTube and Vimeo. JomSocial is used by more than 150,000 users including gamers, health-enthusiasts, rock bands, Web entrepreneurs, students and more. Solutions start at $99 for the Standard level, rise to $149 for Professional level, and go up to $499 for the Unlimited package that provides support for unlimited domains and subdomains.