An Investigation of BuddyPress vs Drupal Commons

(I’ve recently posted an update about Bud­dy­Press 1.5. With the 1.5 update, Bud­dy­Press is bet­ter than ever, though Dru­pal Com­mons is still the only choice if you need enterprise-class support.)

Let me start with my soft­ware eval­u­a­tion biases and then a quick sum­mary of why I’m look­ing for a social plat­form, before shar­ing my explo­ration into these two very inno­v­a­tive and inter­est­ing platforms.

My Biases

Soft­ware eval­u­a­tions are irrelevant.

Of course, that’s an inflam­ma­tory state­ment. They’re not irrel­e­vant, but I believe most com­pa­nies do them wrong. In this case I have the ben­e­fit of just pick­ing some­thing and start­ing for my small non-profit. There are no inte­gra­tion require­ments that I’d need to test against, no exist­ing cor­po­rate stan­dards to impede a “best choice” selec­tion, and no exist­ing soft­ware licens­ing I’d be expected to take advan­tage of even if the prod­ucts licensed don’t really meet my needs. In the course of this eval­u­a­tion my require­ments con­densed, but even before that they were truly min­i­mal com­pared to what any large com­pany has to think about.

I don’t believe I can make a wrong deci­sion. Both Word­Press and Dru­pal are enterprise-class sys­tems. Both have robust com­mu­ni­ties that I can turn to for help. Both cost the same. Both are going concerns.

Which means, what I’m really look­ing at are two or three things:

1. Which has the bet­ter out-of-the-box experience?

2. What plu­g­ins are avail­able for any key fea­tures I need? (This made me think again about what key fea­tures I needed. As a result, I stream­lined how I think about pri­or­i­tiz­ing my features/requirements/milestones.)

3. What’s the plat­form “phi­los­o­phy”? How does that align with my phi­los­o­phy around what I’m doing? This is some­thing I’ve always pitched as impor­tant in com­plex cor­po­rate tech­nol­ogy, and didn’t think would mat­ter for my small project. But, at one point the phi­los­o­phy thing really hit me, and sur­pris­ingly changed my mind about my selection.

Why Am I Doing This?

I recently founded Where’s Your Heart? Foun­da­tion, a non-profit meant to improve people’s lives through altru­is­tic liv­ing. What does that mean? Well, you know that good feel­ing you get when you do some­thing? Where’s Your Heart? will spon­sor events that cre­ate that good feel­ing, in ways that nur­ture and mag­nify the feel­ing, and then pro­vide a com­mu­nity to share it. You see, just like a smile, that good feel­ing is con­ta­gious… and it’s impor­tant because it makes us feel good even when we’re not hav­ing such a good day for other reasons.

There’s more, but that’s enough for the pur­pose of this tech­ni­cal comparison.

So, I want to cre­ate an easy to use com­mu­nity around events for peo­ple to con­nect in the spe­cific way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing around event par­tic­i­pa­tion. Acquia wrote a (use­ful) white paper about their tar­get mar­ket for Dru­pal Com­mons, and it fit me quite well in solu­tion intent (though not in tar­get com­pany pro­file). I’m not look­ing to let peo­ple cre­ate their own com­mu­ni­ties (like Face­book, Ning, etc). It was a plus for Acquia that they could express their tar­get mar­ket so clearly, and since it res­onated with me, it gave me a very good feel­ing. And, con­sid­er­ing that there’s not sim­i­lar con­tent around Bud­dy­Press I assumed the worst in terms of align­ment… or worse yet that Bud­dy­Press would try to be every­thing to every­one and just bog down in a morass of being every­thing to everyone.

I ran our first event, Cleanse for Your Cause(™), in Decem­ber. It was very suc­cess­ful, and taught me a lot about what the plat­form needs to do. In par­tic­u­lar, through this process and based on that expe­ri­ence I learned that my key features/strategies are:

1. Donor man­age­ment; effi­cien­cies here max­i­mize the abil­ity to entice par­tic­i­pants and connect

2. Min­i­mal but delight­ful func­tion with respect to “social connectivity”

3. Form over func­tion other than the fea­tures in #2 and pos­si­bly #1 above. I’m sure I could jus­tify this com­ment, but I won’t. Suf­fice it to say, it’s really impor­tant to look pretty and be easy to look pretty.

By the way, as a free­lance con­sul­tant I’m also look­ing beyond Where’s Your Heart’s require­ments for a tool I can get expe­ri­ence with that I could then use on my work with cus­tomers. The fact that peo­ple make their first impres­sion on how some­thing looks makes me want to have a tool that I can make look good easily.

The Eval­u­a­tion

Well, let’s just jump in and start with that last point.


One thing I noticed early on was that I liked the way the Bud­dy­Press sites looked, but not the Dru­pal Com­mons ones. This was con­sis­tent. I kept think­ing… it’s just the themes and the way it’s imple­mented. You can do any­thing with a theme, so try to look deeper at the plat­form to make the “right” deci­sion. It was quite funny. I’d like a Bud­dy­Press site, then remind myself that it didn’t mat­ter. Or, I’d not like a Com­mons site and ratio­nal­ize it in my mind. Either way, I ALWAYS NOTICED before telling myself not to.

Then it hit me. Form over func­tion is crit­i­cal. And, if it’s eas­ier to look pretty with Bud­dy­Press, then that’s what I’m look­ing for.

Think­ing oth­er­wise is a trap, dis­count­ing (as I was) the user expe­ri­ence by think­ing “oh, it’s sim­ple to fix” which is why no one does. If it were that sim­ple, just fix it and be done with it.

By the way, I under­stand the trade-offs made to the theme in Com­mons. They write about it in one of the white papers men­tioned above. How­ever, if is their show­case, I sug­gest some­one pretty it up. It’s noble to show what’s out of the box, but there’s room for both — out of the box, and what can be done. I know that most com­pa­nies feel that form is sec­ondary to func­tion, but at the same time instinc­tively eval­u­ate how some­thing works by how it looks (not dis­sim­i­lar to dating).

My Inves­ti­ga­tion

I started look­ing at Dru­pal first. Really glad I did, but doing so telegraphed (to me) my pref­er­en­tial plat­form. I wanted to pick Dru­pal from the get go. I have what I believe are typ­i­cal Dru­pal biases:

1. Dru­pal is bet­ter for enter­prise scale. I real­ize it’s not (or really, it’s not that sim­ple a fact), but that it’s my per­cep­tion that it is.

2. I wanted to use Dru­pal because I felt it would give me more flex­i­bil­ity. There’s also a lot of excite­ment around Dru­pal right now. Word­Press is (rel­a­tively) boring.

3. Dru­pal is more com­pli­cated. I got my first Word­Press site up (this blog) and run­ning in min­utes with­out read­ing any­thing. You might say “it shows” but con­sid­er­ing that, not bad. I’ve installed Dru­pal, then not known where to start. I’ve pur­chased and read books. I get it, but my bias is that any­thing I do in Dru­pal will be more com­pli­cated and there­fore more expensive.

I started with a cou­ple of book chap­ters that I was able to down­load (legally) using my Safari Books Online account. I fol­lowed the trail to social mod­ules, look­ing at func­tion­al­ity and phi­los­o­phy. Though I remind you, I didn’t and never intended to install any­thing before pick­ing a plat­form. I looked at sam­ple sites, read posts by plu­gin authors, and fol­lowed com­ments (and com­menters) to build a pic­ture for myself about the state of a social Dru­pal (and then WordPress).

The two books/chapters were (affil­i­ate rev­enue is donated to charity):

In par­tic­u­lar, a great place to start is the pre­sen­ta­tion Social Net­work­ing in Dru­pal on Slideshare by Isaac Sukin. Slides 25 & 26 are a great list of require­ments and a great place to jump in to get in the weeds. I got really excited by the mod­ules and the capa­bil­i­ties he talked about. That was before I decided on the strat­egy “min­i­mal but delight­ful func­tion­al­ity, oth­er­wise func­tion fol­lows form”. Read­ing and fol­low­ing this trail was a great education.

By the way, I highly rec­om­mend you to read another arti­cle by Isaac The Road to Social Net­work­ing Nir­vana. It really gets the juices flow­ing to get you into the social zone. Issac is def­i­nitely some­one to keep an eye on in this space.

I had known about Dru­pal Com­mons, but hadn’t thought about it to this point (because I for­got that it was the social bun­dle for Dru­pal). I was think­ing about how the var­i­ous (and over­lap­ping) mod­ules would fit in to the vision I have of my site. It’s pretty excit­ing stuff… and I fin­ished my Dru­pal inves­ti­ga­tion val­i­dat­ing my bias. That is, decid­ing there are no red flags to using Dru­pal based on what was in my mind.

Onto Bud­dy­Press

I looked Bud­dy­Press a while ago when I first thought of Where’s Your Heart? (Sum­mer ’09) and remem­ber that it didn’t seem to have any depth. I real­ize now it was first released in April ’09 which would explain the 1.0 feel! And, funny enough when I looked at Com­mons I felt that Com­mons’ August ’10 release made it more rel­e­vant (since it would have incor­po­rated the lat­est think­ing in build­ing social inter­ac­tion). We are so eas­ily swayed by our biases!

The first thing I noticed was how well it was pack­aged. I’m a tech­ni­cal per­son, but not so much hands on. So an easy to use bun­dle is sweet. It made a real impres­sion, and I wished there were some­thing like that for Dru­pal (that thought even­tu­ally led me back to Com­mons after my Bud­dy­Press investigation).

As I men­tioned above, I really liked the look/feel of and the sam­ple sites.

I took a bit of time to fig­ure out how it all fit together. Bud­dy­Press is a Word­Press plu­gin. It pulls all the social stuff together into a “social release” for Word­Press. There is a theme frame­work based on Gen­e­sis called Gen­e­sis­Con­nect, as an add on (I didn’t see any advanced them­ing help for Dru­pal Commons).

Very quickly I had two feel­ings about BuddyPress:

1. Really nice bun­dle, would make it much eas­ier to use/deploy/manage

2. Gen­e­sis has a really good rep­u­ta­tion so I knew I’d be able to theme it up nice and easy (I love CopyBlogger’s blog — it’s a must read, and the con­tent qual­ity of his blog gives Gen­e­sis more credibility)

I got this feel­ing I could do any of the “fea­tures” I wanted with Bud­dy­Press… and found myself wish­ing there were an out of the box expe­ri­ence like Bud­dy­Press with Dru­pal. This feel­ing prob­a­bly related to the biases I men­tioned ear­lier about Dru­pal scal­a­bil­ity and flex­i­bil­ity. Inter­est­ing that I was still resis­tant to the idea of using Word­Press as my platform.

It was at this point that I remem­bered Dru­pal Commons.

Dru­pal Commons

As I men­tioned ear­lier, it was released in August 2010 to com­pete with Jive & Teligent and help com­pa­nies build “busi­ness ori­ented social web­sites”. The theme was specif­i­cally designed for func­tion­al­ity and the abil­ity to be branded by enterprises.

Com­mons did what I wanted. It pro­vided a social bun­dle to Dru­pal with a great out-of-the-box expe­ri­ence. I con­sumed the mate­ri­als on the Com­mons site, some good white papers and their own mar­ket­ing. I checked out other sites run­ning Com­mons, and I kept com­ing back to “hate the look and feel” — in fact, just as strongly as I was stuck on “Dru­pal is scal­able” rel­a­tive to WordPress.

Here’s a great Dru­pal Com­mons overview analy­sis by Isaac. I also found an arti­cle that dis­cussed the Com­mons bun­dle in good depth. This arti­cle was a great jump-off point to learn more about the mod­ules that were included (and not included) in Commons.

To sum­ma­rize, Dru­pal Com­mons is a bun­dle released by Acquia who offers ser­vice, sup­port, and host­ing. You can eas­ily down­load the bun­dle and install it any­where you can install Drupal.

I had made up my mind it would be Commons.

But, I was hes­i­tat­ing? Why? It was the expe­ri­ence. I just liked the Bud­dy­Press sites bet­ter. Infor­ma­tion about Bud­dy­Press was harder to find, but it was there. And, I kept read­ing. I sat with my deci­sion over night, and that was where I devel­oped the 3 key points I shared above.

I also found an arti­cle focused on non-profits and CRM. This sorta backed up my feel­ing about ease-of-use, but also val­i­dated the abil­ity to use Word­Press on large scale. It also pointed me at two tools for donor man­age­ment (Civi­CRM and Donor Tools). While it seems there’s out of the box inte­gra­tion between Dru­pal and Civi­CRM, I don’t know what I need there yet… so want to start by deal­ing with what I do know first.

It was at this point that I started to have some clar­ity on my gut vs my brain. I devel­oped the 3 rules above (recapped here) and had some observations:

Rule #1. The most impor­tant thing I learned from run­ning Cleanse for Your Cause was that get­ting peo­ple con­nected to par­tic­i­pate socially is going to require some real habit chang­ing, and time. But, the need for donor man­age­ment is imme­di­ate and dri­ves my busi­ness (yes, my non-profit is a busi­ness). So, I need to fig­ure out donor management.

Rule #2. Since it’s going to require some seri­ous user behav­ior devel­op­ment around inter­act­ing socially on these events, it’s going to need to be an ele­gant and sim­ple imple­men­ta­tion. So, less is more.

Rule #3. In order to make it fun, build engage­ment, and estab­lish cred­i­bil­ity (we got asked “who’s Where’s Your Heart??” a lot!) we’d have to make it look good and be really easy to use. So I will pri­or­i­tize user expe­ri­ence and look-and-feel over social func­tion­al­ity (and in turn, pri­or­i­tize event admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing donor man­age­ment, over social functionality).

Obser­va­tion #1. Not all open source is the same.

This may be a “no kid­ding” for many of you, but let me explain. First, a lit­tle dis­claimer… I think Acquia is going to be hugely suc­cess­ful, and would (and do) rec­om­mend them uncon­di­tion­ally for their prod­uct, peo­ple, and intent. That said, in my mind I drew a dis­tinc­tion between Bud­dy­Press and Dru­pal Com­mons. Dru­pal Com­mons is Acquia. It’s their tool to pur­sue their mar­ket, and as a small user I’m not sure how much atten­tion I’d get from them even were I to be a cus­tomer. How­ever, since Acquia is self-interested in Com­mons, oth­ers in the com­mu­nity with dif­fer­ent inter­ests could frac­ture Social Dru­pal (as it’s rep­re­sented by Com­mons). In fact, just today the author of the pre­sen­ta­tion men­tioned above tweeted one of his new year’s resolutions:

“More New Years Res­o­lu­tions: cre­ate a social net­work­ing #dru­pal distro…”

So, there would be two Social Dru­pals. I get it, but I’m look­ing for sim­ple, con­sis­tent, and sup­port­able by the com­mu­nity as a solu­tion, not in bits and pieces.

Bud­dy­Press on the other hand is “pure” open source. I sus­pect there might even­tu­ally be a sup­port­able ver­sion of Bud­dy­Press (like Acquia/Commons but for Bud­dy­Press) but it’s a true com­mu­nity project. And, as such, there are peo­ple in the com­mu­nity more directly inter­ested in pro­vid­ing com­mu­nity sup­port to grow­ing Bud­dy­Press with­out any com­mer­cial conflict.

I hope I’m explain­ing myself with­out shoot­ing myself in the foot.

Obser­va­tion #2. I’m not man­ag­ing (tra­di­tional) content.

When I real­ized this, I really made the switch in my mind from Com­mons to Bud­dy­Press. I’m not man­ag­ing con­tent, I’m man­ag­ing social events. In that regard, it’s new ground for both plat­forms (though admit­tedly there are var­i­ous plu­g­ins that could help and exist­ing cus­tomers doing things in this area with either plat­form) and nei­ther aligns bet­ter philo­soph­i­cally one way or the other. Once I broke away from the con­tent man­age­ment bias, and Dru­pal being “the plat­form” for con­tent man­age­ment, it broke me out of think­ing I’d be sac­ri­fic­ing too much with WordPress.

In sum­mary

I’m quite excited to put this to rest. I learned a lot, espe­cially in some of the tan­gents I took to look into plug-ins fea­tures (they impacted how I thought about my site’s func­tion­al­ity) and donor man­age­ment soft­ware (not sure what to do with that yet, but glad I’ve got more knowl­edge). In fact, the two days I spent doing this research I could hardly sleep at night as I was so wired with ideas and cre­ativ­ity. I also iden­ti­fied quite a num­ber of inter­est­ing peo­ple who I hope to fol­low (stalk?) because they said (and shared) really smart things or sim­ply seem interesting.

If you liked this please leave a com­ment or share a link to this post. And, con­sider donat­ing a pint of blood or spon­sor­ing a blood dona­tion as part of our sec­ond event, Bleed for Your Cause™. Each pint donated helps 3 peo­ple, and there’s no syn­thetic sub­sti­tute for blood. Par­tic­i­pate in Bleed for Your Cause and when you donate blood (in any coun­try), we’ll donate $15 to a cause you pick as our way of say­ing thanks and help­ing a cause you care about in return.