Building a social website isn't the same as adding social elements to a website. You're not just plugging in a widget to your website to show the streaming newsfeed from your blog. If your business model is focused on building a social website, what does this mean from a development point of view?
Features and Functions
Whether you're building an online magazine or a social network for your business, the most important thing to do before you start building is to outline your features. What do you want your users to be able to do? What information will be available to the public and what information will be private? What functions do you need to put in place to protect your data?
Start by taking a macro view of your website. Look at the goals for today, tomorrow and six months after launch. What does the overall vision look like from a functional standpoint? Break things down into categories like user functions, administrative functions and possibly advertising functions. What will your users be able to do? What do you want your administrators to control or monitor? And if you have advertisers, you may want to decide if they are creating their own ads and how they are able to monitor their CPMs.
Now we need to dig into the micro view of your website. How will members register? Is registration free? Will registration be automatic, or will you need to have them approve their registration via e-mail confirmation? If you're creating interactive elements or allowing individuals to upload content, image or video, you will want to be specific about these functions. What are your size restrictions? What file types will you allow users to upload? (This means you need to identify what you will support.)
Each and every detail will help you decide what technologies to consider in the building of your social website, and this will help you come up with a budget for the project. The macro view will help you get started, but the micro view will create the expectations and the budget.
Once you have identified the functions of your website, you need to identify a firm and platform to create this website. The biggest concern during this process for most companies is the clarification of comparing what seems like apples to oranges. When you're a nontechie, evaluating technology is never easy, and one way to make this process easier is to hire a consultant to help you compare technologies. This is a great way to save time and money. Your consultant will be there to ask questions you did not think to ask.
If you to decide to do this yourself, I'd recommend you ask the firms you're considering some very specific questions, and spend some time reviewing information on the varying technologies that are presented to you. For example, ask the firms what application platform they envision developing your social website on and why. Responses may vary from using frameworks like Drupal, Ruby on Rails or .Net. Every firm will have their favorites (it's hard not to), but you will want to ask if they are familiar with other application platforms and whether they have developed using these technologies. This question will allow you to see if the firm you're considering is really evaluating the best solution for you vs. what is comfortable for them.
A third option is to take the time to familiarize yourself with the different technologies used to build social websites. Get to know what some of your favorite social sites are built on and why. From there, you can look for a firm that specializes in the application you have decided on.
Keep in mind that building a social website is about two important factors--a clear business model and the applications used to help you grow that business.