The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Platform for Your Community

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Choosing an online community platform is one of the biggest challenges for a community builder. While an online platform does not equate to a community, when done well, online community platforms are incredibly effective at organizing, amplifying, guiding, and scaling a community strategy. The big problem with platform selection is that the process is time-consuming and characterized by a wide breadth of offerings, lack of standards, and a ton of misinformation.

I recently selected the Sidecar online community platform, and I wanted to share the experience in order to guide others through the process.

In this post, we’ll explore:

  • Starting small vs. selecting a platform for growth;
  • Ditching feature lists in favor of behavior-centric design;
  • Buying vs. building

Lean Community And Starting Small

While thinking big and into the future is important, look for a way to test the community concept before you get into vendor selection. Check out David Spinks’ talk on Lean Community at ForumCon for some guidance. Start small (perhaps with a free platform or a mailing list) and test your assumptions before you charge ahead with launching a big, expensive platform.

For us, the lean community experiment happened on Facebook. We tested and observed how members interacted for about a year in secret Facebook groups. We saw, time and time again, our members wanted to find and share with each other. Knowing our community’s motivations made the platform search process easier, as I could place each product demo in the context of our existing community. If you don’t have strong hypotheses for how your community will interact on your platform, the salespeople from platform vendors will fill in the blanks for you. And that is not a safe bet.

Once you are ready to select and implement the platform, you should still take a lean approach. Get something out quickly, learn how people are using it, and then iterate after you have actual usage data.

Behaviors, Not Features

After you’ve validated your community concept, get clear about your goals. Instead of feature lists, focus on the kinds of behaviors you want to establish instead.

Sidecar is the marketplace for people to give and get rides from their mobile phone. Our job is to build a community of grassroots action and mutual trust. We especially focus on drivers coming together to share, learn, perfect their skills, and for us to engage in open and honest dialogue with the driver community. Our platform should enable all of that to happen easily.

Go ahead and establish a few of the non-negotiable characteristics of your community. Here were ours.

Our Five Community Non-Negotiables

1. Global, local, and deeply collaborative:

Our business is all about local, decentralized execution that can happen on a global scale. While some companies want to own the process and the outcome, the highest expression of community for us is when members meet and collaborate with each other and without our involvement. To that end, we needed a trusted, private community with spaces that would be accessible and relevant to all, alongside spaces that maintained local context. We knew that groups (much like groups on Facebook) are better at supporting deep collaboration and action than a simple Q&A forum.

2. Mobile:

For obvious reasons, mobile was a huge priority and a non-negotiable for us. This is a big sticking point as most platforms still don’t think mobile-first. Having this as an elimination hurdle made the selection process much easier.

3. Easy to use:

While researching platforms, I was troubled by dated User Interfaces (UIs) and forums that looked like they were designed in the 80′s. Instead of simplifying, a lot of platforms added random features. This results in feature bloat and makes them more complicated to use. Our community members needed a place that’s easily accessible and easy to use, on the computer and their mobile device. It had to be easy to contribute.

4. Flexible and agile:

Your community is going to change, and so is your company. It’s less than half the battle to have an engaging, relevant community on day one. You need to continue to be top-of-mind and fresh in terms of UI and content. We have a small, agile team, and without a designer or developer on my team, I needed something that we could update easily on our own.  I needed a UI that would present posts and media in engaging ways — making it easy to promote and highlight content. JiveX – the solution we chose – has some great widgets, reminiscent of WordPress, that curate and feature content and members.

5. Integrated into existing systems:

While you’re designing a community platform for today, have some fun and envision the future. While you should avoid building any massive customizations that will weigh you down, you should know how the platform connects to various systems you use: support, email/customer journey, sales, customer recruitment, etc. At some point, we’ll want to connect our platform to our product and our workflows. To that end, I was thrilled that JiveX has a mobile SDK and integrations into work systems that are important to us.

Image via Sidecar

Image via Sidecar

Build vs. Buy? Small Business vs. Enterprise?

Here’s the rub. There’s not one perfect tool, because it’s impossible for one platform vendor to be all things to all communities. While there will be a lot of variation across tools and approaches if you’re buying from a third-party, we can roughly generalize in three broad buckets of platform types.

Bucket #1: Enterprise-Grade Platforms

Unless you’re wielding big budgets, massive customization, and your own engineering team, on-premise implementation is a risky and expensive idea. So it’s likely you’re going to want to go with a cloud solution. Being able to customize for your needs is valuable, but you have to weigh that against the costs and a slowdown in your time-to-market. Again, it all depends on your priorities.

In this group, I looked at 3 main competitors: JiveX, Lithium, and Salesforce.

JiveX

This is the platform we chose because it was the easiest (and most affordable) to stand up, and a  widgetized layout made groups and homepages a breeze to customize on the fly. We highlight and feature content weekly, and the widgets are always changing to move in lockstep with what’s important to the business. And since we’re coming from the Facebook experience, we wanted to stay close to that.

Most importantly, JiveX had the best mobile experience of all the platforms we talked to, both via responsive web and native apps. Having gotten to know the product team, I feel comfortable that they will hit it out of the park with mobile experience and general usability.

Here’s a sneak peak at what our community looks like. It’s called The Garage — cute, huh?

Sidecar Driver Community: The Garage

Sidecar Driver Community: The Garage

Lithium

While a gold standard in communities with a pedigreed track record and market reputation, Lithium can be complex and pricey to set up and maintain. It’s a powerful product with features that have been honed over the years, but the level of customization necessary to stand it up and maintain wasn’t right for us at this time (again, a team of engineers behind you would be helpful if using Lithium).

At the time of our platform selection, Lithium was still largely web-centric vs. mobile-first in its approach, and the mobile experience, which was our major sticking point, was weaker here than in other platforms.

spotify uses lithium

Lithium does work great for community at companies like Spotify (above) and FitBit.

Salesforce Communities

Similar to Lithium, Salesforce Communities is a solid option with a pedigree in customer experience and worker productivity, and it has a whole suite of leading technologies built on the Salesforce platform. This means that there’s great potential and powerful integrations into existing technologies. If you’re a Salesforce shop, it’s worth checking out.

However, the Communities product was still in its early days as we were picking out our platform. Similar to Lithium, it’s pretty complex (and expensive) to set up and customize. Salesforce Communities is a powerful platform for partner engagement and for anything that relies on Salesforce products – but for us, it was a bit too powerful.

Image via Bluewolf.com blog

Image via Bluewolf.com blog

My analysis of enterprise tools wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t caution against some downsides:

  • Enterprise platforms tend to be complex and expensive, which can be daunting in terms of both the learning curve and the cost to bring to market.
  • You are always at the mercy of the platform vendor’s roadmap, and larger vendor companies tend to have more internal and external politics  (not a rule, just an observation).
  • These politics often result in building too many features without the discipline of honing the existing offerings. The resulting complexity often leads to lowered adoption and engagement.

Bucket #2: “SMB” / Smaller Platforms

While it’s a huge testament to Sidecar’s focus on community that I was empowered to pick the right platform — even if it wasn’t the cheapest — we had to check out some more modestly priced options. We looked at lots of mid-tier “SMB” (small business) platforms, which were fantastic in their own way. But most of them seemed to focus on one aspect of community like content curation or link-sharing, while very few nailed a holistic experience.

GetSatisfaction, for instance, is fantastic for support, Q&A, and ideation. While it’s a solid performer, it ended up not supporting a lot of our other use cases.

One platform that seemed to hold promise, and one that I’ll be tracking going forward, is Discourse. Featuring an updated UI and more modern interaction flows, it’s not yet open for commercial use, as of the time of this writing. You can, however, implement a Discourse forum on your own servers for free, as the code is open-sourced.

try.discourse.org-

Bucket #3: Build Yourself

Looking at platforms, it was clear that the only way to get 100% of what we wanted – and none of what we didn’t – was to build our own. For this option, we considered Drupal Commons via Acquia. The promise of not being beholden to another company’s roadmap and working with an open-source platform with an entire community of developers behind it was very seductive.

However, building our own was ultimately not a workable option for the following reasons:

  • When you consider costs all-in, building your own is actually more expensive than going with a seemingly expensive platform. You have to consider upkeep, future upgrades, development, and all the things that can go wrong that will keep you over budget and over timeline.
  • Depending on your implementation, it could also slow down your time to market. We were up and running with JiveX within a month, and a best-case scenario for a build-your-own MVP was going to take 3 months.
  • The most dangerous risk of all: taking your attention away from the job of building, nurturing, and managing the community to managing a software product.

Overall Observations and Tips

To get your vendor selection off the ground, have a very clear goal and know how your community wants to interact with you and with each other. Start small, start free. Test your hypotheses, observe, and learn.

Many platforms come with slick demos and presentations, shiny customer showcases, and transformative visions delivered by polished salespeople. You will undoubtedly be seduced, but you must ask yourself – and your sales rep – what it realistically takes to get to the state of a shiny showcase company.

Don’t rely solely on the references given to you during the sales process. Talk to as many community professionals as you can who run platforms you are thinking about. Make sure to check out admin consoles and ask yourself if you can use it daily and train other people on it. I asked many people to show me Jive and Lithium from the inside.

And, just as importantly, you need to look at vendor selection as a long-term relationship. As a community practitioner, you should know that the key ingredient in a relationship is trust. Do you trust these people to help deliver your vision? How can you help each other deliver on what’s important to you? If you build a great relationship, see if you can partner up with the product folks to understand or influence the roadmap.

And a Word to the Vendors

Please get some buy-in and feedback from community builders, instead of just listening to the institutional buyer. Otherwise, you’re leaving the door wide open for a group of smart community builders to get together and build the right product for them. Another word of advice: think mobile first, and simplify, simplify, simplify!

 

Leave me a comment if you have further questions about platform selection and options. Perhaps we can explore them in future follow-up articles!

Image Credit: hjl

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27 comments
SharaKarasic1
SharaKarasic1

Would love to see the Sidecar community - is it available to the public? Or are there screenshots? Thanks!

brooksjordan
brooksjordan

Great advice Maria: "Please get some buy-in and feedback from community builders, instead of just listening to the institutional buyer." I will echo this as I speak to various Jivers.

ryanparedez
ryanparedez

Great read. We currently use IP Boards and are having quite a lot of difficulty with it but fear the cost and time of moving to a new platform would be disastrous. So we are trying to do what we can with what they offer.

LauraOcchipinti
LauraOcchipinti

Great article! I'm currently shopping around for a community platform that is more social (link Ning and SocialGo). Any recommendations?

Adam Mertz
Adam Mertz

Hey Maria,

Even though we've talked (a bunch) related to the JiveX platform and roadmap over the past couple months, the strategy and thought that I see you put into this decision and the planning, design, and launching of your community still truly amazes me.  Curtis and I (and the rest of the JiveX R&D team) continue to listen to your points made here on what's most important and are excited as we're going even further in these areas when our latest release hits in a few weeks.  I've been at Jive for 7 years but posts like this always inspire me and the rest of the team to continue to focus our innovation in helping our customers have an easy but powerful community platform that puts people at the center.  Also, it shows once again that the strategy and planning side is as critical than the technology.  Good stuff!  cheers

CBPSC
CBPSC

Nice article... one Social Solution that meets all of your 5 "Non-Negotiables", but yet doesn't have the hefty price tag as some of the solutions listed here is DNN's Evoq Social solution. I would be interested to see your opinion or re-read this article with Evoq Social included in the mix.


Sharon Savariego
Sharon Savariego

Amazing post Maria! thank you for this insights and tips!

My name is Sharon and I'm the CEO of Mobilize (apply.mobilizee.com) - We're actually building a new platform specially designed for community management and your tips help us understand what community managers want and need. and how their decision making process works.


Short question - how did you learn about all these platforms? searching online specific keywords? talking to colleagues?

AdamHendle1
AdamHendle1

Great post Maria!


Any thoughts around starting out with a Facebook group? We have a group of over 5,000 Storenvy store owners on our private FB group and it works pretty well. Albeit there are some definite limitations but Id love to hear your thoughts!

Sharon Savariego
Sharon Savariego

@LauraOcchipinti Hi Laura, I would love to give you a demo of our platform - www.leaderz.org 

We built a unique combination of a community management platform and a social engagement network :) 

We are currently in private beta with selected customers like Google, Uber, Intuit, Kairos Society, Code2040 and few more and we have 3 places left in our beta programs for leading communities. 


themaria
themaria

@Adam Mertz Hey Adam! Thanks for the kind words! It's been fun working with you guys and I am very excited about what's ahead :) 

themaria
themaria

@Sharon Savariego Hey Sharon! Great question! I've known of all of them because I've been in the space for a while (and even worked for platforms in this space and even some of the aforementioned platforms -- which gives me a bit of unfair advantage). I'm also a member of several communities of community managers, where CMs discuss what they are doing. I also just asked people what they are using point blank. There were also some people going through a similar exercise at the same time, so we swapped notes. As far as your question, how do we learn about platforms? I'd'venture a guess that word of mouth is the most important for us, because we trust and understand each other -- especially since there's so much misinformation about what community management actually is. 


I'd be curious to see how other CMs learn about tools they use. Can someone share?

DavidSpinks
DavidSpinks moderator

@AdamHendle1 Huge fan of starting with a fb group and expanding once you see a strong need. Curious, what are the limitations with fb groups that you have?

themaria
themaria

@AdamHendle1 Yes! As I outlined in the section above titled "Lean Community and Starting Small" -- I definitely encourage you to do that. We were on FB for at least a year (maybe even longer) before we moved.

LauraOcchipinti
LauraOcchipinti

@Sharon Savariego @LauraOcchipinti  - I would love to see a demo. I need a powerful platform, something as good as ning (was).  I have 5000 dues paying members and 20 to 30 events a month.  Looking for something with public RSVPs, a searchable member directory, etc.

sharakarasic
sharakarasic

@themaria @Sharon Savariego Hi @themaria, what do you find to be the best communities of community managers? I have been in the space for a long time, but in the past few years have focused more on product development, but now back in the community space. Thanks!

AdamHendle1
AdamHendle1

@DavidSpinks @AdamHendle1 Biggest limitations I have is search isnt very good, threading and keeping similar conversations isnt possible so we often get very similar posts multiple times as people sometimes dont read previous posts and there isnt a way to see stats on how often certain users posts. If I had more insight other than just me "knowing" who is most active by being a part of the group Id love to give members badges or gamify the forum so that the most helpful people are recognized. 

themaria
themaria

@sharakarasic @themaria @Sharon Savariego Well, I actually find CMXHub and CMXSummit amazing resources and communities of likeminded individuals. I also have been a member of the Community Roundtable for a number of years, and I love it! I just joined Feverbee's Community Geek, and I'm excited about exploring it a bit more. Then there are a bunch of FB groups, meetups and other local gatherings, depending on your geographical area. Hope this helps!

AdamHendle1
AdamHendle1

@DavidSpinks No problem! I love the value that having an easily accessible group living right where people already are. The fact that our posts come up in people's feeds and they get notifications about posts they've missed whenever they log into their FB is a huge bonus. It just helps keep the group more top of mind.


As the group has grown to over 5000 brands I've started to think about moving it to a different platform because of the limitations listed above but for me Im still taking the if it's not broke dont fix it approach.