Choosing the best online community software platform for your organization can be overwhelming and confusing.
There are lots of great options out there, however, none are going to be a perfect fit. Narrowing down the advantages and disadvantages of each viable online community platform can be a serious undertaking – especially if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.
The online community software platform you choose directly affects the engagement experience of your customers or members. A frustrating or negative customer experience could impact your ability to retain community members and cause problems for the overall health of your online community. For instance:
- If they visit your community and can’t figure out how to participate or don’t think the format is intuitive, they aren’t likely to stick around.
- Customers or members are expecting your online community to live up to the experience they were seeking and a bad first impression could easily deter them from returning.
Picking the right platform is a decision that deserves careful consideration and targeted research.
Luckily, asking the right questions when you interview potential social software vendors can help you gather the data you need to make the right choice for your organization.
Here are some of our best tips to get the process started and help you find the best platform for your strategy.
5 Tips for Choosing the Right Online Community Software Platform
Tip 1. Give Yourself Plenty of Options
Even if a trusted colleague recommended a software platform or you have prior experience with a certain vendor, make sure you still take the time to research your options.
There’s no harm in interviewing several choices to make sure you understand the features and support options are out there. Limiting your search creates the risk of implementing an incomplete solution and launching features that don't fit your goals.
Tip 2. Consider the Feedback From Your Market Research
Hopefully, you’ve already taken the time to survey your target audience to figure out exactly which features they’re likely to use in an online community experience.
Considering this feedback as you narrow your platform search you can maximize participation once the community platform is live. For instance, if market research showed that your audience was most interested in a Q&A area or email-based discussion, make sure you select an online community software provider that offers that feature in some form.
Tip 3. Think About Your Specific Vision
No two communities are alike, so you want to make sure you find an online community software platform that speaks to your vision for your organization’s particular online community.
Make sure you clearly communicate the environment and engagement opportunities that you want to create for your customers or members so the community software vendors you interview can detail how their platform addresses those priorities.
For example, say your ideal private online community is highly focused on collaboration. You want the capabilities for people to work together in groups, discuss problems, and connect through your community.
In that case, you know your platform needs a great discussion forum and group features, so you have a space to bring to fruition those opportunities for your customers or members. Identifying your priorities can help you narrow down your choices and select a community platform that aligns with your vision.
Tip 4. Be Mindful of Which Features Will Actually Get Used
It’s easy to be drawn in by promise of innovative new features (every provider has them) but think carefully about which features will actually be utilized within your online community.
Do what makes sense for your audience, organization, and strategy.
While it’s important to have enough features to keep your community members engaged and give them reasons to keep coming back and participating, you also don’t want to overwhelm your community with too many options. Offering a host of different social features that go unused can make your online community feel cluttered and disorganized, which could ultimately decrease your engagement in other areas.
TIP: Consider the objectives of both your audience and your company. If a feature doesn’t address the objectives of at least one of those stakeholder groups, then it probably isn’t something your community needs and you can have the features disabled.
Remember, just because a software platform offers certain features doesn’t mean you need to pursue it as part of your online community plan. While that might not necessarily mean you shouldn’t pursue a relationship with that software platform provider, you also shouldn’t allow the allure of less relevant features to sway your decision.
Tip 5. Ask About Updates
One important distinguishing feature of software platforms that organizations often forget to consider is the frequency of updates. If they haven’t done more than two major releases in the last year, then you might want to think twice about selecting them for your online community.
A low frequency of updates might mean that functionality issues aren’t typically addressed very quickly, which could have a big impact on your brand and the health of your online community.
Your members are also likely to become disenchanted with your community if it can’t adapt to their needs over time. Frequent updates are a sign of consistent progress and a customer-centric company – two qualities you should look for in an online community software platform.
When interviewing potential vendors, ask them how many updates have been made to their online community product within the last 12 months right off the bat. The answer will tell you whether it’s worth further discussing their platform or whether it’s time to move on to the next option.
In the grand scheme of how many decisions you’ll be making while launching your online community, your choice of software platform might seem fairly small. However, the wrong fit can have disastrous consequences for your engagement strategy and growth potential of your community. By asking the right questions and considering all your options, you can find an online community platform that serves your community, company, and goals.