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To Build or to Buy: The Online Community Question

Community Strategy // Wondering if it makes sense to invest in a SaaS online community platform or build your own solution? That’s the question we’ll dive into today.

Kate Siders
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You want to create an online community, but you’re not sure whether to hire developers to build your own or to buy an online community platform. This is a recurring and timely question for anyone who wants to start an online community.

On one hand, your organization could hire developers to create custom-developed software just for you. On the other hand, your organization could buy a pre-built, off-the-shelf solution, delivered through a SaaS platform (software as a service). There are pros and cons to each choice.

But the most important question to consider is this: Will building or buying best support your main mission?

This question isn’t exclusive to online community software. Software startups often debate whether they should focus their developers’ attention to build all sorts of useful software for internal processes, in addition to working on the main product they sell. It’s tempting since they already have those in-house resources.

But with each choice they make to build instead of buy, they divert attention from their main mission and growth.

You face a similar choice. As you grow, it makes less and less sense to spend time developing side software or spending resources to do that, when you could work with a software vendor who has expertise in that industry, knows best practices, will keep your data secure, and integrate with your tech stack.

Want to dig deeper? Check out our complete guide to online community.

The Big Risks of Building Your Own Online Community Platform

Building or hiring developers to create a custom online community solution has its advantages. You have the chance to design and implement a system that’s developed just for you and your organization’s unique needs.

But another pivotal question, in addition to “will this help you support your main mission,” is whether you’re prepared for the risks and long-term investment that come with this kind of commitment.

Managing an in-house software development cycle requires plenty of investment. Not only do you need to have or hire a unique set of skills and expertise, but your organization has to decide whether this really belongs in your core business model.

The two biggest risks your organization will probably face with the building approach with building custom community software are time and cost. And it’s not just the initial set up – the cost includes ongoing maintenance after you’ve developed your initial community software.

1. Time

When it comes to engagement, especially engagement during COVID, don’t underestimate the importance of moving fast.

With custom development, you’re usually looking at a many months-long (or even years-long) design, development and testing cycle. If you go with a SaaS online community platform, your solution could be deployed in weeks. You don’t want to see that opportunity disappear while the code is still in development.

2. Cost

Estimating and tracking how long it will take to develop a custom solution is tricky. Putting together something like this will probably take up time from many departments across your organization.

Also, even with the best project manager, can anyone really plan or estimate for the likely delays in the software development and testing process?

While some projects wrap up right on time and on budget, you’ll probably find those are the exception rather than the rule.

You should keep in mind that you’ll have to commit to the long-term maintenance of your solution, even after you’ve finished the development process. As a rule of thumb, you’ll need around 70% of the cost it took you to develop your ustom solution  to maintain it. Also keep in mind that when you have staff turnover, you’ll have to allot time and resources to training them to use your platform, as well.

Additionally, when it comes to maintenance, think through whether your in-house platform would easily allow for growth and any changes that may come along with process changes.

If you’re willing to commit to the project with these risks, it might be worth it to build your own.

Not so sure? Let’s look into the advantages of buying a SaaS online community platform.

The 3 Reasons to Buy an Online Community Platform

Years ago, the phrase, “the cloud” wouldn’t have meant much to many of us. Today, it implies a level of data security, storage, accessibility, and flexibility that used to be inaccessible to everyone but the largest IT shops.

SaaS was made possible by cloud technology and has become a preferred way to use software, from customer databases and email campaign software to productivity and project management tools.

Here are the 3 biggest benefits of investing in a SaaS-based online community platform.

1. Maintain Your Focus

When you buy an online community platform, you don’t have to worry about the software part. You can focus on the most important mission of your business (along with engaging your new community members – and we offer community management services to help with that, too).

With SaaS platforms, software applications are developed, hosted, and managed by the SaaS provider and delivered via the web. The vendor manages application development, maintenance, hosting, network infrastructure, backups, security, and monitoring. They deploy new features, security patches, and performance enhancements, and dedicated system administrators look after the hardware and network infrastructure to keep things turned on.

Instead of your organization having to worry about this, you and your team (and your resources) can stay focused on what’s important.

2. Spend Resources Efficiently

With a SaaS online community platform, hardware costs and resources are shared by all the customers. Higher Logic has a dedicated engineering team handles development, maintenance, updates, and backups.

Delegating these types of responsibilities to an external provider helps you spend your resources more efficiently. In the short term, you can refocus your internal IT budget on other projects. In the long term, your organization can keep spending on core business activities without being distracted by costly and complex software development.

When you consider the costs of developing (and maintaining) custom software, the cost of licensing a SaaS platform looks much more appealing.

3. Rely on Your Vendor’s Best Practices and Expertise

With an online community platform, you benefit from the experience of that entire company and the best practices they put into the platform. For example, Higher Logic has launched thousands of online communities with our Community software, helping our customers create thriving communities. That experience goes right back into the product to create an even better solution.

Unless you can hire developers or have in-house developers who understand the ins and outs of community engagement, you won’t have this advantage when you build your own community.

With a SaaS platform, especially those with their own online community for customers, you have the advantage of learning from the other customers’ knowledge and experience as well.

You also benefit from built-in tools in a SaaS online community platform that will help you grow engagement and manage your community. For example, Higher Logic’s automation rules, personalized emails triggered to a set group of members through logic-based rules, help community managers easily scale engagement.

Ginny Butsch, community manager at the Educational Theatre Association, was an early adopter of automation rules, and they’ve made her role much more manageable. They’ve also made time for her to focus on the big picture. For example, she was able to start advisory communities for feedback initiatives, made possible because she didn’t have to focus on tiny tasks.

“Automation rules have improved our customer service. They do a lot of that manual work for me, so I can focus on taking the next steps toward making the community even better.”

Chris Detzel, an online community manager, also shares his take:

“If Higher Logic hasn’t told you about automation rules, then you need to ask. This is what sets them apart from the competition. You can do a thousand things with automation rules. Some of the things I am using it for is to personalize the customer experience. For example, we have a product support community, and have many products. I can setup automation rules to say, ‘If a customer has this product, show this blog to them when they log in.’ Another example is that you can send emails directly to customers that haven’t logged in for X number of days. Or ask customers to fill out certain parts of their profile. It really is endless and fairly simple to do.”

How to Choose an Online Community Platform

If you decide to go for an online community platform instead of building your own, should you just buy any old platform? No!

The key is to partner with a vendor who can effectively meet your needs so that you can focus on your core business.

Here are the things to look for when you’re evaluating an online community platform:

  • Integrations. The right integrations will make data management easier and help you improve the customer experience. Do they integrate with your customer relationship management (CRM) software or your association management system (AMS)?
  • Community engagement tools. How will the vendor help you keep your new community members coming back to the community? You won’t see the benefits of your online community on your customer/member experience or business outcomes if your online community members don’t use it. This might seem obvious. But it’s one of those obvious questions you need to ask your vendor: What engagement tools are built in?
  • Customer training & support. You should find out how the vendor supports their customers post-sale. Will the vendor provide courses? Do they have an online community for their own customers? Do they have any community management services you can take advantage of?

If you have questions, don’t hesitate to set up time with our team! We’re happy to discuss options with you.

Kate Siders

Solution Strategist

Kate Siders is a former solution strategist at Higher Logic, helping future customers understand the best solution for their needs. She previously worked in events at AAPS and PERI. She has a BS from Radford University.

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