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Choosing the Right Online Community Software for your Business: A Guide

Selecting the right online community software is an important decision for your business. Keeping your long term objectives in view will save you a lot of grief down the road and will prevent you from selecting a vendor that can’t meet your needs as your community grows.

There are so many options, experiences and places to find information that it can be difficult to make a long-term decision. To simplify your search in selecting the right online community vendor, we’ve created the following guide. We hope it helps in your selection process.

*This guide is intended for businesses that have an existing customer base.

1. Define Your Business Objectives

The need to build an online community stems from higher level objectives. These can be grouped into three large categories:

1. Increasing Operational Efficiency

  • Doing more with less
  • Saving on support interactions costs
  • Enhancing internal collaboration
  • Cutting costs and maximizing resources

2. Customer Satisfaction

  • Decreasing the time it takes to respond to customer inquiries
  • Increasing NPS ratings
  • Increasing repurchases
  • Offering alternative means for customers to find answers to their questions (crowd-sourced or peer-to-peer)
  • Allowing your customer to share ideas with people like them

3. Increasing Revenue

  • Shortening the buyer’s journey
  • Increasing buyer trust
  • Increasing market share
  • Positively influencing brand sentiment
  • Building brand advocacy

2. The Path to Successful Community Platform Adoption

New technology adoption is a mission critical. If no one adopts the new systems or tools your business invests in, then that implementation is a defacto failure.

To make matters more complicated, adoption has to include all direct and indirect stakeholders.

This means people within your organization that will be benefiting and/or directly using the new online community. You also need to consider those who are outside of your organization if this is an external facing community deployment. Let’s discuss what both groups need to do to ensure your community receives broad adoption from all.

Customer and Member Adoption (Outside of Your Organization)

If you want a high adoption rate from your customers and members, joining your platform should be a seamless experience.

You’ll want to make sure that the option you use has simple ways to integrate your website’s login if you have one or supports social media sign-in. In other words, don’t make them sign up for your community if they already have to log into another component of your online properties.

If they don’t need to register for any other part of your online brand experience, utilize simple single sign on (SSO). For optimal success, you’ll want to look at features that encourage end user participation. These are important because without a critical level of activity, your community will have a harder time growing and becoming successful.

It's crucial that ease of use is considered when evaluating online community platforms.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s the first time user experience like?
  • How easy is it for a new user to get started and participate?
  • Is there a guided onboarding process?
  • Does it have a good notification system that notifies users when they are being engaged?
  • Does the software have any gamification features?

3. Seamless and Consistent Experience With Your Other Digital Assets

What plagues today’s digital experiences are inconsistent flows between the different web properties, applications and social media assets. Dramatic shifts in layouts, naming conventions and even branding are not uncommon.

Businesses that go the extra mile to ensure that all their assets flow seamlessly into each other benefit from greater adoption. Your brand is more than just a logo and a set of corporate fonts and colors. It includes the whole experience of how your customers interact and feel about your brand.

You want to move from a good experience to an exceptional experience, and you can do so with a customer community that fits your brand.

When you begin to dig deep with the vendor about customization, there are several things to look out for.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you customize on a whim or are you subject to design windows or deployment schedules?
  • Do you have access to the HTML and CSS?
  • Are you restricted to selecting colors from a color picker?
  • Can you modify the terms used by the software to match it with your own brand language?

4. Internal and Key Stakeholder Adoption

Internal stakeholders are an often overlooked group in the buying process yet internal adoption is instrumental to the success of your online community.

Ensuring the technology meets the needs of your internal stakeholders and merges with their current workflows is important. Otherwise, having a strong change-management initiative will be needed.

Identify the internal stakeholders that will be involved in your online community.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who will be responsible for the administration of the community?
  • Who will be responsible for participating the community?
  • Who will produce reports to benchmark community performance?
  • Who will use the reports to make business decisions?
  • Who else would benefit from the trove of information produced by the community?

For each of the above stakeholders you'll need to ensure the online community platform aligns with their requirements.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are their current tools (devices, applications, systems, processes) to do their jobs?
  • What’s their current workflow for managing the business problem that the new community should be alleviating?
  • Should the information gathered from the community be accessible from other systems? If so, what are they?

5. Integration Into Existing Systems and Workflows

A community works better when it integrates seamlessly into your websites and internal systems.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How will the community connect to your CRM? Does it have an existing connector to your CRM? If not, is the API flexible enough for you to integrate?
  • Will you need an integration to your ticketing system or can this community be a replacement?
  • Can you connect your marketing automation to community member action?
  • Can you use your existing authentication system for a single-sign on?
  • Is there an extensive, well-documented API that will let your developers integrate the community into your other systems? What are the limitations/cost of this API access?

6. Other Important Business Critical Considerations

When shopping for an online community platform, you’ll want to consider the must-have features, not only for now, but also to align with future growth.

Not every solution can have everything, but you don’t want to spend money on a solution that lacks basics like robust spam control.

Other features may not be a deal breaker, but you’ll want to uncover any limitations and ensure you can live with them before you sign the contract

There are several features you need, and others you'll want. Ensure these are available before you sign a contract.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you have a member join by invite only or by admin approval?
  • Can you make the community closed or private?
  • Does it have have Single Sign-On?
  • Can you have members join specific groups, or restrict member permissions so they can only view certain categories?
  • Can you pre-moderate content?
  • Can users upload files like pictures, music, or other types of files?
  • How does it handle multiple languages?
  • Does it have loyalty-building and onboarding gamification features?
  • How does it handle spam?
  • Does it have flood protection?
  • Can you identify good contributors/content from your community easily?
  • What kind of analytics/stats can you get from the community?
  • How tailorable is the theme?

7. New Customer Onboarding and Training

Launching a new community requires pre-launch onboarding for the stakeholders you’ve identified. Depending on how business critical your community is, make sure the solution you select includes training and onboarding.

Administering your community should be easy, intuitive and straight-forward. You want to have volunteer moderators who can jump in to help or employees on staff without them spending weeks reading manuals and watching videos. If during your demo or trial, things seem complex, make sure you ask about cost of training. This is not always free.

Don’t forget that while it’s great to have knobs and dials to control things, with greater complexity comes more issues and problems. Choosing a solution that is easy to manage for your team will also help in their adoption of the solution you select.

8. On-Going Support and Customer Success

Like insurance, support is something you hope you never need but is important to have. Ask about the kind of support offered by the organization. Will it be by phone, email, community or ticketing system? Is it included in the price, per incident, pay as you go or credit?

Consider that you may also need development support for your IT if you plan a close integration between your community and your website or other systems. Is the vendor capable of providing such support?

What does this entail for your organization? Some vendors may have partners who offer support. You may wish to enquire if they have any recommended companies for support. Obviously, direct support from the maker of the software is preferable.Top solutions include and customer success programs and dedicated account management.

9. Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), Data Ownership and Mitigating Risks.

Some online community vendors may have partners who offer support. You may wish to enquire if they have any recommended companies for support. Obviously, direct support from the maker of the software is preferable.

Total Cost of Ownership

Total cost of ownership is more than the cost of the software. It encompasses the cost of ongoing maintenance, hosting and product upgrades for your company.

Consider the totality of costs with the community vendor, not just the initial price.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • When and how will the software be maintained?
  • Who will be responsible for updates and upgrades?
  • Are upgrades to the latest version free?
  • What kind of license do they have?
  • How are updates done? Will there be downtime or is it seamless?

Cloud-Based Solutions

When a community forum is hacked, it’s most frequently because of a critical failure to maintain software with the latest patches. While you think you may save money now by selecting a “good-enough-for-today” platform, the consequences can lead to future issues.

If you select a Software-as-a-Service solution, you’ll remove IT involvement, but you may have less freedom to do as you wish. Nevertheless, if you choose the right vendor, server stability, current upgrades and included maintenance could be a favourable trade.

When it comes to a cloud-based solution make sure you learn about software upgrade history and roadmaps.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How are upgrades handled for your software? Are they included in the price?
  • Will upgrades cause downtime?
  • Are there any release notes of the changes being made?
  • Do you offer the ability to use a staging to QA before changes are applied?
  • What are your uptime/reliability stats?
  • What happens if our site goes down? How is it handled?
  • Are there extra fees for upgrades and maintenance or is it included?

Data Ownership

Despite your best efforts, sometimes you may need to change online community providers. While you may think that a self-hosted solution may mean that you own your data, it may be unusable for your next destination if it isn’t preserved in a compatible state.

Your community member’s profile information, discussion threads and other elements of your community are important assets to port. We’ve seen too many communities rebooted completely because the original platform made data unusable and unportable.

If you go with a cloud solution, you still need to make sure you know your data rights. There are a number of hosted solutions that do not allow you to take your data with you or make it very difficult to do so, with the intention of making it impossible for you to leave. 

Don’t become a hostage to your vendor – ask about your data rights before you sign the contract.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s their data-export policy and how does it work?
  • Who owns my data?
  • How fast can I get my data out if I so choose?
  • What format will the data come in
  • Will there be an extra charge?
  • Consider it a red flag if a vendor wants to charge you for your own data.

Online Community Vendor Reputation

The community forum space has numerous vendors, but think carefully before risking your own reputation or brand.

If any company gives answers that leave you unsure, don’t be afraid to walk away or seek out a trusted opinions from current customers, clients or users.

Always research and consider the reputation of the company you’re about to sign with.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How long have they been in business? Do they regularly release updates and new features?
  • Are other brands that you recognize using them?
  • Are you able to speak to some of their current customers? Are they happy?
  • What’s their refund or cancellation policy?
  • Do they offer a free full-feature trial or demo account?
  • How are they faring in peer-reviewed websites like G2Crowd or Capterra?

Choosing the right online community software for your business can be an arduous task. With all the options out there, it can be hard to know which one is the perfect fit.

We hope this information can help guide you when making your considerations, and that ultimately you find the best online community platform for your organization.

Higher Logic Vanilla is an excellent fit for companies such as Qualtrics, SmartSheet, TeamViewer, MURAL, and EA. Want to find out if we’re a good fit for you? Request a demo!