How to choose the best platform to build an online community

With so many different community platforms out there, it can be a challenge to decide on the best platform to build your online community. Make no mistake, it’s a huge decision as your chosen community platform can make or break your community’s long-term success. After all, you don’t want to invest in software that cannot […]

How to choose the best platform to build an online community

With so many different community platforms out there, it can be a challenge to decide on the best platform to build your online community. Make no mistake, it’s a huge decision as your chosen community platform can make or break your community’s long-term success. After all, you don’t want to invest in software that cannot keep up with your growing community’s needs.

For some brands, choosing a free platform is a good first step. But it isn’t a lasting tactic as you lose a lot of functionality and freedom. As the saying goes, there really isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. When it’s time to move away from your free Facebook Group onto a branded, online community platform, here are some of the ways you can ensure it’s the right fit for your brand.

1. Start with your business and community goals

Every business is different, so it’s worth spending some time thinking about the kind of community that would suit your brand best. The easiest starting point is to consider your business goals and how your online community can support them. This will influence the community that you decide to build. Thinking about how your community aligns with your products and services will also inform your decision.

There are many types of online community including:

  • Conversation-led: where the community’s purpose is about bringing a group together to meet with common interests and goals.
  • Content-driven: the focus here is on sharing knowledge and expertise with community members so they can better meet their career/personal goals and do their work effectively.
  • Support communities: these communities support your customer service by encouraging members to help in answering questions and troubleshooting.

These communities require different key features. The first two need to be highly engaging, with notification and nudge features that make the community a daily or weekly habit. Content-driven communities need to have robust and intuitive publishing tools — and the ability to create user-generated content as a way of driving engagement and loyalty. Depending on your members’ preferences, this content might go beyond written blogs and articles to include beautiful multimedia content.

Support communities, on the other hand, will benefit from tools that enable people to quickly search for questions and answers, post questions, and access a knowledge base. You might also want to integrate with a customer support tool so your customer service team can easily see what’s happening and integrate it with their everyday workflows.

2. Prioritize the user experience

You can spend countless hours building a community but if the experience of navigating and engaging with it isn’t good, your members will eventually leave. Your chosen platform must be easy to use and accessible on different devices, including desktops, tablets, and mobiles. Search is a vital feature to have, especially if you anticipate having a lot of content and discussions in the community. It can also help to have sub-communities or groups that further personalize the community experience for members.

Another important aspect is ensuring a good first impression. If your chosen vendor can offer a personal, seamless member onboarding experience (ideally with newsletters and other nudges to encourage early engagement) then you’ll be more likely to retain members in the long run.

3. Matching people to content and peers

Speaking of which, how would you like your community to be organized? You want to deliver an uncluttered online space that becomes the highlight of someone’s day. Recommending content and networking opportunities can really elevate the experience. If your community bridges the online and offline worlds, you also need features that support this like virtual event noticeboards that grow hype for a real-world event.

The only way to share relevant content and opportunities is when your community and its members are well organized. This might be based on interests, specialisms, or seniority (and role).

4. Monetization

If you would like to monetize your community in the future, it’s essential to pick an online community platform that offers this. Think about the monetization option you’d like to explore. Some communities offer tiered memberships that offer different levels of event and content access based on a subscription. Others do sponsorships and advertising. Whatever your chosen approach, your community (and its payment options) need to line up with your plans.

5. Member safety

Your community needs to feel safe. Members will leave if they don’t trust your content or other members, if they are spammed, or in the event of a data breach. So your chosen community platform needs to put users’ privacy and safety above all else.

Moderation features and spam filters will help you keep community content and conversations above board. Some community software allows you to adjust permissions so only certain ‘expert’ members can create content on the community.

Vendors need to comply with all relevant cybersecurity standards and certifications to prove that they take your community members’ data privacy seriously. Regular audits are another must-have.

6. Analytics

One of the biggest perks to brand communities is the data you can gather on popular chats and content, key trends, member sentiment, and community growth and retention. You have full ownership and control over this data, which can prove invaluable in shaping your community, marketing, sales, go-to-market, and product strategies.

It’s vital that the data you collect and the reports and dashboards generated, align with your community’s goals and KPIs. To really inform your community’s growth, your platform should be able to support the top 3-5 success metrics that you set based on your community’s goals. For instance, a support-based community might want to look at time-to-resolution, questions answered via the community, and customer/member satisfaction. Meanwhile, a content-driven community will focus on popular topics, article engagement, and top contributors.

7. Futureproofing

Building a community is often a long game so you want to make sure your community platform will keep up with modern developments and changing member needs. Look at your chosen vendor’s track record in innovation and how often they do major releases to understand how likely they are to meet your future needs.

It’s worth looking at similar customers and communities to understand how they have grown with the vendor, both in terms of size and complexity. Also consider the features you might wish to explore in the future, like monetization, and if your chosen vendor supports this. Another decision you might want to make early on is relevant to your community growth strategy — do you want to eventually expand to multiple communities? As your subcommunities grow, there may come a point when your community naturally splits into two or three distinct entities. If that’s the case, your vendor needs to be able to support this.

8. Your budget

There’s little point in investing in a community if you cannot afford the upkeep. When choosing your community platform, look at your budget and find an option that aligns with your current financial goals.

To build the business case, you may have to invest in a free community at the start. As soon as you can, however, switch to a dedicated community platform that gives you greater brand customization, control, and data ownership. Don’t forget that other resources like a community manager may also use part of your budget.

At this stage, it’s worth understanding the different pricing models that a community software vendor might use, and what’s included in the licensing cost. You don’t want to be surprised down the line by additional charges for integrations or escalating costs as your community scales. It’s important to understand the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) right from the start.

Some final tips

Remember, what suits one brand will not be right for another. Your community will be tailored to your business goals and needs. However, there’s no harm in asking your peers for recommendations if they are further along in their community journey. Likewise, it’s worth comparing a handful of vendors’ features and demos to find the one that’s the perfect fit.