By now, you’ve likely come across a few successful online communities, even if you didn’t realize what they were at the time. Salesforce’s Trailblazers, the GitHub community, and even HOG — the Harley Davidson Owners Group are all great examples of brand-owned communities that fulfilled a specific need. How did they achieve this? Through their community platform features. Because, at the end of the day, your online community is only as good as the features that support it.
When picking a community platform, therefore, it’s vital to have a shortlist of the key features your online community needs in order to be successful. This will depend on various factors, such as your audience’s needs and preferences, business and community goals, and mission or vision for the community. In other words, its intended use case. A customer support-centered community will have a different set of priority features compared to a knowledge-driven community.
By the time you consider your community platform features, you should already know:
- Your target audience
- Your business and community goals
- Type of community
- The resources (including team) needed to build your community
- The core group of community members you’ll be inviting to join first
Must-have features for all community platforms
Despite some features being tailored to each community use case, there are some common features that all community software platforms should have. Here are the top ones.
1. Communication and notifications
For your community to thrive, your platform needs to do a few basic things. You need ways for members to communicate, whether that’s posting to a message board, a group, or opening discussion threads. This is complemented by notifications and — in an ideal platform — nudges like gamification or regular newsletters that keep member engagement high. This instills your community as a weekly or even daily habit in your members, something that’s vital in the early stages of your community.
2. Robust security
Security is also vital. This includes being able to set different access levels depending on a member/employee’s role. Admins will have the highest level of access, VIP members might have exclusive access to certain areas, and so on. Of course, to do this, the platform needs to be able to set up a flexible access structure with different categories and groups.
Spam filters will also ensure that content remains relevant and the community space is safe. Basic spam detection for specific keywords and sentiment is a good start but better still is advanced spam detection that uses machine learning and natural language processing (NLP). Moderation tools will also help you to keep discussions relevant, helpful, and high quality.
Finally, there is data security. Vendors need to comply with key standards and certifications and undergo regular audits. Employees need regular training to avoid any data breaches, particularly social engineered attacks.
3. Customizable branding
For the best business impact, your community should reflect your brand so members automatically associate it (and the good things happening there) with your organization. Software platforms that offer you custom color schemes, typography, and page layouts will help you create a consistent brand experience in your community. Better still, a vendor that enables you to insert your own code snippets will give you maximum customization options — something that’s particularly useful if you want to use advertising as a revenue generator in the future.
4. Expert and niche content
One size does not fit all when it comes to community content. The best community platforms are a treasure trove of knowledge that’s delivered through a range of content styles including articles and blogs, rich media like videos and audio, virtual events (and recordings), and discussions. Speaking of events, if you host offline events, then another useful feature for your community will be ways to blend offline and online engagements (through event noticeboards, for example).
User-generated content will take the strain off of your community manager by crowdsourcing knowledge and expert insights from the community itself. Tap into the experiences and advice of your members — it provides authentic social proof, plus drives participation and loyalty.
To be truly helpful, this content needs to be easily searchable. Ideally, there should be automatic suggestions for content that a member might be interested in.
People join a community for the opportunity to connect with others. Features that facilitate networking and discussions will improve your community’s stickiness. These include the ability to ask and answer questions, comment on and share content, ask questions before a community event, and encourage user-generated content.
There are additional features that elevate this experience even further, like notifications of when a community member has answered a question or commented on a discussion thread, and the ability to highlight expert members or interesting discussions.
Encouraging members to share content outside of the community via social sharing buttons can help to attract new members and grow the community. It will support your wider community marketing strategy by using social media and other channels to spread the word.
6. User profiles
Enabling your members to set their profiles and groups based on their interests, experience, role, and expertise, lays the foundation to many other useful features, like personalizing content and newsletters to them. Likewise, you might want to consider subcommunities where people meet peers and connect on even more niche topics within your community. For instance, a scientific community might be organized into subcommunities around different specialisms like cancer research, ecology, and genetics.
Your community has a lot to offer the wider company, for this to happen, it needs to be able to integrate with the other software platforms in your tech stack. Zapnito, for example, can integrate with CRMs, Google Analytics, business intelligence tools, and Zapier.
Integrating with other software in your tech stack ensures that they work effectively with each other and that you make the most of your existing tech investments. It also streamlines workflows, for example, with an event-driven community, your member data can be added to Salesforce to ensure your CRM is always up-to-date.
8. Analytics and data
One of the biggest perks of a brand-owned community is having your own member data that you can use to inform your community, marketing, sales, product, go-to-market strategies, and more. To make this easier, some community platforms offer in-built reporting tools that can cover analytics on popular discussions and content, key trends, member sentiment, and community growth and retention statistics.
Your chosen community software must be able to support your success metrics. That means it collects the right community data and collates it into easily understandable reports, graphics, and dashboards around your KPIs. To identify your success metrics, consider the top 3-5 things that you want to get from, and understand about your community. For example, a content-driven community will likely focus on trending topics, articles that are driving engagement, and top contributors.
This is a snapshot of the features you need to be looking out for, at a minimum. The best community software platform for your brand will be the one that aligns most closely with your end goals, whether that’s improving customer satisfaction and retention, or working towards a common purpose.
The vendor that you partner with should work closely with you to fulfill those goals. The best ones will continue to innovate based on their customer and market feedback, so there will be new and improved features constantly being introduced to the platform.
Make your decision carefully, as the community platform you invest in will be your community’s foundation for the months and years ahead.
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