Like many people in our industry, this all started as a hobby. In the early 2000s I was a teenager building forums and fansites. In 2009, I started hosting in-person meetups and events. Then, in 2015, I joined GoDaddy as the Community Manager for their GoDaddy Pro partner program.
Until I joined GoDaddy, all of the work was voluntary and unpaid. I had wanted to get into the Advertising industry, but graduated into the recesssion in 2009. Nobody was hiring. So I fell back on my self-taught web skills, hopping between roles in IT companies, digital agencies and startups.
Through those roles I learned a lot about gathering requirements, defining scopes of work, estimating timelines, and working with different stakeholders to bring projects online. That experience informs a lot of how I approach my projects today, including how I choose community platforms.
Tip: Start with a working doc. Your working doc is a single source of truth for all the prep work that goes into choosing your platform. Everything I cover in this guide will be a section within that working doc. Collaborate on the working doc with your team, and use it as a starting point in crafting your proposal.
Your community is a connected group of people with something in common. That could be a community of customers, coming together around your product or service. It could be a community of interest, coming together around a shared cause or passion; it could even be a community of employees.
Your community platform is where the group comes together. It's an online destination, living on a website or app. It supports membership; users have a persistent identity. It's participatory; users connect with each other and sustain the activity.
Your community platform is a shared asset for the entire organization. Small rant here. Customer communities often gets siloed under Support, and the organization gets tunnel vision about what "community" is for. Anything outside of the Support mandate isn't seen as a fit, so teams go and build new destinations.
This does a disservice to your platform, your members and the organization as a whole. It's duplicating efforts, wasting time and resources on building redundant destinations. It leads to confusion as information gets lost and people don't know where to look.
Instead, in a community-led organization, we treat the community platform as the central destination. It's a shared asset for the entire organization. We invest in improving the platform, extending it to serve new purposes and objectives for other parts of the organization.
By having a central destination, we create more opportunities for discovery, participation, and getting a return on the investment we've made into the platform.
Consider a typical customer community. What purposes can it serve? There's awareness and acquisition, aligning with marketing and sales. There's activation and support, aligning with customer care. And there's retention and referrals, aligning with product, and closing the loop back to marketing.
Choosing your platform
Choosing your platform is like going shopping for anything else. It comes down to three questions:
What do you need?
What are your options?
What's your recommendation?
We go through these questions whenever we're hungry or run out of toilet paper. We'll go through these same questions when choosing our platform.
What do you need? Who are your stakeholders, whose buy-in matters? What are their goals and challenges? What do they want to accomplish? How can you help meet those goals? How could the community platform do to help them?
What are your options? Chances are you won't find a single platform to do everything you need. More likely, you'll need to pull together a collection of tools and platforms; a community stack. What you choose will depend on what your specific needs are.
Common components of a community stack include:
Communication: Email, social, video, SMS
Discussions: Public, private, real time and async
Content: Blog posts, guides, documentation, video, audio
Events: Online and offline, discovery & registration, webinars & video calls
What's your recommendation? Based on your research, what's the preferred solution? Build a business case around that. Explain why you're making that recommendation. Remember - you're the expert! Leadership is looking to you for guidance.
Let's go through each of these in more detail.
What do you need?
Internal needs: This will give you a sense of what's possible, and what your potential hurdles are. You're creating relationships across the organization as you hold these conversations; in large organizations, you'll likely need all their help to launch and maintain your platform(s).
Common teams to start with:
Sales & Marketing, helping with comms and promotions
Product, helping by gathering feedback and insights
Customer Care, helping by providing a place for peer support
Procurement, to ensure you're following their processes
Finance, to ensure you have the budget secured
Legal, to ensure all the agreements and policies are in place
Security, ensuring the platform adheres to their requirements
IT & engineering, ensuring they can assist with implementation
Member needs and wants: Your community platforms have to serve the needs of your members. These are the people outside your organization who will use the platforms.
Using a customer community as an example: What do your customers need? What are their wants and expectations? What do your strategic partners need? Think biz dev partners, affiliates, channel partners, et al. What does your market need? Is there an unmet need from your current and potential customers?
Existing communities: Your potential members are going to come from somewhere. Look at their existing habits, where they already spend their time, and what the baseline experience should be. That includes looking at what your direct and indirect competitors are doing.
What are your options?
As I mentioned before, you won't find one tool or platform that does everything. Instead, you'll need a collection; a community stack. I won't go into the weeds on each type of tool here, but in general, these are the things I look for.
First impressions: Does the platform pass the sniff test? Do you fit within their intended use case? Does it hit on your major requirements? How has it worked for others? Look at case studies, testimonials, and peer reviews. Can you try before you buy? Look for trials, demos, and live examples of others using the platform.
Setup: What's involved in getting the tool up and running? How complex is it? Is it a hosted service, or do you need to host it yourself? Can you do the setup on your own, or will you need an implementation partner? What's installation like? Configuration? Customization? Review their documentation, if possible, for a sneak peek at what's involved.
Usage: What's the experience like? How easy is it to use? How easy is it to manage? How easy is it to configure and maintain?
Support: What happens if something goes wrong? Is there self-service documentation available? Do they have a professional services team, or service partners? Is there peer support available through the platform's user community?
Pricing: How much does it cost? What's the pricing model for licensing? Support? Services? Look at the split between one-time setup costs and ongoing fees, plus any variable pricing on things like service retainers.
What's your recommendation?
You're not asking for a favour when you present your business case. You're proposing a solution. Focus on the problems you're solving, and the benefits your solution brings to the organization.
Remember: you're the subject matter expert. Lean on your knowledge and experience to inform your recommendations.
Make the business case. Why do you need to build this solution? What problems are you solving? What's the ROI? Who will do the work? Who will manage the platform (DACI)? What are the costs?
Offer a set of solutions to choose from. Your decision makers will usually weigh three major factors: speed, scale, and investment. How quickly can you get your solution up and running? How much work is involved? What will it cost? List the pros and cons of each approach.
With the above in hand, you should be well on your way to evaluating and recommending a bespoke community stack for your organization.
P.S. This website, Community Stacks, is meant to be a helpful (and opinionated!) resource to help you discover new tools and platforms worth considering. It's in the early stages, focusing on the collection for now. If you'd like to stay in the loop, sign up for the newsletter or follow along on Twitter.