When the software companies are competing for your attention...
Take a step back and regroup.
Why are you doing this? Who are you doing this for? It can be easy to lose sight of these things after being swept up in multiple sales funnels. While every platform has its own strengths, not all of them will align with your association's explicit wants and needs. Don't let their sales and marketing efforts disorient you from the core goals for your online community.
Establishing your own standards - and sticking to them - is imperative. Planning for your online community is a project in and of itself. Don't let all of that hard strategic work go to waste.
So now that you've given the research process due diligence and formulated a short list, how can you compare your options most logically?
4 Key Considerations for Evaluating Online Community Software
1. Does the user experience suit your members' technical skills and expectations?
Yes, this is the enduring marketing question that should be looming over this whole process anyways - WHO is this for? You need to have a deep understanding of your users from the perspectives of process, usability and behavior. Without these considerations, you could choose a platform that is either inherently too complicated for your member base or with features that stop short of what they want to use the community for.
2. What do association staff members like most about a given platform? What gives them the most pause?
If you've followed our advice about who to involve in the community software selection process, then these are the people that have been with you on this journey from the beginning. Paying attention to their voices now is just as important as it was back in the planning phase. Also, if you've already identified your community manager, their opinion should carry great weight when evaluating a platform given that they will be on the front line of community engagement every day. Listen to your employees and create a safe, open environment for them to voice questions, concerns and hopes about a platform you're considering.
3. How much work will be required to launch the new community and get it chugging along?
What is the specific launch road map the community software vendor uses? Will there be additional coding required to get what you want? Is it simply plug and play and build-as-you-go? Is there an open API that allows for easy integrations between the community and your CRM and/or social platforms? Get specific answers to the amount of time it takes to get a typical community off the ground. If they have other clients of comparable size and goals, learn about what the process was like for them and how many man hours were required to build up a fully functioning community.
4. Is it easy to manage content and accessibility for different tiers within the community?
Some associations want an open garden community, others want a completely private, member-only community, and some engagement-savvy associations will want a combination of both. If you are still weighing the pros and cons of these different approaches to accessibility, you need to make sure that it is easy to create tiers within the community and to build and shift these digital divides in the future when strategy may change. Having the capability to create sub-groups or sub-communitities that have more exclusive access while leaving the majority of content open to the internet at large is another highly valuable strategic capability in a platform.
Regardless of the matrix or criteria you're using to compare and select a community platform, one exercise is indicative of its true potential and effectiveness - you should be able point to every key feature of a given platform and identify how it can provide a concrete benefit to either your association or your community members. At the end of the day, a platform needs to be a conductor of obvious benefits and frequent engagement, so making sure that it can deliver on this to either you, your members or both is the most important and underlying consideration.