Choosing the right online community platform is, like most things, about due diligence. 

Due diligence, that is, before you get a potential vendor inside your company walls and while the vendor is inside.

That was part of the message during the CMSWire webinar, “How to Choose the Right Online Community Platform.” The event was hosted by Ben Martin, chief engagement officer at Online Community Results, and Dennis Shiao, director of product marketing at DNN.  

Here are five tips to help your organization ultimately find the right provider for your online community:

Start With a Strategy

Too often, organizations skip right to the development requirements without trying to figure out what they actually want the community to do. Strategies are often too loosely defined such as, “Allow customers to connect and to collaborate,” Martin told CMSWire in an interview after the Jan. 22 CMSWire webinar.

How often do you want them to connect? About what? In which ways?

Create a simple, one-page strategy with your organization’s vision for clients and internal folks.

“It shouldn’t be a catch-all,” Martin said. “Just things you want your community to do. Outline who your stakeholders are. How the community is going to support business objectives. Have it all documented. Once you create that strategy, you can go back and reference it. And the requirements will speak to this.”

Ensure your business objectives map back to your strategy, Shiao said.

“Write your business objectives down on a sheet of paper, then keep that sheet around throughout your project,” Shiao said. “As you plan changes and review community health metrics, refer back to the sheet and ask yourself, ‘Are we achieving our business objectives from the community?’”

Know Thy Market

If you’re not asking what your customers want, you’re already behind. Walk a mile in their shoes, and understand their needs first, Shiao said.

What are their problems? What are their motivations?

“Look to where your members are congregating online and see what they’re talking about there,” Martin said. “You can get a sense where you expect your community to go and see how your members are already engaging online.”

Focus groups and surveys can also help to pinpoint how your organization can help customers through a community.

Develop Requirements

Once you know the people you are trying to reach and what your business objectives are, you should be able to list your requirements for your online community. Martin’s team has seen customers' requirements lists with up to 100 items -- but without rhyme or reason. It’s just a long list.