Have online community platforms reached their maturity point?

This question came up recently after reading two different posts: Sameer Patel’s “Why Collaboration Fails”, and Altimeter’s report “The 2015 State of Social Business: Priorities Shift From Scaling to Integrating.” Patel’s post highlighted the gaps and opportunities in aligning collaboration with business process, content, people and data, while the Altimeter report included an interesting data point which showed a decrease investment in online communities by those surveyed.

The points of view offered in the two raised other questions:

  • Are Marketing, HR, Communications and IT teams still investing in online communities?
  • What about legacy web environments, e.g. website, portal, extranet, and intranet? And where do they fit now?
  • What’s next for online communities?  

Let’s tackle these questions in turn. If you disagree with my interpretation at any point, I welcome your feedback in the comments.

Have Online Community Platforms Reached Their Maturity Point? 

Online community platforms are just getting started. In my work with online community platforms since 2007, I’ve seen the platforms evolve from an amalgamation of features like discussion forums, wikis and ideation to integrated platforms like Jive, Lithium, Teligent and SharePoint. These latter iterations blurred the lines of elements you might find in traditional portals and features from mainstream social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Some of the first generation community implementations were lightly integrated but still viewed as separate tools in the digital suite of enterprise applications for customers, partners and employees. Examples could be seen of dedicated online communities for customer support, which acted separately from external social media channels, traditional website and service environments. 

Inside the organization, companies were adding community platforms like Jive, Yammer and IBM Connections to supplement their employee-facing digital platforms like email, SharePoint, employee portals, directory and network drives.

Solutions like these have driven measurable value for our clients with their customers, partners and employees. However, after their initial launch and success, one question often comes up, “Where do we go from here?” More on that soon. 

Are Marketing, HR, Communications and IT Still Investing in Separate Online Communities?

The answer to this question is that it varies. Business and/or IT stakeholders who oversee various digital platforms are facing a common challenge — their digital experience is broken, and there is a need to consolidate, integrate and/or retire their various antiquated web-based environments for a number of reasons:

  1. User experience is poor and creates fragmentation
  2. Old environments are desktop centered versus device agnostic
  3. Lack of technical integration between platforms
  4. Disconnected from business processes
  5. Too many logins and user accounts
  6. Customer data lives in various silos - there is no 360 degree view of the customer
  7. Measurement is a challenge or not existent 
  8. Enterprise content management lifecycle is a challenge (where is it, what to keep and retire?)
  9. Organizational ownership is shifting (from IT to Business to Chief Operating Executive)
  10. Ongoing activation and adoption of multiple systems poses a challenge
  11. Costs of maintaining overlapping platforms and skillsets is cost prohibitive

The investment is shifting from single purpose and web based tools to a truly unified digital experience that centers more on the user's needs than the organizations. Every company has similar ingredients on their shopping lists as they look to build this next generation unified and integrated digital experience that includes social, mobile, analytics and cloud. Recent research from GDS on CIO 2016 investment priorities confirms the importance and prioritization of “Customer Experience” and “Digital Transformation.”

CIO research

Source: GDS, CIO research

What About Legacy Web Environments (e.g. website, portal, extranet, intranet)?

While it would be much simpler to have a single web platform that serves everything, the reality is that no change like this occurs overnight, and inevitably some of your legacy environments will need to live on in some way (at least for now).  

Now we come back to the online community maturity question and the question of what’s next. 

Communities are evolving from some of their earlier purposes and broader use cases like peer support, ideation, self-service and expert identification to augment these existing environments like an websites, portal, extranet, intranet and other web based applications to actually replacing them. Best of breed community platforms like Salesforce and Jive are offering an extremely compelling baseline web experience that can replace a number of your legacy web based environments with something that is mobile, social, data driven and cloud delivered by default. The following graphic shows the current gap (islands of interaction) and potential for unifying a number of external web systems through an aggregated community experience:

islands vs. aggregators

This shift is already occurring. The vast majority of my work today focuses on replacing versus augmenting these traditional web environments within community enabled versions. For example: 

  • Customers: Instead of adding a social capability to an existing website, brands are turning to social websites to help them connect with customers in entirely new ways, with integrated user generate content like reviews, self-service, customer support and commerce functions.
  • Partners: Instead of Partner communities that fill gaps in the legacy partner portal or extranet, the model is shifting toward partner community enabled portals with integrated peer support, deal registration, self-service and case management features. 
  • Employees: Instead of bridging gaps within large corporations by adding employee communities, companies are replacing entire intranets and portals with social intranets and enterprise social networks. 

These separate “spoke” applications, are integrated within the community, reducing the number of systems and clicks, ending user frustration and ultimately decreasing abandonment. 

What’s Next for Online Communities?

Transforming the digital experience with communities, introducing APEX

To address many of these problems my company developed the Aggregated Personalized EXperiences (APEX) concept to help frame our point of view of the future and opportunity for communities. 

apex model

At a top level, APEX leverages a community as digital hub foundation to provide an aggregated digital experience that includes:

  • Single point of interaction
  • Serves multiple audiences and needs
  • Brings together relevant, personalized information from multiple sources

integrated contributor communities

Business, user and technology needs have clearly changed since the last wave of singular focused web based applications and tools. Offering a traditional portal, website, extranet or intranet that is NOT centered on the user, mobile optimized and lacking social creates a significant gap in your digital strategy. And silo’ed communities that fail to integrate into the customer journey, and your digital experience will no longer suffice. By bringing these together in a common digital hub, we can ensure that the opportunity for online communities remains bright.

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Title image by Rodion Kutsaev