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.

“The first thing we ask them to do is to prioritize their requirements,” Martin said.

Rank your requirements. Put them in some kind of quick format.

Learning Opportunities

“Eliminate some requirements or combine them so the list is less daunting to review,” Martin said.

Don’t include things that are inherent in EVERY community platform, such as, “Allow customers to collaborate in an online environment.” (“Well, duh,” Martin said.).

Group your requirements into tiers -- ranking the most important, medium and least important.

Use a Smart Feature and Functionality Checklist

Martin’s team uses smart checklists to rank vendors and give them scores. 

“You not only are prioritizing but are also having the ability to compare these vendors to others with scores,” Martin said, adding his organization during a selection process actually encourages potential vendors to fill out checklists themselves.

When you’re considering vendors, Shiao said, don’t ask them to show you everything their software does. Tell them the things that are most important to you instead of “asking for the kitchen sink.”

When compiling a list of potential vendors, talk it over with your peers and see who they have used in the past.

Use Smart Checklist as Your Demo Agenda

You have your checklist and requirements prioritized. Now it’s demo time.To make it useful, work directly from that smart checklist, and have the vendor show you how their software addresses each of your requirements.

Essentially, take the microphone out of the vendor salesperson’s hands, and take control of the demo by peppering questions about how the vendor’s platform will specifically address your requirements.

These salesmen are really good,” Martin said. “For our clients, we need to make sure the demos speak to their needs. That’s why we use the checklist to run down the requirements. It helps us get to the most important things. Most salesmen are pretty good at making their software look great. Instead of seeing a well-rehearsed demo, we need to make sure we get to the smart checklist."

Recognize, though, intangibles exist that can’t be captured on paper, Martin said. Some organizations may want online community vendors who have a lot of developers. Others may want strong customer service where they can pick up the phone and get answers.

“The result of the checklist exercise is not the end-all, be-all final answer,” Martin said. “It’s a tool to inform your decision-making -- not the decision itself.”