At Ballistiq, we build custom communities for our clients. Often, we are approached after the customer has gone through the sales process with other vendors. Our customers’ often tell us that important functionality was missing, integrations would need to be hacked together, and theming would be costly. Choosing a community platform isn’t as straightforward as it seems — best of breed is only best if it meets your requirements.
We thought it would make sense to put together a post discussing the considerations when choosing a platform and how going the custom route is simpler and has great advantages.
Technology doesn't make great communities — Great communities are well designed, have compelling content and fill a specific niche. With a litany of choices in the world of community software, it’s easy to get distracted and make choosing the focal point of your planning.
Where to start
Start with your strategy
- Who are you building this community for? - How do you expect it to impact your business? - How will your future members use this community?
A community for support, brand, engagement, ideation or learning, all have different requirements and member types. Having strong requirements lets you narrow your focus on what really matters. Since so many community platforms are mature, it’s important to have the requirements drive the platform choice.
Choosing a vendor for your community also means choosing a partner. Look for a company that will not only build the community with you but also helps with the strategic planning, customer validation, and launch.
Work with your existing customers
Whether you’re building a new community, or migrating an older one to a new platform, it’s best to start doing some market research on what your community members will want. Start out with some assumptions and validate them through customer interviews and market research.
Is there an existing community in the space? If so, research how the community is being used. You can also take a look at their engagement numbers to help plan for how large of a community you’ll need.
Once you have a validated list of requirements and understand the use case. Begin the search for a platform.
What to look for
Most community platforms have the basics covered: Gamification, moderation tools, conversation types and a few layout options. The devil is in the details, consider the following.
Integration into other systems
Integrations aren’t sexy, but they’re important. Integrations make or break your community. Consider payment processing, logins, user accounts, marketing tools, CRM, support tickets and more. Having hose key integrations makes for a better user experience and lets you better leverage your community to drive company KPIs. Ultimately, community members expect a seamless experience on your website. They want to go from your home page, to your product, to your community without having managing multiple windows, or logins. Integrations go beyond how data is transmitted between systems — We consider design as a significant part of any community integration. Your community members expect a design that fits with your brand and product. Do you want your members to see the community as an extension of your brand, or as just another Discord forum? We recently completed some work with a gaming company who wanted all visual aspects of their community to match the in-game experience. This was a heavy design focused project, but when it was completed, the user experience was seamless, and their adoption numbers showed just how much players loved this community.
What features do you need?
The list of features offered by community platforms can be dizzying. Don’t get distracted by features your community won’t use. Stay focused by creating a list of need-to-have requirements, and a list of nice-to-have features. By narrowing down the requirements, you can cut the noise, and avoid extra costs. After-all, people do not join communities for their list of features, but for the content and discussions.
Custom or off the shelf
Self-hosted v SaaS
Most community platforms today are SaaS offerings. They’ll take care of the hosting, maintenance, and security of your community, plus provide the software for an annual fee. It sounds great, but you pay a premium for that service — and the service doesn’t translate into a better community. Especially if your vendor is not prioritizing the features you want.
We’ve built our fair share of custom communities, and have done integrations and implementations with out of the box solutions. We find that a custom solution can be less expensive than an off the shelf with superior functionality. Curious as to why?
SaaS communities have an initial set-up fee — It’s not cheap. Skinning your community costs extra, depending on the level of customization needed, it can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Adding integrations in the form of API connectors either costs internal dev resources or requires you to use the vendors professional services which are often very marked up.
You’re paying a significant markup on hosting costs. You’re paying for features you might not use — Roadmaps are often prioritized on what features will bring new business.
You don’t always own the data, so you’re at the mercy of the vendor should you choose to migrate down the road or the company shutters (see the Jive example below).
When you consider the upfront launching costs, plus customization, plus monthly fees, it’s easy to see the costs run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first year. Especially if it’s high traffic community.
For larger and communities where the community is the product, owning the community ends up being the most cost-effective solution over the lifetime. Typically for smaller, simple communities, off the shelf is sufficient. When you’re creating something that will drive a lot of traffic, have a high value for your brand, or be the product, custom is the best choice.
Consider Jive. Jive ran into financial troubles and was acquired by a Private Equity firm. Within a few months, the PE firm sold off Jive's community product, Jive-X, to rival Lithium Technologies. What happens to these communities? What if customers do not want to switch platforms, or Lithium raises prices? These concerns will always be present when working with SaaS providers, especially when they are struggling to turn a profit. Considering a Jive X community costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, it's not as if organizations are saving by using their platform.
Why use a custom solution
- Complete control — From branding to functionality, you’ll build something that fits your customers and your business’ needs. - Better functionality — Get the features your community needs, without the added complexity - Better integrations — Make sure the integrations you want are built with the community from day one. - Data ownership — Own your platform, your data, and your customer relationship.
What type of analytics will you want to tie into your community?
Most community platforms provide some type of analytics dashboard, and it’s fairly typical to find a Google Analytics integration. But depending on the community, you’re building you may need more.
For example, if you are building a community around learning and education, then you’ll also want analytics into how those two platforms work together. If you're expecting revenue to come from your community, how will you track where sales are coming from? Regardless of which community vendor you choose, make sure you have a way to track it’s success. Often that means building integrations into your existing data systems.
Building your own community
Creating your own community, with internal resources is less than ideal. Unless you have experience with community building, odds are that you’ll end up making design, usability and technical mistakes. Plus, the last thing you want to do as an organization is diverting development resources from your main product to building a community.
If you’ve looked at the off the shelf solutions, and see that nothing fits, then reach out to a development firm (like Ballistiq) who specializes in building custom communities. Often, this will get you the best result, and won’t cost as much as platform vendors may lead you to believe.
Planning for the future
Merely meeting today’s requirements may not be enough for your community. Can your platform scale to meet demand as it grows? What features will the platform provider be prioritizing in their roadmap? What happens if the requirements change and you need to add new features, will they support you? How will you get your data from third parties?
Let's take a gaming company as an example. They'll need to be able to accommodate large influxes of traffic when a new title launches, updates happen, or there are large events. Can your community handle the traffic? We've all seen sites that have crashed at critical moments. With a hosted solution, you need to trust that the vendor has the proper infrastructure to keep your community live. Check for an SLA uptime guarantee.
We’ve all be wooed by the sales exec saying the vendor will support you, and be building out all the features you think you’ll need in the next 6 to 12 months, only to be disappointed down the road when those features don’t materialize.
There's nothing wrong with an off the self-solution, so long as you're doing your due diligence with the vendor, and making sure the features your community needs are there. However, best-of-breed isn't often as simple as having community vendors respond to your RFP. There should be considerations to having a community created specifically for your requirements. You can own the customer relationship, save money on expensive SaaS costs, and get everything on your requirement list.
If you're considering a community, reach out to digital agencies and see how they stack up. Ballistiq has built large communities with hundreds of thousands of users. We have the experience and expertise to create something unique for your brand. Get in touch with us today to discuss how we can help.
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