How have companies like Dell, LEGO and Airbnb set the stage for long-term community growth and business impact while others still struggle to define how community can serve their organization?

At the end of 2015, my company CMX teamed up with community research and consultancy Leader Networks to answer that question. Our research explored the factors that lead to community strategy success.

A big takeaway from the interviews and extensive survey of over 400 professionals was that the most successful organizations often stated they expended a “high” amount of effort when picking their community platform. The platform is, after all, the community’s home.

But surprisingly, the data indicated that only one in four organizations are actually expending that level of effort on their research. They are not setting the stage for success.

Picking a community platform is unlike picking other software: changing platforms after you’ve onboarded members is a substantial task. The software must work internally and externally to deliver on the needs of both the business and customers, and the platform must allow flexibility as well as scalability, as communities change like living organisms.

In community — unlike many other professional disciplines — the people choosing the platforms often are handed down legacy systems that were picked quickly due to budget constraints, without any effort expended to define the business value and community member value that a platform could potentially provide. 

So how do we stop this dangerous precedent in its tracks?

How do you go about the community platform selection process the “right” way?

After speaking with dozens of organizations about their process and conducting interviews alongside the research report, a clear community platform selection process emerged:

1. Clarify a Clear Business Need Community Can Solve

Surprisingly, many companies do not consider the big picture before they decide to launch community. Companies operate with community as a cost center or an “experiment,” something they feel they “should” have, but never establish the clear business case community will serve. 

It’s impossible to pick a solid platform until you know if it’s even capable of tying back to business objectives.

2. Find Common Ground Between Business and Community Member Needs

Those who built successful branded communities cited customer research as a critical factor in their success. This involves user research, surveys and user testing.

Launching a platform isn’t just about meeting a business need — it’s also about creating real value for your members. Otherwise, why would any of them want to participate?

Speak to your members about their pain points, motivations and why they want to connect to others like them. With this information, you can work out what types of actions they might want to take within the community space. Whether you organize your own user research and testing, or bring in a third-party research company to executive data-gathering, you must do this step.

3. Create a Requirements List, Vetted by All Internal Stakeholders

Thirty one percent of brands who said their online communities had failed cited a lack of internal support and resources. Before you start the process of picking a platform, reach consensus with your internal stakeholders about software requirements.

This is no small task. 

It can take months to run through stakeholder interviews and joint meetings. Just setting that expectation alone can be an integral part of your future success. Your executive team must understand that this process takes time and care, otherwise they shouldn’t invest in a community strategy at all.

4. Narrow Down Your List to Under 5-10 Candidates

Create a matrix comparing the different platforms and how they perform relative to your requirements as outlined above.

Many organizations may not realize that there are over 100 community platforms, each with their own list of features, strengths, weaknesses and primary focus points. Narrowing down the list will save you months of evaluation time in the long run.

You Can Do This

Now that you’ve done the legwork, you can move forward in the selection process.

When ready, you'll enter those conversations with platform sales representatives knowing your customer needs and business requirements. You will have the tools to negotiate and the power to say no if a platform isn’t the right fit — saving you potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

With all this prep work, you can launch a community strategy that ties back to organizational objectives and is a clear success for everyone involved.

Title image Francesco Gallarotti