Five Critical Decisions When Building a Community on Your Website

Social is not a new buzz word.  Although we hear this term ad nauseam in most marketing, product roadmap, sales – name the department – meetings, this is an elusive topic.  Why is it so elusive?  Quite simply, this is because “social” has a different meaning to different people.  This conversation can get complicated quickly as you apply it to your CMS and overall website strategy.  So, let me demystify this for you.

But Seriously, What Does it Mean?

Social has a few different meanings.  It could mean to some people that they are able to share content on places like Facebook and Twitter.  Others may think it refers to common features like blogging and forums.  It really is just how we want to communicate and have our customers communicate with each other and with our brand.

Customers demand a different kind of website experience today.  (Yes, employees on your intranet are your customer too.)  Your customers want to communicate with your brand in a way that they’re used to in their daily life.  E-mail is boring and old.  They want to engage in a community setting.  They want to have friends, instant gratification, earn rewards, and more.  They want to feel like they are part of something.

Why a Community?  Why Now?

If you’re not leveraging a community on your website, you are missing a critical opportunity to engage with your visitors, build customer loyalty, lower support costs, and stay ahead of your competition.  If done right, a community-centric website will also keep your visitors on your site longer and cultivate brand advocates.  You’ll begin to notice that it shortens sales processes and builds word-of-mouth advertising through community generated recommendations.  After all, who trusts the car salesman over their neighbor or best friend?

Now that we understand what community is and why it is important, let’s look at the top 5 mission-critical decisions that you need to keep in mind.

1. Avoid the Nuts and Bolts

Market research has shown that building your own community software will cost you millions in development, which would likely leave you looking at purchasing an existing solution.  Make sure when you do that, you choose a solution that of course meets (and perhaps exceeds) your expectations.  This part is easy.  The hard part is not knowing what you don’t know…

Most social solutions today are hosted in a central location, forcing you to integrate with them in a way to hopefully make it appear to be a seamless transition from your website to your community.  This is clearly not ideal though and rarely works out how you expect.  Now you have to figure who is going to do that integration, how much time it will take, and how much this will cost above what you originally expected.  Don’t forget that you also now have to master this new system alongside your existing one, putting you into additional support costs right away.

You instead want to find something that fits the overall website strategy of your organization.  Why stop at just the community?  Choose a solution that also allows you to manage all of your websites, content, digital assets, users, and more.  Your total cost of ownership will definitely be better off instead of continuously bolting on a new solution every time you’re trying to solve a business problem.

2. The Only Constant is Change

You almost certainly will have the need for modification.  You might integrate custom back-end systems, an ERP, CRM, a document management system, or any other kind of application.  This is definitely a requirement of any website project today to make sure you are meeting business goals and to ensure adoption.

When you talk about choosing the solution for your community, you should also pin point exactly what it will take to make those modifications when the time comes.  Do you have the expertise in house?  Do you need to contract someone else?  Does the vendor require that they or their partners do it for you?  What are the cost differences?  Who owns the resulting code in the modification?

Probably the most important question here though is…  Will these modifications prevent you from being able to upgrade to a newer version of the software?  The last thing you want to do is get stuck in an old version or not be able to upgrade because it’s cost prohibitive.

3. Licensed to Thrill

The most commonly misunderstood concept when looking broadly over the software ecosystem is licensing.  This is never truer than in the open source space – but you want to be aware of what you’re getting yourself into regardless.

Do you own the software or are you just using it?  Does that answer fit into your business model?

If your community becomes successful, how will your cost be affected?  Are you going to be penalized for that success or can you grow your community freely?

Can you legally make modifications and where does the licensing allow you to install the software?  If you make a modification or you choose to host it in your own data center, how does that impact your licensing and support?

4. Own the Data

When you look at the various options available for community or social software solutions today, the vast majority are hosted for you.  This is a great convenience for a few reasons.  It allows you to not worry about where and how to get it up and running.  It also limits the amount of maintenance that you need to be involved in.  However, not everything is convenient about it.

You need to be fully aware of what that means to you and your business objectives.  Who owns the data?  Can you get to that data in a meaningful way?  How are you allowed to use that data?

Regardless to where and how your community is hosted, you should make sure that there are no restrictions to how you can use and access the data that is resulting from the activity of the community that you are working very hard to foster and likely paying a premium to have.  You also don’t want to invest in a model that appears to lock you in as an imprisoned customer.

5. Take it From the Horse’s Mouth

One of the things that many of us look for when making large purchases is a proof source.  You wouldn’t hire a graphic designer without seeing some examples of their work first.  The same should be true of the solution you choose to run your community.

The last thing you should do when building a community is choose a vendor that itself hasn’t proven to be able to foster its own community.  If they don’t know how to do it themselves, how can they do it for your organization?  If the vendor hasn’t been able to use their own software to build a world-class community presence, you should consider over-analyzing every detail of their value proposition and maybe even just consider another solution altogether.  Save your time.   Your time is worth something, right?

Wrap It Up Already!

Add these things together and you should end up with a rock solid solution for your organization that will allow you to meet your project requirements, align with your business objectives, and keep you agile enough to not get in the way when change happens.  It’s not easy to move from any kind of solution to another.  A social community may even be the most painful kind of solution to migrate.  Hopefully these tips will ensure that you only have to make this decision once!