Our platform selection process has evolved recently.
It now looks like this:
1) Decide the platform category (budget, resources, skills)
The options are broadly traditional (forums/mailing lists), white-label, open-source, vertical enterprise (e.g. associations), business enterprise, or bespoke (don't do bespoke).
This depends upon the organisation's budget, resources, and skills. If the organisation doesn't have the manpower to maintain and update a platform, an open-source solution is a bad idea. Here we check the budget range, the designated person to manage and maintain the platform, and the organisation's previous experience in developing websites.
Next we check if there are any unique/special needs required. Security is a common one, integration with existing platforms, customized features/design, but it's not uncommon to have an oddball here.
With this information we can select the category of platform we're looking for.
2) Identify platforms with a bright future (innovation, customer base, funding)
We covered this recently. Now we look at Google Trends, Crunchbase (most recent funding), latest feature updates, and latest company news. Companies with no new news, funding, and a declining Google Trends probably don't have a long future. Platforms are a competitive space, you want to back a winner.
3) Look for successful examples (references, levels of activity)
Now we want to find as many people using these platforms as possible.
This means asking around, research, and building up as big list as possible. Then we drop the owners of the community a note to ask if they would recommend the platform. Platform vendors only provide references that gloss over the problems. We ideally want to talk to 5 to 10 people from each of the platforms we're looking at.
We also look at the successful examples the platform vendor sends. Is the community highlight active? Are people interacting with one another? What is the Alexa/Compete ranking? Ignore testimonials (would any company ever post a bad testimonial?)
By this stage, we have usually identified the three best options.
4) Check features
At this point we check the features the platform offers. We specifically look at the discussion area (compact, clean), notifications, integration with e-mail (people can receive an e-mail notification of a new discussion), news page, and any specific issue with the community.
5) Negotiate and validate (pricing, contract)
If it's a platform vendor, we schedule calls and negotiate pricing options.
Read any contracts/deals carefully. Some vendors sneak in unrequested applications/additions, demand a minimum 48-month contract, proclaim ownership over all content, or even reserve the right to contact your members.
If you see this in a contract, ask for it to removed. We also tell vendors we're considering multiple platforms and ask them to specifically highlight what they can better than the alternative options.
If the website doesn't have a listed price for the platform, you have broad room to negotiate. Some of the bigger, enterprise, vendors have dropped fees by 80% at this stage.
We no longer dwell too much upon what platforms the audience already uses.
There are three reasons for this:
1) There aren't many audience-specific requirements. Aside from e-mail (which can be integrated), it's rare that an audience won't embrace a new platform. The design/look/feel is more important than the platform. Some Pinterest-style communtiies are the exception here.
2) Most platforms can be designed to look like something familiar. You can design a platform to look and function like something the audience is already familiar with.
3) Having a great platform is more important. Sounds strange, but having a platform with a great future, which is proven to work, and which is widely recommend is more important. Audiences are more flexible.