Platforms & Technology
Big hero images, large white spacing, plenty of empty areas are all signs of a community designed by someone who prioritized beauty over what members need.
This usually happens when the person designing a community doesn’t participate in it.
Given the choice between beautiful and ugly, everyone prefers beauty.
But that’s not the choice.
When you’re forcing members to waste time scrolling around the page to find what they want, you have a problem. The more time it takes, the worse the community experience becomes. If it becomes too bad they go somewhere else entirely.
It’s no surprise the best communities, StackOverflow, FitBit, Spotify, Alteryx, GiffGaff etc…have densely packed sites that are easy to scan.
More than one community revamp has been ruined by someone on a misguided quest to make something prettier instead of better.
If you find yourself pushing the content people want to see down the page, adding a lot of spacing between content, it’s time to speak up. Because if you don’t your members will.
If you’re going to drive advocacy, pick an advocacy platform.
If you’re going for customer service, pick a customer service platform.
If you’re going for loyalty and retention, pick a platform that helps build a sense of identity and share/document information.
If you’re going to generate and solicit ideas, use an ideation platform.
You’re far more likely to get the results you want if you pick a platform designed to achieve those results.
The problem is we don’t know what results we want.
Have the difficult discussion today, narrow down your goals to specific, singular, things you can achieve. Then pick a platform to match.
If you had a choice, would you launch a new community today on a forum-based platform?
You might, if you expected long-detailed discussions and high search traffic for older questions. Forums do a terrific job of this. They’re great at integrations and customizations too.
But these benefits apply to increasingly fewer companies. Most people just love to talk about the topic without any overarching structure.
Most communities, I suspect, will start to resemble social media platforms.
DriveTribe is a good example. It’s primarily an app based on instant conversations (much like real communities). You can join sub-groups (tribes), follow people, and participate in a live-chat. It’s created about cars and is focused around sharing photos, videos, and simple questions.
You can check out some of the screenshots below:
Unlike most forums, you can easily take the community anywhere you want to go. Have a car problem? Take a photo and share.
See something cool? Record a video and share. Feeling lonely? Go to the chat room. It’s going to seem increasingly antiquated when you can’t do this.
In the coming years, a lot of community folks are going to go to great trouble to try and defend their forum-based platforms. It will look similar to Kodak defending the power of analogue cameras. I urge you not to be one of them.
Thousands of business books are filled with organizations who didn’t see the change even when it was right upon them.
..and it’s right upon us now. Swim with the current, not against is. DriveTribe might well fail, as might Figure1 and other early pioneers, but the trend is pretty clear.
When the entire world has a device in their pocket that lets them capture and share their passions in powerful ways, it makes sense to build a community around it.
I don’t think I’ve met anyone that hasn’t got a complaint about their community platform.
You don’t have the data you need, integrations you need, features you need, layout or design you want etc…etc…
Over time, these frustrations tend to rise until they prompt a great migration.
The problem with migrations is you replace one set of issues with another. In the process you upset members, incur huge costs, and you throw out all the time you spent fixing bugs from the last change. When you migrate, you end up with an entirely new set of unforeseen problems.
Worse yet, platform migrations rarely have an impact on the level of participation. Changing the environment only affects those regular users of the platform (who else will see it?). I’ve seen too many organizations migrate platforms to get features members said they wanted…but never used.
The best reasons to migrate platforms are when the costs of the platform rise beyond your capacity or the platform itself is clearly heading in the wrong direction (worse support, security, falling behind trends etc…).
Changing platforms also feels like the silver bullet to solve your problems. It isn’t.
Yes, you found the perfect platform.
But have you found the time?
Most people underestimate the time it takes to bring a platform to life. The need identification, platform demonstrations, negotiations, approvals, design tweaks, more tweaks, yet more tweaks, fixing the broken single sign-on, more tweaks, explaining internally why it’s taking so long, more tweaks etc…
It might not be quite a full-time job, but if you’re doing a big implementation it’s going to be a huge part of your job.
Where will you find the time to do it well?
Working yourself to exhaustion isn’t a solution, so what will you spend less time doing?
Will you spend less time responding to members? Put aside new initiatives? Hold back on researching your members? Write less content? Remove bad stuff slower? Cancel 1 to 1s with your community team?
The cost of a community platform isn’t just financial, it’s what it stops you from doing in the short-term. Don’t casually push things aside. Deliberately decide beforehand what tasks you will cut and hand over.
We often come across disgruntled prospects who have flown blindly into building a community.
This happens when a senior executive decides to create a community (and typically drops the task upon someone in marketing).
This person speaks to a few platforms and picks a vendor they like best. The vendor recommends a trusted implementation partner. The implementation partner designs a great-looking website which is live within 3 to 6 months.
A few common problems arise here.
First, you will spend too much. This usually means buying modules you don’t need. Trust us, no platform vendor will refuse to sell you additional modules if you decide you need them later. The goal of the salesperson is to get you to sign a 3-year contract.
Second, the implementation partner will often design a site better suited to a mature, developed, community rather than you just starting. If you’re not providing specific guidance for what you need today, you will end up with something that looks great but functions poorly.
Third, this approach tends to force a big bang launch. Once you’ve spent $100k+ on a website, your company is expecting great results. That means thousands of active members quickly. That means having to report numbers early on. This means you can’t test and adjust concepts under the radar. Your colleagues and execs judge you.
(It also means people are quicker to cut their losses if it’s not working out.)
Platform vendors, implementation partners, and others do terrific work. But don’t put them at the controls of your effort. Become informed first. See what other communities were like when they launched. Ask questions from those who have been through your situation.
Don’t fly blind here…it could become an expensive trip.
Spend 20 minutes reading this paper.
“Using interrupted time series analysis and regression discontinuity design, we observe an abrupt and significant increase in social reciprocity after the adoption of a threaded interface.”
In short, adding threaded discussions (expanded all the way, i.e. you could have comments indented significantly as people respond to middle comments in the discussion), yielded an increase in responses.
Almost all community platforms today offer threaded discussions. Your mileage will vary, but testing flat, threaded, one-deep, and full branch structures of discussions is a low-cost and potentially high-reward endeavour.
Some people were afraid to post using their real names. So we recently switched on anonymous posting in our community. This could be a powerful tool if it were a ‘tick box’ alongside a comment someone was writing (like submitting reviews on our online community platform comparison tool below)
It doesn’t work well on Discourse. On Discourse it’s a strange symbol hidden beneath an avatar option no-one will see. Nice idea, bad implementation.
That small detail might prevent hundreds, possibly thousands, of people from sharing valuable posts.
One prospect has an SSO implementation which, when you log in, will take you away from the community site you were on initially. You can write a response to a post, click reply, be prompted to log in and wind up on a different site.
This is a community-killing problem.
We want to make it easier to share interesting links. It gives people a reason to return every day to see what’s new. Sharing links works when it’s just an URL and a short title. But the current forum requires the title, URL, a description, and categorization. Who has the time for that? Easier to wait for someone else to share the link.
One client introduced an activity stream without realizing it would be filled by most members replying to the same discussion. It was a costly waste of real estate.
Just because a problem feels small and niggling doesn’t mean it can’t completely undermine engagement in your community. You don’t realize how important it is to simplify, remove a click, and reduce the mental effort required until it’s too late.
When you’re developing a community platform, don’t assume your developer/implementation partner will get this stuff right. They often opt for the easiest solution to implement instead of the best option for your members.
Go into minute detail and detail exactly how you would like every single feature to work (and keep a record of everything you’ve agreed in meeting notes shared with everyone involved – trust me).
If the first question is what do you want a visitor to do, the second is what do you want a visitor to your online community to know?
Do you want them to know this site is unique or special in some way? If so the site has to offer something unique or different from any other community in its field. This will require custom development. Place it prominently.
Do you want them to know this is a popular place to hang out? If so, show lots of activity taking place, display the number of members participating, and highlight any other success metrics.
Do you want them to know they could build a powerful reputation here? Show the people who have built a powerful reputation in the community. Feature them highly.
Do you want them to know to know this is a private, exclusive, or even secret community? If so, show nothing. They have to join first.
Do you want them to know they shouldn’t be scared or feel they have to be an expert to participate? Place beginner-level topics and a newcomer option on the homepage.
Do you want them to know the guidelines for participating? Then prominently display the guidelines.
Do you want them to know the latest news or most popular topics? If so, feature these prominently (Sonos does this well).
The problem is most platforms aren’t sure what they want people to know. Unable to decide they go with most of the above. Don’t do this.
If the call to action (CTA) is the single action you drive everyone to take, everything else tackles the emotion that gets them to take that action. Make a clear choice what emotion will drive the action you want. This should be linked to your online community’s strategy and where your community lies within the online community lifecycle.
What you want the audience to know will change over time.
Continuing our platform-themed week; a quick primer for those looking at costs of community platforms.
In theory, this means you begin at a low level (usually an estimate based upon existing traffic to your website) and gradually pay more as the community grows. In practice, you’re more likely to be transitioning from one platform to another and stay within a single pricing tier.
The objective of tiers is to make the community affordable to more organizations but create a ‘lock in’ to the platform as your community (and presumably your investment in the community) grows.
For most external communities, the usage tier means the level of traffic (often unique visitors). For internal (employee) community platforms this is the number of registered users (usually a few dollars per user per monthly). Though some platforms (HigherLogic/Salesforce) use different structures.
The usage tiers for a typical external community (let’s imagine, 1m visitors per year) begin at around $1k per year for reduced-featured (forum-based) platforms (Discourse/Vanilla) and rise to $100k+ per year for a similar tier at a full-fledged enterprise platform (Lithium, Jive, Insided).
You can use the slider of the community platform comparison tool to see which platforms become available at which pricing level (see below).
You will notice at 1m visitors per year (833k visitors per month) anything below $50k per year will leave you with one of the smaller community enterprise platform vendors. These come with their own pros (more responsive to customer requests – especially key accounts) and cons (less development resources, fewer features etc…).
The Risk of Multi-Year Contracts And Importance Of Being On The Right Tier
As most enterprise platforms request a 1 to 3 year contract, it’s important to be placed in the right traffic tier at the beginning.
You can always move up (this is why the tier structure exists) but not many platforms let you move down if you’re attracting less traffic than predicted. One prospect recently signed a six-figure multi-year contract with an enterprise platform at a tier which was far too high for them. This can be a very costly mistake to make.
Some platform vendors will talk up the potential of your community and absolute reach to put you on a higher tier. It’s inspiring talk, but it’s better to be conservative here.
Estimate 10% of your current web traffic (at most) if it’s behind a community tab.
If you’re signing a multi-year contract you should usually request some sort of discount. Lithium has given 66% discounts on long-term contracts, other platforms have been known to negotiate aggressively to lock customers into multi-year deals.
In addition to the license, a few platform vendors charge for additional usage. Lithium charges for API calls above 10m per year (an API call is a request to their server via an application), Jive charges for high video usage etc…
The pricing tier is a license to use the community platform for a given duration of time and for specific uses. If this is all you pay for, you will get a barebones platform with limited design or customization. In addition to the pricing tier, you also need to customize the design, integrate the community into any existing systems (CRM/single sign on etc…) and add any additional functionality too.
This usually requires paying an additional setup fee to either the platform vendor or implementation partners. Companies like Grazziti and 7Summits specialize in these implementations. Most vendors will have a recommended list of implementation partners. Make sure you check the financial relationship between these partners and vendors (money often exchanges hands to get referrals).
Implementation costs vary wildly. At the lower end, a typical enterprise platform integration will begin at around $15k. At the upper end this may cost $500k+. This depends very much upon the complexity of the integration and design requirements. Migrating data from one platform to another especially can be expensive. A recent client recently invested a high six-figure sum on data migration.
Be aware that during the implementation time, you’re still paying for the license. Any time wasted here costs you money. Line up the implementation partner and your set of requirements before signing the contract. We’ve seen many people get stung here.
Some vendors will require you to use them for the implementation – at least part of the installation and require a one-time setup fee to help you get started. This is usually in the mid five-figure range.
Additional Charges and Paid Modules
If you wish to use the community for specific purposes (gamification, collecting and storing knowledge, generating ideas, or deploy specific security requirements, hosting events, creating groups) you may have to pay for additional modules to be added to your community.
This is essentially pre-written software which can be lightly adapted or switched on for any client community. At the enterprise level, these cost between $20k to $75k each (this can become expensive quickly) at the lower end HigherLogic offer basic modules for $1.5k each. You may be able to negotiate having these modules included as part of a multi-year package.
It’s worth nothing you shouldn’t sign up for any module you might use. Only those you definitely will use. No platform vendor will refuse to let you buy a new module if you decide you need it later. You can be conservative here and add more modules when you need them.
Note that these modules too are on a license to you for a specific time (usually a year). They are not usually one-time additions. This adds to the total annual cost of the community. In some cases, the additional modules can exceed the license fee itself.
Training, Support, and Consultancy Costs
Most vendors include training and support costs within the license fee. Some will offer premium support or higher levels of training at additional cost, but these usually cover how to use the platform (which they should teach you to do anyway) rather than how to build a community instead (I’d recommend our courses instead here).
A few will include an additional 10 to 20 hours of consultancy time to get your community started. This often isn’t negotiable and tends to be billed at $100 to $200 per hour. You should not be paying more than $20k.
External Consultancy And Other Costs
When beginning the process of picking a platform, be aware of the total cost of the community. This includes not just the cost of additional modules and support, but also the cost of any additional changes later on. Anything you ask for which is not included within your contract will be billed at a $150+ per hour level.
In addition, be aware of your own time. It’s tempting to pick cheaper vendors or developers to help you launch the technology, but if you’re spending half your time every week on the process this costs escalates quickly.
If the risk of a mistake is high or your time to manage the project is limited, you can retain support from community consultants (including ourselves) in this space who have experience guiding clients through the process and developing platforms.
I can’t speak for other consultants, but our costs tend to range from $20k to $100k+ for more complex projects (around $40k to $50k is feels more common).
Be Aware Of The Total Costs
The total cost of a community is usually higher than you imagine. At the lower end of enterprise platform, $20k would be a good bargain. At the higher end you could easily spend seven-figure sums – especially if large migrations are required. Ensure you have a contingency budget in place for additional changes after the platform is live.
Do you think Reddit’s homepage would be better if it was shorter?
What if it was divided into different sections with a featured top 5 list, a place to get involved, a place to search, and a big graphic announcing members can ‘join, share, and connect’ with people like themselves?
Reddit’s homepage works so well because it doubles-down on what the audience most wants to do; browse discussions to find something entertaining.
It’s important to double-down on the most important call to action instead of trying to cater to every possible CTA. Almost every wildly successful community I can think of doubled-down on a single CTA instead of appeal to every possible CTA.
This matters a lot. If (like Reddit) you have the top 25 discussions instead of 5 you are 500% more likely to find a discussion that engages you. This has a HUGE change upon participation habits.
Spend some time browsing the most popular communities and social networking sites. You will usually see the same thing. They found one single CTA that gripped their audience and devoted almost everything towards doing it well.
It turns out, hedging your bets on a community homepage isn’t a great strategy.
The Goal of A Homepage Is To Persuade A Visitor To Take Action
The goal of a homepage is to persuade a visitor to take action (even if that action is reading).
The secret isn’t in the language you use to persuade someone to take that action (although that’s not irrelevant) but determining what causes people to take that action in the first place. The design doesn’t matter if you’re driving people to the wrong action.
This task has to make their lives better. It also has to help you achieve your community goals. This is the critical task you want every visitor to perform.
This call to action (CTA) typically falls into seven common categories.
1) Share what you’re doing and thinking (Facebook/Twitter/Nextdoor). This works best in social networks where members have cultivated their own following/relationships. It’s less successful in communities with a strong common interest (niche/topic focus), but weaker connections between members. The benefit here is people constantly update what they’re doing to build and maintain their social status.
2) Share something interesting (Reddit/ProductHunt/Inbound). This works in communities where members have weaker connections but want to build their reputation, gain validation, or get attention. This is excellent when filtering large quantities of information for quality is a problem. It doesn’t work in small sectors with limited sources of information. The major benefit here is people visit every day to be entertained or see new ideas they can use.
3) Search for solutions / information (ATT / Airbnb etc..). This works in support communities with a lot of repetitive questions with a large potential audience who most critically want a good solution to their problem. You want people to find the answer before they need to ask the question.
4) Share a problem/get help on a problem you want to solve. This works in new or small communities where getting new questions is more difficult than delivering good answers. This helps drive traffic and activity. It can help people get answers to questions they may ask elsewhere.
5) Participate in interesting discussions. This works in communities of interest where discussions have no clear purpose beyond getting to know and talk about a topic members enjoy. Most hobbyist communities fall into this category.
6) Connect/join/subscribe/follow. This works best when you have lots of newcomers (to the topic) visiting the site who need guidance to understand where they belong within the field. You can help guide them to the right group of them. This works best in communities for large subject matters with lots of subgroups
7) Learn and read information. This works in content-driven sites where activity is based on new information shared from a leader, expert, or established the source. Many news sites fall into this category.
This isn’t an exhaustive list (Kaggle wants people to join and host competitions for example). However, it’s a list you can use to begin testing calls to action to find the best fit. While you can and should) research your audience (interviews, surveys, and observational analysis) to make an educated guess about the best CTA to use, the best feedback will come from testing.
Once you find the right CTA, double down on it. Don’t try to appeal to every possible use case for the community.
Find the single thing your community most wants to do and devote most of the available space, content, and activity towards it.
It’s probably not what you think it is today.
p.s. We’re looking for a few more reviews on our community platform comparison tool, can you share yours?
Replacing your community platform with another might replace your current set of problems with another.
Switching platforms is not a silver bullet to increasing engagement or the end of your technology challenges.
This doesn’t mean it doesn’t help. Some of our clients have seen great success switching platforms. But it’s a calculated risk. You need to know the risks and how to navigate them.
- Members will be upset for 1 to 3 months. They will express this publicly. Prepare both your community and your team to ride this out. Watch what people are doing not what they are saying.
- Visiting and participation habits will be disrupted. The greater the change, the bigger the disruption. The metrics you’re measured by might drop significantly. Don’t panic. Ignore the sudden spikes or dips immediately after the launch. Wait and see the trends after a few weeks.
- Your search traffic might decline. Any structural change will affect search rankings of hundreds (or thousands) of content items. This can become a sharp decrease in new visitors to the community. Speak to a technical SEO consultant before you’ve made the shift. New platforms can easily create a lot of thin content.
- New technology challenges will arise. You might solve one set of challenges to be replaced by many others. Be informed about the likely challenges. Read reviews of Lithium, Jive, Salesforce, Telligent, HigherLogic, and Vanilla etc… to learn what these problems might be. They won’t come up on sales calls.
- The implementation will take longer and cost more than you anticipate. Prepare for the implementation to take far longer than you expected and for additional costs to arise to fix new bugs. Add a 15% contingency budget. Even the more detailed of plans need revision once they’re live.
Switching platforms often makes sense, just don’t underestimate the total cost of doing it.