In the past 6–8 months, I’ve been asked the same question about a dozen times from clients and colleagues.  What platform should I build my community on?  This seemingly harmless question can spark hours of discussion and debate.  If you’re planning on starting an online community, here are a few pieces of information that you should know prior to asking this loaded question.

Know your budget.  These days, community platforms can range anywhere from free open source solutions or spending up to as high as $250K. On the low end, free or low cost options will give you bare bones functionality that will leave you having to customize the look and feel, as well as configure a hosting environment. High-end platforms will provide a set of tools that will allow you to customize your community. Some even include easy content management systems so non-technical personnel can maintain the community. Knowing how much you can afford up front will help cross some names off of your list and save you time during the evaluation process.

Brush up on your company’s data policies.  In today’s online world, data integrity, data security and customer privacy are at the top of most companies concerns when launching an online community.  Bone up on what your company’s data and security policies are before beginning to compare platforms.  If your company does not allow data to be hosted by a third party vendor, that will eliminate the software as a service (SaaS) providers.

Start small.  With all of the sexy, cool Web 2.0 functionality that’s out there today, it’s easy to go overboard during your requirements gathering sessions.  Remember to take a step back and vet the functionality against your core community objectives.  For example, a support community might not need a tool that allows you to view members in your location.  However, it definitely needs a simple to understand Q&A tool.  By narrowing your list of desired functionality to only the most relevant, you may find that the more expensive platforms may have lost some of their original appeal.

Look and feel.  A brand’s online community presence should match the look and feel of its other Web assets.  Make sure that you sample a few different examples of communities built on the same platform so that you can get a feel for how flexible the platform is.  Some platforms allow you to create custom themes or skins for your community, while others allow you to only adjust base colors and copy.  Be sure that you can live with the “template” look and feel before you commit.

Know your environment.  Let’s face it.  More often than not, the budget for an online community is going to come from somewhere other than IT.  Marketing often foots the bill.  If you are a marketer looking to build an online presence, remember to check with IT on the specifications of your current environment to be sure that they meet the basic requirements.  It never hurts to have someone from IT with you while reviewing platforms to provide you with a sanity check.

To host or not to host?  That is the question.  There are several viable SaaS models out there that will provide both hosting and development of your community.  If you decide against a SaaS model, remember to ask yourself two important questions before purchasing your platform:

1. What are the additional overhead and maintenance costs associated with hosting it myself?

2. What are the additional costs for using a third party vendor to host the community for me?  In addition, what is an acceptable service level agreement between my company and the vendor?

Deciding on which platform to use isn’t an easy one to make.  However, with a little due diligence before you get started, the process will go a lot smoother and hopefully, save me a phone call ;).

Brian Costea
Brian Costea