Let’s start with the cynical view. If you are on the camp that the ROI for social platforms is impossible to calculate, then the answer is quite simple. Choose the cheapest one or the one that’s already available to you via some bundled offer by a large vendor. You may have bought a big Content Management System, or HR application, or Enterprise Resource Platform that already comes with a social module, However, you’ll soon learn that that decision was based on two flawed assumptions: that the returns on the social platform investment cannot be measured, and that all the social platforms are more or less the same.
Features versus Use Cases
If you don’t know where to begin, don’t start by looking at their feature list. The feature list can be very misleading: some products will offer a very comprehensive list of features, but will have very shallow or immature implementations of those features across the board. Others will have very esoteric and seemingly meaningless features that will prove to be very useful when put to test in the real world. Try the use case / needs approach instead. What use cases are important for you? What are the main challenges your organization is facing in the areas of communications and collaboration? How each of these platforms address those needs? At the end of the day, this is not a features game. It’s a “how-can-this-product-help-us-do-our-work-in-a-faster-better-simpler-manner” game.
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Don’t trust demos: trust your users’ experience. Go for a test drive. Every single social platform looks splendid when shown by a very skilled presenter. You must try it yourself, and have a representative set of your users to try it too. Ask the vendors to provide you a sandbox where your user can fully try to execute those use cases by themselves. That’s when the actual differences between the platforms will surface.
Forrester, Gartner, McKinsey, Deloitte, IDC and many other organizations provide plenty of research papers covering the areas of Social Collaboration, Social Business and Enterprise Social Networking. In general lines, they are of very high quality, and based on proven, comprehensive methodologies. However, it’s important to take those reports with a grain of salt. Often, when you go through their findings, you’ll see disparate and somewhat conflicting recommendatiosn. It’s not that they are untrue. They are an accurate representation of reality based on their methodology framework, but often the details of how the information was derived matters. For example, when reporting the industry footprint or number of users for each platform, large software vendors with a wide range of enterprise products may end up over-represented, as they often offer their social platform as part of a full package. It’s not necessarily an indication that those users are really using the social platform. I still find the analysts’ reports very useful for narrowing down the list of candidates. You won’t be able to thoroughly assess dozens of platforms. By scanning white papers from well respected consulting firms, you may find a few standout candidates to make your short list to invite for a deep dive.
Yesterday, today, tomorrow
Make no mistake: the implementation of a social platform in your organization is not an 18-month initiative. It’s a very long endeavor, and will eventually become part of your corporate DNA. Thus, it’s important to look not only at the current state of the solution your vendor is offering you. You need to look at their track record of continuously investing on the social platform and having a portfolio of proven and passionate clients. You need to consider the long term viability of their product, but without a bias against relatively small companies. Sometimes, you may be uncertain that the vendor will be there 10 years from now, but if their product is solid and widely used, chances are that it will survive mergers and acquisitions.
Vision and execution
Finally, it’s very important to understand the long term vision for the product, and how well the vendor is executing against that strategy. Is the product trying to offer the best-of-breed in all fronts of social collaboration? Or is it focused on core capabilities and a comprehensive integration framework with a healthy ecosystem of business partners? Whatever the strategy is, has the vendor walked its talk in the recent past? Has their product significantly evolved over the last 2-3 years? In an area where innovation is still happening at a frenetic pace, having a platform that shows rare signs of improvement over a long period of time may be dooming your company to fall behind your competitors.
Obviously, one size won’t fit all, so the ideal social platform for one company may simply be a poor fit for others, but I do believe that the questions above are very important in your quest to bring the value of social business home. And don’t take my word for its face value: as you go through your own implementation cycle, I’m sure you’ll find your own list of five top questions to ask when selecting a social platform for your business.