There was a time when customer communities were seen as unpractical and burdensome.


With the success of social media and mobile users, many brands have since taken the lead with the engagement and growth numbers to prove it. They’ve demonstrated that online communities are more just a convergence and tracking tool for their users.

Picking out and implementing a new platform that fits within your requirements can be a difficult ordeal, never mind accounting for changes in employees and customer behavior over time. To make it easier, we’ve identified things you should pay attention to when selecting your customer community software. Delivering great customer experiences should not be a difficult proposition.

1. Determine what’s in it for the company


How is your inter-company communication like? How do the development, marketing and sales teams communicate? If customers aren’t adequately involved in these conversations, are you able to benefit them?

  • Start somewhere else first. When you start with a small mailing list or a Facebook group, you can easily test your assumptions and hypotheses before launching a full-scale platform. Look for vendors that offer an extended demo, as well.
  • Embrace changes in communication. Community systems are collaborative and open on some level. Don’t act on the need to control or censor the information and subject matter that users discuss between one another.
  • Be ready to break down business silos. When the product team is able to talk to the support team, everyone can better understand the pain points customers are experiencing.

2. Visualize the customer’s environment


When coming up with an environment, the last thing you should be doing is combing through long feature checklists. Your customer service software is built for users, so first thing is understanding how you want a user to behave in the community. Here are some of the questions you can ask yourself:

How do you want your customers to interact with your content? Do you want them to vote, comment or respond in a specific way? How will you keep your audience updated of new developments?

When customers land on your community, where should they focus their attention? Nothing screams like an abandoned site than a lack of activity. When a community is constantly and regularly updated, it draws in constantly grows its audience.

3. Look for a flexible and stable platform


Regardless of what your team’s like (small and agile / structured) you want to something that you can get set up and working easily while flexible enough to accommodate any changes in your organization.

  • Idea lab which permits a way to submit and vote on other ideas
  • Bug and issue tracking with progress and resolution updates
  • Question – answer area for commonly raised questions
  • Knowledge base for more in-depth content

Understand that your company is going to change and so will your community. Pay special attention to the UI and customization options so that newcomers/existing users won’t be put off by the experience as expectations change.

4. Decide how much control you want to relinquish

Our fast-paced world can quickly override the tried-and-tested approach companies are used to in problem solving. At one point your customers may not only catch certain bugs before your QA team does, but they’ll have a platform to discuss solutions and work-arounds that may otherwise never see the light of day.

What are you prepared to have your customers say on your turf? Can you entertain conversations about competitors? What type of content do you want to communicate – what about embedding media or code snippets?

Communities add a new dimension to a simple knowledge base or FAQ site. If your in-house knowledge base doesn’t promote free-flowing discussions, you could be establishing friction points and communication barriers for customers without realizing it.

5. Decide on your level of involvement


In many cases, you can’t just start a community and expect customers to participate. A community usually demands you set aside resources (manpower, time) to maximize its potential.

  • Occasionally post questions or ideas such as acting for feedback on future products. Engaging content delivers value and keeps customers sticking around.
  • Fish for customer testimonials and “success” stories to use in marketing or promotional material.
  • Allocate resources to adequately collect, analyze and present data to higher management.

Set update intervals for a news feed, updates list or calendar. Spend time marketing your community content and encourage users to share it.

6. Determine how to tie in loyalty programs


Those community members that really open themselves up to you – participate and help others – can be the most valuable. Not just for garnering social proof, but also when it comes to advocacy and loyalty programs.

  • Build relaitonships. Run contests, infographics, presentations to grab user attention and encourage discussion.
  • Incentivize customers to participate. Being recognized as an insider or a valuable member who can influence a brand can be an excellent motivational factor. Complement this with loyalty programs to show appreciation for their work.
  • Keep track of your ROI. Are you able to tap into the knowledge of the customer or your processes more effectively? Use community data to influence your marketing decisions (ie do something or not do something based on knowledge gained)

7. Integrate with your help desk system


Communities are typically built for and around the customer, in order to gain their trust and build on relationships. Since this typically includes customer service, it makes sense to keep your help desk system closely interconnected with the community.

Here are some of the questions to ask yourself:

Can you use the community to help you deflect tickets from your help desk? Can this be measured? Can you insert discussions from the community into tickets? Can you separate helpful discussions from unhelpful ones?

Simply having access to a community isn’t enough – especially if competitors get in on the action and also offer a similar platform. Where you can set yourself apart is how you use the knowledge of the customer and your content in support interactions.

8. Select the right vendor


Naturally, you should select a vendor that covers all the bases of your organization. While doing these these things can take a toll on your resoures, if you’ve done your homework, it will all be worth it in the end:

  • Make a note of what software you’re already using. What helps is making a list of your existing software stacks and apps that you’d like to continue using post migration.
  • Evaluate a vendor based on your own terms. Since not all vendors will be able to meet your demands to a ‘t’, ensure they can at least answer the most crucial questions related to your organization.
  • Develop a plan to execute the migration. Communication is important, so working with everyone is important to agree on milestones, crucial dates, possible bugs and ways of recovering from them.
  • Decide on a post-implementation training and growth plan. Your community implementation isn’t complete when you have X number of users in it. Understand and revisit outdated information, close the communication loop with all stakeholders and re-iterate everyone’s roles.

Online communities are a big commitment. It’s a commitment based on selecting the right vendor, building trust with your customers and using this inclusive environment to grow the company in the right direction.

Since business priorities change over time, you’ll need to examine and re-adjust constantly, hold regular meetings to monitor roadmap progress, resolve routine conflicts and re-iterate on your vision.

This may all sound like a lot, and that’s because it is. A community is a new perspective, a new level of accountability – yet when done right, can also bring unmatched value to your organization.

Note: This post was originally published here: