Ask any user group veteran about their biggest challenges and you'll hear a common theme. Whether they are involved in independent user groups or company-run user groups, they need to balance the time they spend managing internal systems with the benefits they need to offer their members.
To deliver that value and efficiency, most user groups need to have the following:
- A membership database to manage dues and member information
- An online user community to foster member engagement
- A content management system to provide exclusive information to members
- An event system to manage in-person and virtual events
- A mobile app so that members can access the community and events from anywhere
To coordinate their internal and member-facing strategies, user groups devote more time, money, and resources than they would like to in managing the operation, integration, and maintenance of all these platforms.
The Evolution of All-In-One User Community Software
Born from this frustration are new platforms that integrate all of these features into one cohesive system - without losing flexibility and feature depth. Your user group can use some of the features, or all of the system, depending on the needs of your organization and users, as well as where the organization is in its lifecycle.
Unlike traditional CRM or membership management, there are no playbooks and ongoing discussions about how to start and manage a technology or software user group. Even user groups for large companies have had to figure out how to management membership, run a wide range of events, and engage their community on their own.
When Socious launched in 2002, our first customers were large technology user groups. Having come from the enterprise software world, we knew what would be helpful to the users, but we still had a lot to learn. As online user communities came of age, Socious grew up right alongside them.
As more and more technology user groups began using our platform, our online community software evolved as well. What started as user group software where customers could share ideas and support each other, added tools to manage membership, run large-scale events, and manage all customer communication. The platform now includes an online store, mobile community and events apps, and content management system.
This is why Socious is known as the all-in-one online community software. Everything that a user group would need to run their user or customer community is included in the Socious system.
Do I Need a Single Platform to Manage My User Group?
Some user groups and customer communities don't need a single system. If your company requires that you use the separate event, content management, and social community tools that they have in-house, it will be more painful to get buy-in for using a single user group management platform than making due with the systems already available to you.
However, if you do have the option of running your user group or customer community using all-in-one software, the benefits are clear from the start.
Below are three areas that will help you determine if your online user community is better off being managed using separate tools or with an all-in-one user group management platform.
Managing a user group is not as simple as launching a gated-online community or tracking who has paid their dues in a database. To make participation worth your users' time and keep them engaged with one another, you need email software, survey tools, secure file libraries, discussions and listservs, the ability to collaborate on documentation (e.g. wikis), product idea tracking, and event management software to run everything from a webinar series to a multi-day conference.
If you need the most advanced features in each of these tools, then it may make sense to purchase the best-of-breed software for each function. However, the dirty little secret of most business software is that many organizations don't use all of the features that their software systems offer. Organizations can operate for years using less than 50% of the features available in their software.
Your organization must evaluate the cost of acquiring, training on, and maintaining all of the software platforms you need to run a user group. In addition to these costs, organizations must evaluate if and how they need these systems to pass data to and from one another, which we'll cover in the next section.
If you don't need separate systems from separate vendors, it may make sense to use all-inclusive user group software where all of the membership, event, content, and user community tools are available in a single system, from a single company, for a single price.
Have you ever had multiple software platforms talk to each other and something stopped working? It can be very difficult to determine which system is at fault to resolve the issue. In addition, when one system is upgraded you now have to be sure that the upgrade did not affect your integration. If it did, you must now devote time and money to keeping the systems synched.
Along with the cost of getting systems to talk in the first place, daily and critical support is another major consideration when using separate systems to run your user group.
Using a single system to run your online user community eliminates most of your integration headaches since all of the software is built into one platform. In fact, your integrated user group software can make your life a lot easier by automating processes between systems that were not even possible through the APIs offered when using separate systems.
Examples: Your online community talks to your email system. Your content management software uses information from your event registration system. And your survey tools passes data to and from your membership management software.
If your organization has mastered the fine art of integrating thrid-party systems and has the technical pros available to support it, then you'll run into a lot fewer problems using separate systems to manage your user group. However, if you are not one of those organization and resources are limited, all-in-one software is probably the better option for your user group.
Flexibility to Find the Best Technology Mix
Starting a user group or a customer community is a fragile endeavor. You must balance providing enough value to your busy users with not overwhelming them with new tools and processes. When growing a user group, it is also important to remember that the holders of the purse strings only have so much tolerance for return visits to the "budget well" (read: additional expenditures on software platforms).
These realities put pressure on your user group's management team get buy-in for the basic technology upfront and then illustrate ROI quickly, so that they can justify buying the other software they need as soon as possible. This approach can leave a user group ill-equipped from the start and the executives frustrated by the rising cost of operations.
Some organizations must operate this ways due to procurement procedures. However, if you think that your user group will need necessary digital tools to thrive, all-in-one user group software makes a lot sense since you get all the tools you need right away. This way, you can focus on providing value to your customers without the pressure of knowing that you don't have the tools you need to execute a fully formed community-building strategy.
Keep in mind that your user group won't need all of the software features right away. Some organizations need extensive functionality in certain systems, but limited features in others. User group software allows you to roll out new features to your user community, or a segment of your user community, over time as your user demand more resources.
You may still want to integrate your user group software with other systems, like CRM software or a learning management system. With a strong base platform that includes everything you need to run your user group, you can still integrate that one best-of-breed system that your organization may need. By starting with an all-in-one user group management software platform, you will save money and reduce integration issues by limiting the number of systems you need to integrate.
As you can see, integrating fewer software systems does not have to mean less functionality. In fact, fewer integrated systems can give you exactly the features you need while saving your organization time, money and staff resources.
User Group Software Takeaway
Every organization is different. Some may be better off using separate software tools to manage their customer community or user group, while others will benefit from having an all-inclusive platform. By examining the costs, integration, and technology mix requirements needed by your user group, you'll have a clearer ideas of which strategic direction is right for your company.