Finding the right partner is essential to any undertaking, whether it be personal or professional. However, while many people understand how important it is to select the right employer, business partner, or significant other, they often fail to put the same weight into finding an online community software vendor.
The reason behind this is probably the amount of time they anticipate in the relationship. If you are looking for a significant other, you're probably asking if you could see yourself with them far into the future. If you're looking at an employer, you're probably thinking about staying for at least several years. If you're thinking of a software vendor, you figure the relationship will end when you sign the check.
When you see a technology vendor relationship in these limited terms, you limit both yourself and your vendor. A successful relationship with something as robust and central to your organization as an online community platform is an ongoing one.
Your vendor should provide guidance and training throughout your relationship, because you'll discover challenges in every stage of implementing and managing your community. Your vendor will, hopefully, help you be successful so that you will continue as a customer and possibly become an advocate.
Selecting online community software should be the start of a lasting business relationship. You should choose a platform that will grow with you and a company that suits your current and future needs. Just like with personal relationships, there are some vendors you can't see yourself going the distance with.
Here are five things your online community platform provider will have if they're a keeper.
A great online community platform provider runs on engagement, so they should have their own followers. Look for social media proof that they know about and practice engagement by interacting with customers, prospects, and advocates. You don't want someone who has a "do as I say, not as I do" business outlook.
A great online community vendor brings a wealth of experience on best practices and tips from their own community interaction, as well as that of their client base. You should have access to their expertise in order to solve your own business problems and improve efficiency. Examples might be information on how to use the software correctly or tips for increasing engagement.
Prioritizing Your Needs
It's also important to understand what you absolutely need and what you're flexible with. Describe your requirements to your vendor in detail. Their software should fit your business needs, including working with or replacing your current software and creating an exceptional user experience. Understand, however, that even if the software doesn't immediately show you what you want, there may be workarounds.
Don't view all workarounds as an inconvenience. They're often used to help unique company needs fit within a system, and sometimes you'll find a more efficient way of running your organization based on the experience of others. A good vendor can help you through this process, closing the gap between your needs and what the software can provide.
Once you've investigated software features, talk to your vendor about how the platform was constructed, how they decide on and implement changes, and how often they introduce new features. Are customers involved? Do they support a particular industry, which may take precedence over your needs?
You will use your online community software for years, so understanding how the platform will change and be improved is important. Established vendors already have experience with this. They should be able to answer all your questions and ensure you're comfortable with their development process.
A good system will grow with you, thus it's important to share your future goals with potential vendors. Ask if their platform can grow with you based on the specifics you outline. If they can't answer you, or don't provide ways for your platform to expand with your business, don't invest your time and resources. With no plan or assurances, simply hoping a vendor will roll out the features you need in the future could set you up for future business problems.
It's challenging to change platforms once your community is established, but it happens and you need to be prepared. In the event of a divorce from your vendor, who will own your data? Asking this question after you've signed a contract could cause major problems, including data loss.
Be sure that while your data may be hosted on your vendor's server, it ultimately belongs to you. Ask what happens in the case that their software no longer meet your needs, especially how you can retrieve your data.
Just like with every other relationship, it is unlikely you will find a perfect vendor. There may always be something else you want or something you'd like to work a little differently. But by weighing vendor offers and their ability to meet your needs, you can find an easy-to-use online community platform that enhances your business.
The key is to communicate with your potential vendor about what you want to do and how you want to do it, so they can provide you with the best possible version of their software and services. Taking the time to discuss the details of your business and the community you want to engage will help you establish a mutually beneficial relationship that improves both your businesses.