Choosing a Community Platform: Community Leads Africa Summit 2022

The following is a write up of my session for the Community Leads Africa Summit.

My work in online community began as a hobby, building forums and fansites in the mid-aughts. In 2010, I started doing in-person events, meetups and workshops. 

For the last seven-ish years I was looking after content and community operations at GoDaddy. I just recently wrapped that up, and am once again diving head-first into the world of startups.

Let’s talk definitions

Every community professional has their own definition of “community”.

Here’s mine:

A community is a connected group of people with something in common. That could be a shared interest, like a hobby. It could be a profession. It could be where they live, or where they’re going to school. Point is, there’s something that unites them.

People join communities because they’re looking for something: inspiration, guidance, help. Their sense of belonging in the community won’t be strong at first. It grows over time, through shared experiences, with other members of the community.

Think of a meetup group. People join for the presentations, workshops, and other activities. A fraction of those attendees will stick around for socializing. As they get to know each other, those personal relationships become the draw.

People join a community for the content. They come back for the connections.

What’s my point?

Too often we talk about community as a single platform, a destination, a place, where members come together. Having a central place is important, but a thriving community extends beyond that, to different places, both online and offline.

As community managers, our responsibility is to the people, not to a single platform.

Different communities = different needs = different tools

Think of all the things we might do as community managers. We look after social media accounts. We write blog posts. We introduce members to each other. We celebrate their successes. We host events. We answer questions. We lead courses, handle membership payments, send out swag, and run reports… among other things.

There’s no single platform that will do everything for us. Instead, what we need is a community stack – a collection of tools that will help us do our job.

For the last year I’ve been working on a Notion database of community tools. (I’ll share the link at the end.) There are hundreds of entries, ranging from social media dashboards to advanced analytics. I’m adding new ones every day.

Here’s a rough outline, based on the broad categories from my database:

CategoryUse Case
Website buildersBuilding blogs, landing pages, community sites.
Groups & ForumsAsynchronous discussions, i.e., message boards.
Internal CommunitiesUsually company intranets or portals.
Courses & LMSesStructured learning, potentially with tests, certifications.
Content CreationTools for writing, editing, audio, video, images, etc.
Social Media ManagementMonitoring, responding, reporting on social media activity.
StreamingTools for livestreaming audio/video.
EventsManaging events, online and offline.
Chat & MessagingPlatforms and apps for real-time convos.
Member EngagementUtilities for boosting member activity/participation.
Member ManagementMember data, groups, etc.
Help & SupportTicketing systems, knowledge bases, etc.
CRM & EmailMember contact info, automated emails, newsletters.
MonetizationCommerce functionality, like taking member payments
Integration & AutomationConnecting different tools/platforms together
Analytics & ReportingCollecting & reporting on platform/program data
Project & Process ManagementProject/task management
Example of the tools we use as community managers.

It’s daunting. Where do you even begin?

Answer these three questions

There are only three questions you have to answer:

  1. What do you need?
  2. What are your options?
  3. What do you recommend?

What do you need?

What’s your community strategy? What activities are you responsible for? What do your stakeholders want? What’s your budget? What features do you need? What integrations? What use cases? What are you trying to do?

Write all of these things down. I like using a plain ol’ Google Doc for that. Make note of which things are must-haves versus nice-to-haves.

These are your requirements. It’s like a shopping list.

What are your options?

When you’re starting your search, my suggestion is to first reach out to other community managers. CMX and Community Club are two great communities for community professionals. You can also hit Google.

Now, a bit of a shameless plug: this is exactly why I started working on my database. I kept getting asked for recommendations, and I kept coming across cool new tools to play with. I figured putting them all into a single, shareable list would be pretty helpful.

So, what you’re doing here is lining up your requirements, your shopping list, against potential tools or vendors. Then you’re going to narrow down those options to a handful of promising candidates.

This is my process for quickly evaluating tools:

1. Look at the marketing site. I’ll look over the information and the features that they’re highlighting. First impressions matter. Are they speaking to the problems, or to the use cases that I’ve identified? Do their features fit my use case?

2. Look at features and pricing. My favourite tools are freemium, or product-led, which means it’s low cost to try the tool, and I can pay to upgrade if I want to commit. These tools usually offer a detailed matrix/table of features versus price. Airtable is a great example. You can start using it for free, but if you want to unlock the more powerful features, you need to pay. I try to avoid dealing with sales teams unless I’m working in an enterprise situation, where I have an intensive procurement process that needs to be followed.

3. Look at integrations. Does the tool play nicely with things we’re already using? Does it play nicely with any of the other tools that I’m considering? If a tool offers Zapier support, I’ll take a look at those Zaps to get a sense of what’s possible.

4. Look at the help and documentation. Are there any getting started guides? Is the documentation clearly written? Are there practical examples with screenshots? I love documentation that includes screenshots. I want to see the tool in action.

5. Look at the support community. What questions are users asking? What issues are they running into? Is the vendor proactively communicating with their users through the community? What’s the general vibe or sentiment of the users?

Reviewing all of that gives me a good sense of what to expect from a tool.

What do you recommend?

Come up with recommendations that match your requirements. You can think of these as “solutions”, or bundles, that include different sets of tools.

I like presenting three potential solutions side-by-side. For each solution I’ll include the pros and cons of the approach, along with:

  • Total cost in $$$
  • How much effort it will take to implement + required resources
  • Estimated amount of time to get it up and running

When presented, it may look like this:

Approach 1Approach 2Approach 3
SummarySummarySummary
Cost: $/yrCost: $$/yrCost: $$$/yr
Effort: HighEffort: MediumEffort: Low
Time: 4 monthsTime: 2 monthsTime: 1 month
Solution stack includes…
Website builder
Content creation
Social media
Groups/forums
Analytics & reporting
Solution stack includes…
Website builder
Content creation
Social media
Streaming
Groups/forums
Courses/LMS
Analytics & reporting
Solution stack includes…
Website builder
Content creation
Social media
Streaming
CRM & email
Groups/forums
Courses/LMS
Analytics & reporting

To recap…

A community is a connected group of people with something in common. As community managers, our obligation is to our members, not to a single platform. 

There is no single tool or platform that will do everything for us. Instead, what we need is a community stack: a custom collection of tools that addresses all our needs.

Every community is different. The tools will vary from one community to another.

When it comes time to choose your tools and platforms, you have three questions to answer:

  1. What do you need? Write down your requirements.
  2. What are the options? Talk to other community managers.
  3. What do you recommend? Present a few alternative approaches.

Browse my database of tools & platforms at communitystacks.notion.site.