Starting a User Community – what platform to choose?

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If your company’s tagline is ‘joint innovation’ and being ‘as close as possible to the customer‘ is your goal, a user community forum seemed to be the very least I had to get in place as head of marketing. Our TrendMiner product is now exactly 1 year in beta going from v0.1 to v0.6 today. In order to make sure v1.0 by the end of the year / early 2016 is top notch, I think it is the perfect time now for the customers to start talking to each other and directly to our engineers / product management.

The best product is not the one you wanted to make, it’s the one your customer wants to use.

So I had to evaluate our options. Here’s a run-down of the last couple of weeks of research. The reason I’m sharing it is because I haven’t taken a decision yet and I know there are a couple of readers that probably have hands on experience with one or more of these options.

  • Confluence: first I tested Confluence Forum because we already had some tools internally from Atlassian (Jira & Confluence Wiki). I had hoped grouping tools under one umbrella would have been a benefit. It appeared after just a couple of tests that the Confluence Forum plugin was never going to be sufficient. It’s one of those minor 3rd party integrations so not a primary product.
  • Igloo Software: looks very modern but didn’t really go deep into it because it’s primarily targeted at a ‘collaboration platform’ in the likes of an intra/extranet and was going to get us too far off our target
  • JIVE: this was by far my favourit. I have used multiple ‘powered-by-Jive’ platforms before and have a good notion of the versatility and possibilities. As I started playing around with it I did get the feeling that this could definitely work for us. Until finally, after two weeks, I got the price. It’s disgustingly expensive ($40,000/yr for a starterkit). I already had a bad feeling from the get go on this one: first I had a 30 minute call with someone from marketing, then I got another 30 minute call with a local sales guy and if I hadn’t stopped it right there, they wanted another hands-on demo before I could get my hands on the product for a test-drive. Maybe that’s where the money goes to 😉
  • Vanilla Forums: I have a really good feeling about this one. The price is right; $199/mnth, $599 if we ever want Salesforce & Zendesk integration. It basically has everything we need from a forum. The major difference between these types and a Jive is that Jive is focussed to really big Enterprise forums (like Cisco for ex.). They were very flexible and fast in their communication and even though they also liked to have a sales call I did get a blanc forum to test merely a couple of minutes after the first email. An ‘A’ for customer experience so far.
  • Forumbee: looks at the edge of too small, maybe good enough for 2 years and probably easiest to set-up and get going. The highest price for ForumBee is $199/mnth with even smaller packages available.
  • phpBB: this is still a viable alternative. There are still a ton of forums build straight on phpBB. That is going to have more manual labour from our part but you can get into the nitty gritty details yourself on this one.
  • Discource: it’s what you’d probably want phpBB to be in a modern style and being Open Source. However, after talking to some friends and searching to some feedback from people that have gone this route, I found more people not liking it than the other way around.

Summary: I will be test-driving Vanilla Forums and Forumbee in the next few weeks. I have no intention to replicate all my trials on 87 platforms and may probably have missed a couple. If there is one you definitely want me to consider, please get in the comments or send me a note at hans@dsquare.be.


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