The last two or three years have been "interesting" in the community platform space as things have been shifting quite a bit with regard to vendors. Most every organization I know is looking at changing their platform as their contract is up for renewal and they are looking around, or their vendor's state has changed. There are also an incredible number of organizations who are looking at getting their first platform up and running. Many are also looking at augmenting what they have or trying to unify what they offer or build a more unified environment.
It is important to remember just as organizations are social human environments that interact at different social scales simultaneously and with differing tasks and needs, the platforms that support them also focus on different segments and scales as well. A rare few handle multiple scales and segments in one platform or product. It is best to start with understanding one's organizations own needs for these then looking for solutions. These are 10,000 foot level views of things.
Understanding Needs and Types of Platform
Just as there are different human social interaction models at different scales in organizations and different engagement types around knowledge and work, there are similar types for platforms and tools. Many platforms were built looking at one segment and optimizing toward that model (often not intentionally, but driven by customer need and expressed pain points).
There are four main types of social platform segments based on their social interaction models. They are not fully mutually exclusive of each other, but overlaps that are solid across with two or more strengths are rare. These types of interaction models are based on what the needs are for the organization.
Collective Social Model
The first of these is collective interaction which is both a collective social model, in that it is people working together to build a whole perspective across their expertise and capabilities. But, it is also collective in the manner of activity in that they are collecting and curating information. Collective social tools are highly valuable for gathering information, but also for seeing the whole of an information space. These are common in competitive analysis, legal environments, M&A, early assessment of a product or process. The focus in the Collective Social Model is around a subject (a social object) where getting full (deep and broad) understanding is what is valued. Filling in gaps and organizing, through curation, is the working model. These spaces and their outputs can be fodder for knowledge bases, libraries for teams and groups, and the foundation for building something upon.
Cooperative Social Model
The Cooperative Social Model is based on social interactions where there is sharing, questions asked with responses, and interacting around what others are sharing and doing. This is the common model many people think of for teams and enterprise social networks, which are drastically different scales with different core needs, but the social interaction models are very similar. The Cooperative Social Model focusses on a subject with others sharing around that subject, but they are also interacting with each other to further understanding and to often build cohesion. A common interaction model can often be thought of as a call-and-response interaction where something is shared into a space (by a person or system notification) and others respond or take action upon it.
Organizations use these models in teams, small and large groups for community of practice or location / specialty interest sharing, community spaces (all inside an organization, as in an enterprise social network), and network model which spans beyond an organizations boundaries to interact with consultants, B2B, customers, clients, etc. Each of these sub-models operates at different scales (more on this in the next section) and each of these sub-models are different because the focus and scale and often aren't all that interchangeable the platforms often only work well with one of these levels well and not across more than one.
Collaboration for the last 20 plus years has often been the blanket for social platforms where people interact with others around work or help each other. But, the older understanding and framing is around bringing different ideas and approaches together into one space where the differences are negotiated and mitigated into one cohesive path forward. The management of the background for what is negotiated and mitigated is an essential component as it capturing the reasoning for the way forward on each point. Most often the path forward isn't the final path forward, and all the work researching the paths not chosen have value when there is the inevitable need to iterate and change course (slightly or drastically). Quite often the greatest value isn't what is captured around what you chose, but in what is captured around what you didn't choose. A decent level of capturing of information and understanding with what wasn't chosen save large amounts of time when iterating or course-correcting. Decent level of capturing background can make a course correction a couple to a few weeks rather than months of going back to the starting point again. There is gold in the capturing what isn't chosen today and why.
The last of these segments is Communication. Communication platforms not only support people interacting with each other, but supporting an activity stream for services sharing status, insights, and alerts where it is relatively easy to follow and interact with others around it. Traditionally this has been email for people communicating and as the activity stream. But the downsides of email with its lack of ease of onboarding someone to a conversation and its history, or to status is problematic. The modern model of "point and don't attach" many organizations adopted in the past 10 to 12 years for files and objects is much cleaner in social communication channels.
The communication service is often the intersection and jumping off point to other services and platforms. People can interact in the service around a subject, but notification of a conversation in another platform can also surface in the communication channel and respond there or respond back in the other service.
Communications often support teams well and their distinct needs (tasks, status, process & planning, progress, calendar, team fit, shared resources (files, etc.), communication, and decisions) either in the platform or through notifications from services that handle these needs. A good communication platform integrated well, shouldn't be overwhelming and can provide a good view across a team's activity, state, and needs along with the means to initiate responses.
Good communication platforms are invaluable. They are more than chat services and notification activity streams. They should integrate well and provide the means to highlight was is needed for attention across disparate avenues, but also should provide the means to interact in the comms service as well as jump out to another platform easily and support an easy means to be a supportive layer across many endpoints.
Scale(s) of Social Need Areas
As mentioned above, understanding the scale of social segments is desperately needed before assessing a platform. Understanding scale is one element of social platforms that is often overlooked and becomes problematic if the fit isn't there. A service focussed at large scale social interactions for a community or network level social interaction often doesn't handle the smaller scale social needs well.
The smaller level social segments are: Collective, Teams (and sometimes small groups in Cooperative), and Collaboration. Each of these segments work best with groups of 8 to 12 or fewer, but sometimes up to about 25 people at maximum.
Where things sometimes get a little complicated is with groups and the larger scale platforms. Much of the social interaction in larger scale platforms is in groups (large and small), but a good group platform may not work well for community nor network scale interactions. Community (mostly inside an organization or a bounded community of practice) and Network scale capabilities are categorized as such because of their global capabilities. These capabilities are: announcements (which often can be pushed into commutations platforms), identity and authentication models for access and permissions for roles, search, cross-pollination, and ability to integrate with teams for their ability to provide support or get support.
An area that doesn't get the focus it should nor the understanding it needs is the user experience. This isn't just the ability to brand and modify the UI with colors and decoration, but the ease of use and fit for the user's mental model.
A big differentiation platform to platform is the user experience / user-centered design. The flows and ease of the use flows for common tasks is essential. The ease of understanding social interactions should fit the users mental model and be clear to the users. Many platforms aren't using current interaction models for common activities, like uploading content. But, also the social interaction design models are essential and for many platforms they have yet to really embrace these understandings and are rather clunky and cumbersome.
A key focus for social platforms is people interacting with people through a platform and often interacting around a shared object. Often the platform gets in the way of these people-to-people interactions. But, many systems don't quite get to enabling clean interconnections and these lead to limitations and confusion, which shouldn't be introduced.
The platform should have a solid UX and social interaction design team working on it full-time and their own leadership who has depth and experience with social interaction design. I've been seeing some platforms that have been allowing the community managers to select and optimize their user experience, which is something that has been a long time coming. The ability to have a simple interface and simple interaction model as a user gets started is essential, but enabling more complicated experience that support more advanced user's needs is something that is really beneficial.
Interconnection and Interoperability
One of the big insights from organizations is that those who have a good percentage using and relying on their social platforms is they have more than one. Often for many organizations at scale there are more than one team tool or platform in use. They may have and community platform for their communities of practice, some different tools and platforms used at the team level, and recently a communication platform all integrated to some degree or another.
Over the last 12 to 20 years one of the big changes has been the capability to interconnect and interoperate different systems and platforms. Many vendors touted their capability to pull information into their system easy from other platforms, but it was rare for them to open their capabilities to others. The last 10 years or so that too has shifted with platforms not only opening their APIs for others to read and use, but also new platforms and new versions of platforms start with APIs and build their platforms out from there.
While there is a lot of proclaiming kumbaya, we all get along, mantras the ability to truly interconnect and interoperate across and between platforms can be much more muddled. Spending time with vendors showing what they can easily share out in APIs and streams, what takes more work, and what is really difficult if not impossible is something worth spending time on. This will pay off when working to connect a communication platform and various team platforms together. It is also worth the time to look at integration enabling services like Zapier and Microsoft's Flow to see what capabilities are out there for services and platforms you may have interest in, but also see what others are doing.
Related to open APIs and open data models for interconnection and interoperability is using similar and more when the time comes to move on from a platform. Very few people think about this in the early stages of product selection or at all. The last year or two this subject has been coming up a lot as the landscape for social platforms for organizations change. As people and organizations find value in having social capabilities in the organization they may realize they have changed as an organization and need a different solution, they realize their platform is not a great fit, or their platform or service has changed requiring the need to move to another option.
It is incredibly important to think about how data, conversations, knowledge, history, etc. can be exported out of a system before they purchase the system. There are some organizations that run failover systems for some or all of their core interactions, while others test their archives and exports for continuity exercises should their main platform cease to function or they have a short window to transition.
The ability to have a different platform that can provide continuity of operation, or enable failover through export and / or API backup is a conversation that is needed before purchasing not after.
Often an added benefit of this is these platforms often have better integration, improved capability for advanced analytics (few platforms have analytics that meet mature needs), and solid up-time through redundancy and failover systems.
These five core areas to consider are far from a full list of areas to focus on, but they are areas that should be on your list for product selection, or your regular product review cycles (every quarter or six months is a good time to take a look around and see what has changed and what your organizations next possibility could be).
Other areas that are highly important include: Security, great customer support, great uptime (for the platform and all of its sub-services), mobile use (including integration into mobile device management environments), accessibility, great admin tools with ease of use (a great test of solid user experience is looking at admin tools and services and how well they are done), failover plans, set integration native in the system (file / document storage is one of the most common), and frequency of product updates (incremental and major).