Guide to evaluating and selecting the right community vendor

Molly Clouse, Senior Integrated Campaign Manager

Navigating the crowded community vendor market can be overwhelming, with numerous vendors offering a variety of strengths, weaknesses, and specialties. Selecting the right community vendor is crucial for maximizing investment and achieving short-term and long-term community goals.

This blog provides a step-by-step guide to help you evaluate and choose the vendor that best aligns with your unique business needs. From understanding the essentials of online communities to defining key features, conducting thorough research, and assessing potential vendors, this guide will equip you with the steps necessary to make an informed and strategic decision.

Before we begin, let’s define the basics of a community and why it’s a beneficial investment for businesses.

Community 101

What is a community?

An online community, also known as an internet community, social community, or digital community — is a community hosted online that allows people with a common interest to interact online. Online communities can exist for any shared interest and enable its members to ask questions, discuss topics, share content, or work towards a common goal.

These communities can be small, with only a few users, or large, with millions worldwide. Each online community has unique rules and guidelines based on size and purpose.

Benefits of having an online community

Building an online brand community is one of the best ways to support your brand. Here are some of the most notable benefits of having an online community:

  • Grow Customer Loyalty: An online community allows customers to ask questions, provide answers, and discuss everything related to your brand. By actively engaging with other community members, customers build trust and loyalty towards your brand.

  • Add Value for Your Customers: 75% of consumers value interacting with others in an online brand community. These interactions encourage potential customers to choose you over competitors and help retain existing customers.

  • Deflect Support Volume with Self-Service: According to Harvard Business Review, “81% of customers will attempt to resolve issues themselves before reaching out to a live representative.” You can deflect calls and improve customer satisfaction by giving your customers a community to ask and answer questions on their own through self-service.

  • Gain Feedback: Brands can monitor their online community to understand better their customers’ likes and dislikes. Customers may even suggest product enhancements or ideas for new products/services.

Types of online communities

The community landscape encompasses a range of solutions, spanning from enterprise community platforms to Facebook groups, each tailored to specific organizational needs and industry requirements. Broadly, online communities fall into two categories: unowned and owned communities.

Unowned communities reside on platforms not governed by a single organization, including social media groups (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook), discussion forums (such as Reddit and Quora), and location-based communities (e.g., NextDoor).

In contrast, organizations directly manage owned communities. Organizations may develop an owned community in-house or acquire them through a vendor. Owned community solutions can be categorized into enterprise-level platforms and specialized community solutions.

Enterprise-level platforms offer comprehensive support for various business functions, integrating with sales, support, and product feedback processes. They are ideal for mature communities or businesses with diverse needs. Khoros Communities is an example of an enterprise-level platform.

Specialized platforms are tailored to specific business objectives, such as support/success, product, acquisition, advocacy, content, or engagement. These solutions provide focused community offerings aligned with industry needs or organizational requirements. Check out this blog for a more complete breakdown of the types of specialized community platforms and examples of each.

Whether you are looking for an enterprise or a specialized community platform, this blog will provide the tools to evaluate vendors confidently.

Before you start: Set your strategy

Before you’re off to the races, clarifying why you’re building the community, your goals, and who will manage it daily is crucial. Setting your strategy early on will help you achieve internal alignment and ensure you ultimately pick a vendor with the right features, functionality, and expertise to meet your needs.

Here’s a quick checklist of everything you should nail down before jumping into vendor evaluations:

  • Identify Your Community Goals: Establish clear and specific community objectives that align with your organization’s overall goals and strategy. Start by asking what problems or challenges you are trying to solve and how the community will address these issues. Some examples could be better organic growth through SEO, increased customer retention, and improved customer satisfaction, which helps reduce operating costs. Here are some ways a community can add value to your business:
    • Customer support: decreased costs, increased efficiency, faster issue detection

    • Product and development: shop better products, better feedback, crowdsourced innovation

    • Customer loyalty: Increased CSAT and retention, self-service capabilities, focus on significant challenges

    • Sales and marketing: increased customer spending, increased advocacy, more savvy customers

  • Crunch the Numbers: Online communities are a strategic investment in time and resources, but the value they can deliver to the business is undeniable. Fine-tune your budget to understand how much you plan to invest in the technology and staffing of your community team.

  • Get Alignment: Put together a tiger team of cross-departmental stakeholders who will be paramount in driving the community's impact. Ensure they understand the solution's cost-benefits and how it will positively impact their KPIs and business goals. Consider folding key stakeholders into more mature stages of the evaluation process to ensure the community vendor has all the features they will need to make it successful for their department. Additionally, a broader buying committee will cement the purchase decisions and mitigate any challenges further down the road.

  • Build Your Team: Clearly define the roles and responsibilities for the community's implementation and ongoing management. Identify who will be responsible for daily management, who will oversee the implementation process, and which stakeholders will be involved. Assess your team's technical expertise; if technical skills need to be improved, ensure you have access to the necessary technical resources via outsourcing or other internal teams.

5 steps for evaluating community vendors

Step 1: Identify essential features and functionality for your community

You’ve already undertaken the critical work of establishing the foundational strategy for your community. Now, it’s time to articulate how this strategy will transform it into a living, breathing community.

Before diving headfirst into the vendor selection process, take a moment to define the key features and functionalities your community requires. Consider member engagement tools, moderation capabilities, integration options, and scalability. Outlining your must-have features upfront will streamline the evaluation process and ensure the selected vendor aligns with your community goals.

Here are some key questions to answer to help define essential community features and functionality that will be crucial for building out your ideal community:

  1. How big will your community be? If you plan to have a large community, it is essential to ensure that it can quickly scale.

  2. How will your community look and serve your customers?
    • How will content be organized and managed?

    • What sub-communities will exist within your community?

    • What systems will you need to integrate into your community?

    • What gamification features will you enable in your community?

    • What moderation process will be necessary to moderate the community?

Get a complete list of all the questions you need to answer when defining your community's technological requirements. Use our checklist to define your community's structure, look, and feel and fine-tune an airtight list of essential features and functionality.

Step 2: Gather research and create a shortlist

With your list of essential features, start gathering research for potential vendors. Compile a comprehensive list of vendors that catch your eye, noting their offerings, pricing structures, and customer reviews.

Beyond a traditional Google search, these reputable sources are excellent starting points for your research. They can help you compile an initial list of potential vendors that may be a good fit:

  • Industry Analysts: Leverage insights from reputable industry analysts such as Gartner and Forrester. Their in-depth reports and market analyses can offer valuable perspectives on leading vendors in community management, helping you identify vendors that align with your requirements. Check out The Forrester Wave: Community Management Software for B2B, which assesses the six more significant customer community platforms and how they compare.

  • Review Websites: Dive into review sites like G2, TrustRadius, and Gartner Peer Insights, where real users share their experiences and opinions about various vendors. Explore ratings, reviews, and detailed comparisons to gauge vendor performance, customer satisfaction, and strengths and weaknesses. This blog highlights a handful of insightful G2, TrustRadius, and Gartner Peer Insight reviews on Khoros, HigherLogic, Gainsight, and Salesforce.

  • Vendor Websites and Customer Case Studies: Explore potential vendors' official websites to gather high-level information about their offerings, features, and pricing structures. Dive into customer case studies to understand how vendors have addressed similar use cases and industries.

  • Community Consultants: Consider consulting with seasoned community experts like Brian Oblinger, Erica Kuhl, Jenny Weigle, and Todd Nilson. They possess extensive experience working with companies across industries to build online communities, including identifying the best community platform vendor for each brand’s needs. While consultants’ time and expertise come at a cost, their insights can be invaluable in guiding your vendor selection process. You can also access free community resources like tools, templates, and strategic planning documents on their websites (check out Brian and Erica’s podcast website:

  • Community Forums: Tap into the collective wisdom of online community forums such as LinkedIn groups and Reddit communities dedicated to community management. Engage with fellow professionals, share insights, and seek recommendations for vendors.

  • Community Publications: Look for community publications like The Community Roundtable and CMX, which provide expert insights and best practices for the community management sector.

  • Industry Peers: Reach out to fellow community managers within your industry and beyond to gather recommendations and insights on vendors they've worked with or evaluated. Engage in meaningful conversations, attend networking events, and participate in industry conferences to expand your professional network and tap into collective wisdom.

With your initial research gathered, it's time to create a shortlist of vendors worthy of further evaluation. Consider factors such as reputation and experience in similar industries and use cases, compatibility with your requirements, and pricing.

Once you’ve identified the top 4-6 vendors, contact the selected vendors to schedule product demos or consultations.

Step 3: Assess and compare fit in the introductory demo

As you begin the initial demo phase, it's crucial to approach each presentation with a critical eye, meticulously evaluating each option against your predefined criteria.

The initial demo is an introductory overview of the vendor's company and its community platform. During this session, the vendor will highlight business benefits, key differentiators, relevant case studies or use cases, pricing structures, and, importantly, demonstrate their product.

To maximize the value of these demos, come prepared with a clear articulation of your community goals, the key features and functionalities you require, and details about who will be involved in the day-to-day management of your community. This preparation will enable the vendor to tailor their presentation to your specific business needs and ensure they address the most pertinent areas.

Additionally, have a well-thought-out list of critical questions ready to ask. These questions should focus on aspects crucial to your community's success and will help you evaluate the vendor's suitability more effectively. Use this opportunity to identify and eliminate vendors not meeting your essential criteria.

Below is a quick snapshot of some of the top critical questions to ask during vendor evaluations. Download our “Questions to ask when evaluating community vendors” checklist for a complete list.

Here’s a list of questions you should consider asking in your initial demo:

  • Can you provide references or case studies from similar projects?

  • What level of customer support do you offer, and how is it accessed?

  • What kind of Professional Services do you offer? Can you provide guidance on strategy and executive buy-in?

  • What is your pricing model (subscription, per-user, etc.)? Are there any additional fees or hidden costs we should be aware of?

  • Can your platform integrate with our existing systems?

  • How does your platform handle increased user activity and growth?

  • What security measures are in place to protect user data and privacy?

  • How deeply can I customize or build on top of your platform to fit our specific needs?

  • What out-of-the-box templates and configuration tools do you offer?

  • What tools do you provide for community moderation and management?

  • What real-time and historical analytics are available, and how configurable are they?

  • What tools or features do you offer to encourage and facilitate community engagement?

Finally, creating a scoring matrix or checklist is an invaluable tool for objectively comparing vendors and identifying the leading contenders as you learn more about each vendor. Although you might not get insight into all the critical aspects of a vendor partnership in the initial demo, this approach helps you organize your thoughts, systematically evaluate each option, and identify the frontrunners from the jump. You can refine and expand your matrix as you progress to more detailed demos with your top choices.

The community vendor scorecard template

Step 4: Pick your top 2-4 vendors and schedule additional deep dive demos with relevant stakeholders

After the initial demos, you should be able to whittle down your vendor list to a top 2-4 that merit further exploration.

As you schedule follow-up meetings to explore each community product in more depth, use this opportunity to involve vital internal stakeholders. These stakeholders should include budget holders, IT professionals who need to assess and approve new technology vendors, legal teams who need to review contracts and other relevant cross-functional team members who will leverage the community to drive additional value, such as product, marketing, and customer success teams.

Involving these stakeholders in the subsequent meetings ensures internal alignment, identifies and addresses potential concerns early on, expedites the approval process, and highlights opportunities for maximizing the community's value.

During this phase, consider requesting a customized ROI consultation, which will clearly define the potential monetary benefits, including opportunities for driving additional value across departments. Armed with this information, you can more effectively advocate for the chosen solution and secure broader buy-in from your organization.

Step 5: Make a decision

With all your research and evaluations conducted, it's time to make the final decision.

Evaluate all aspects of the vendors' offerings, weighing the pros and cons against your community's needs and objectives while incorporating input from key stakeholders and decision-makers.

When selecting a vendor, consider the partnership's potential to address short-term community objectives and long-term sustainable growth. Unfortunately, businesses often prioritize immediate gains and cost efficiency, overlooking the essential tools and support needed for enduring success.

To ensure optimal return on investment and the cultivation of a thriving community capable of extending its impact throughout the organization, it is imperative to consider these critical factors when selecting a vendor:

  • Customization: Does the community product enable customization of page layouts, navigation, and brand themes to align with your brand’s look and feel?

  • Community Engagement Tools: What engagement tools are built into the platform to keep community members engaged and attract new ones?

  • Advanced Moderation: Does the vendor offer robust moderation tools to manage and regulate community content effectively?

  • Community Analytics: What level of analytics and reporting capabilities does the vendor provide? Are tools available to track community engagement, user behavior, and other pertinent metrics to inform strategic decision-making and optimize community performance?

  • Expertise: Does the vendor possess deep knowledge and experience supporting enterprise communities in similar industries and products?

  • Scalability: Does the vendor have the infrastructure to support and scale enterprise communities?

  • Product Coaching: Does the vendor provide access to guidance and support to maximize the use and benefits of the product post-sale?

  • Integrations: What integrations does the vendor offer? Does the community architecture enable developers to build custom integrations?

By ensuring the chosen community vendor meets these criteria, businesses can forge long-lasting partnerships that achieve short-term objectives and cultivate a dynamic, sustainable community that drives impact across the organization.

Made your choice? Hooray! Now, all that’s left to do is negotiate terms, finalize contracts, and embark on the exciting journey of building your community.


Evaluating and selecting the right community platform vendor is crucial in building a thriving online community.

By clearly defining your community's goals, essential features, and budget, you can streamline the vendor selection process and ensure alignment with your organization’s needs. Engaging key stakeholders in the decision-making process and conducting thorough research and demos will help you make an informed choice. Remember to leverage a scoring matrix to objectively compare vendors, focusing on critical factors such as customization, engagement tools, moderation capabilities, analytics, and scalability.

In case you missed it in the blog, here’s a list of resources to help support your vendor evaluation process:

By following these steps, considering these factors, and leveraging the above content, you will be well-equipped to choose a community platform that meets your immediate needs and supports long-term growth and success, fostering a vibrant and engaged community.

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