Community Software Buying Checklist

3 minute read

January 21, 2014

Community Software Buying Checklist

Community Software Buying Checklist

1- Can I customize the look?

If you are serious about your brand (and who isn’t?), you will want a solution where you can do more than add your logo and change the background colour. You will want the community to look and feel exactly like the rest of your website.

2- Are the features focused on what matters?

What will make your community successful? Features that encourage end user participation are more important because without a critical level of activity, your community might not take off. For example, look for forums that focus on ease of use or a good notification system that notifies users when they are being engaged in conversation.

3- Is it easy to administer and moderate?

Administering your community should be easy, intuitive and not be a huge time drain. A several hundred page user manual on how to use your forum will make it unpleasant for those who need to manage your community. It’s great to have knobs and dials to control things, but also remember with greater complexity can also come more issues and problems too.

4- How is it hosted?

Do you want a Software—as-a-service solution or do you want to self-host?  Self hosting might look less expensive but the total cost of ownership (setup, licenses, maintenance, etc.) can add up. A SaaS solution means no IT hassles and easy setup but it also means finding a vendor that you can trust and that you want to work with over the long run.

5- What is the support model?

Like insurance, the quality of your support is important when a bad thing has happened and you need it most.  You might also need development support if you plan on a close integration between your community and your website or other systems.

6- How is the software upgraded?

Most times when a forum or community is hacked it’s because they are using old software that was not updated. Ask your potential vendor: how are upgrades handled for your software? Are they included? How hard is it to upgrade? Some vendors might require you to pay an upgrade fee to be on the latest version of the software.

7- Do I own 100% of my data?

Sometimes things don’t work out and you need to change community providers. If you are self-hosted it’s quite easy to get to your data. If you go hosted though, be very careful about who you choose. There are a number of hosted solutions that do not allow you to take your data with you, or they make it very difficult. Do not become a hostage to your vendor – ask about this before you sign the contract.

8- How easy is it to configure and integrate?

Will configuration require a professional services engagement? What will that cost? Is the product extensible via well documented APIs to let your developers integrate it to your other systems?

9- Does it have all the ‘must have’ features?

Ensure you scope out the must-have features in your community before you sign-up (and before you get frustrated by the limitations). Some common features to ask about:

  • Can you control who joins? For example, can you make the community closed or private?

  • Does it have have Single Sign-On (which lets users connect with your current authentication system)?

  • Can you have members join specific groups or can you restrict member permissions so they can only view certain categories?

  • Can users upload files?

  • How does it handle multi-languages?

  • Do you integrate easily with my WordPress blog?

(As an aside: The answer is yes to all of these for Vanilla)

10- Is it battle-tested? Can you trust them? 

If your community is truly important you will also want to look deeper at the creator of the software. Are they trust-worthy? Do they have a team that stands behind the product? Do they regularly release updates, new features? Are other brands you recognize using them? The community forum space is full of new products, but think carefully before risking your reputation and brand on experimental, unproven software.


We hope this checklist helps you in the buying the process, and we would be happy to answer any questions in the comments or any other areas you think are worth considering.

Vanilla Forums is a customizable community solution that believes in SaaS customer rights, including full data ownership for their customers. Try Vanilla Forums Cloud Solution free for 30-days or contact our sales team to learn more.


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Adrian Speyer

Written by Adrian Speyer

Adrian Speyer is the Head of Community and Lead Evangelist for Vanilla by Higher Logic. Besides spending many years in digital marketing, Adrian has been building communities of all sizes for over 20 years.

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