Before you start your community or even choose a vendor, the most important question you need to answer about your community is the objective you seek to fill with your community. In other words: What is the goal of your community? I subscribe to the Feverbee approach of the three types of ROI (return on investment), which breaks down as below:
This would be to either increase revenue from customers, or simply increase the number of customers you touch. A community can be used here to increase brand attachment or loyalty. A community can also help drive more customers to the site with increased SEO. Choose a platform focused on user engagement, with strong usability that makes it a pleasant experience. You will also want gamification tools to reward users for their participation. Finally, you will want a platform where the best SEO practices are baked in, so you can focus on building your community. You should not need extra plugins.
If you decide this is your objective, your plan might be to reduce costs from marketing, customer service or support. A community can be used as a knowledge base to crowd source your customer service or an easy way to get feedback on your products/services without the expense of creating a focus group. Communities are also great in helping create content which can help with your content creation needs for marketing collateral.
The primary use we see is for reducing support or customer service costs. You will want a platform that makes it easy for users to ask questions and choose answers that work. To assist in making it easy to join in, you will also want a platform that offers multiple login choices such as Twitter, Facebook or Linkedin. In essence, you want to make it as easy as possible for your potential members to get the help they need.
This would be an objective most likely chosen when financial objectives are not as important as educational ones (i.e Non-Profit). In this case, the community would perform a function of informing users as well as a resource for collaborative learning. You will want a platform that allows polls, social group creation and possibly be connected to an email provider like MailChimp. Using an email provider like MailChimp with your forum is a great way to easily connect with your users to organize and share information.
Whichever goal you choose (and they may overlap), this will have a major impact on the decisions you make, your platform choice and the overall community philosophy. Simple things such as the categories you create and the way you market the community can be impacted by your objective. We really encourage you to have a clear objective, so before you start, you ensure the right pieces are in place.