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Vanilla 2020 Feature Roundup: A Year in Review

6 minute read

December 15, 2020

Hello and welcome to the end of 2020! It’s been quite the year here at Vanilla, and despite all the twists and turns, it hasn’t slowed our teams down. Most recently, we wrapped up our Conversations event in November, which showcased over 35 speakers across the industry and gave us a chance to highlight all the functionality that’s been added to Vanilla over the past year. For those who may have missed those roadmap talks, we wanted to put the spotlight on some of the updates we’ve seen rolled out in 2020.It’s important to mention that the biggest drivers behind everything they’ve worked on is you - so a big thanks goes out to everyone who has contributed ideas and helped us deliver the best, most impactful improvements to your community platform. 

So without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the top features Vanilla released in 2020 (the full list of releases can be found in the Success Community).

Improved Theme Editing and Widgets 

One of the keys to a tightly integrated community is that it looks like home - it’s a natural part of your online brand. Theming includes any tool or feature that brands your site and helps you control your community’s UI, design and aesthetic. Even as a skilled developer when you’re customizing a website there are a lot of things to consider such as:

  • Will this work on all browsers and devices? Is it mobile responsive?

  • Is it accessible? Is it SEO friendly?

  • Are my styles consistent? Are they being applied everywhere they should be? 

We want to provide Vanilla customers with a set of tools that will do most of this heavy lifting out of the box. Going into 2020 we knew we wanted to build a theme editor that was flexible, easy to use and do a lot of the thinking for you, without having to create custom code. The Foundation Theme now includes everything you need to get started with an easy to use interface to set your colors, fonts, logos, banners, button styles and navigation menu. And of course, this theme is fully mobile responsive, SEO friendly and meets accessibility standards. 

The next step was to introduce a catalogue of widgets and widget management tools to customize your page layouts and curate your content as easily as possible. Widgets are configurable components that can be added onto a page to dynamically pull in various types of content or information such as:

  • Recent discussions or articles 

  • Featured content like categories and articles 

  • Leaderboards 

  • Online Users 

  • Events

  • Tags

  • And more! 

Widgets are a great way to further customize your community theme. You’ll benefit from flexible layouts, settings to dynamically showcase content that matters the most, and configurations that match your brands unique style. 

improved theming and editing widget

Webhooks 

First and foremost, what are webhooks? Webhooks are similar to APIs, as they’re used by developers to improve integrations between two services. However, webhooks are a bit different - instead of constantly polling for information, Webhooks push information from Vanilla when specific events occur, such as new discussions being created, comments being added, or user updates. With this, you can build automated workflows that let Vanilla push data to your other tools and services. 

Webhooks are very developer focused features - you’ll need the technical know-how on your team to take full advantage of the flexibility they can provide. But we know that not all Community teams are equipped with development resources to achieve all their automation goals, so keep reading - you’ll be interested to hear about how Zapier can integrate all your tools together without any coding required!

Zapier Integration

If you haven’t heard of Zapier, it’s an online automation tool that connects your favorite apps, such as Gmail, Slack, JIRA, Hubspot, and of course, Vanilla. You can connect two apps to automate tasks without any coding or developer intervention - anyone can build their own app workflows with just a few clicks. 

For example, with a Zapier connection to an email marketing platform such as ActiveCampaign or HubSpot, when a new user is added to your Vanilla community, a contact can automatically be created in HubSpot. Once that community member is in HubSpot, downstream automation can be kicked off, such as sending new community users a welcome email. 

Zapier has connections with over 2000+ apps, so the types of use cases and integrations you can create are virtually endless!

zapier integration workflow

Knowledge Base Improvements 

At the tail end of 2019 we released Vanilla Knowledge Base, the community add-on that houses all your official product/service documentation. We’ve collected a lot of great feedback since the introduction, and have since made some key improvements:

ZenDesk Sync

We’ve seen a number of customers move their Knowledge Bases over to Vanilla from products such as ZenDesk so that all their customer facing support materials all live under the same roof. To support this, we’ve made both migration and maintenance between ZenDesk & Vanilla a lot easier. A one-way sync from ZenDesk to Vanilla allows any changes made to ZenDesk to push to Vanilla - allowing you Support Agents to make changes in their source of truth - ZenDesk - while your customers interact within their source of truth - your community. 

Related & Recommended Articles 

We’ve introduced two new widgets within KB - related and recommended articles. These widgets can appear below your articles and point your members towards other relevant content they may want to look at. The related articles that are presented are automatically generated, and based on articles that have similar content/titles. Recommended articles on the other hand are selected by you - you can curate the content showcased in this widget based on articles that you want to point your members towards.  On the KB article page, a list of related articles is automatically generated based on similar search results. 

Permission Handling 

Knowledge Base can encompass a variety of different types of documentation - from user guides, developer docs, onboarding to general help docs. With such a wide range of use cases for KB, you may have different owners/editors within each of these classifications. We’ve added permission handling to KB, allowing you to more dynamically handle permissions across your KB’s - distributing permissions in a way that makes sense for your community. 

iFrame Embeds

iFrame embeds let you spice up your articles by adding various types of media to your in line with the content. If you have snippet code from a video, calendar or virtually anything you can think of, you can now use it to embed iFrame content within your articles. 

Universal Knowledge Base

Vanilla supports communities that are architected and scale in various different ways based on the unique needs of that community. If you are running a community that has multiple Knowledge Bases for say, multiple products or games, you still may have some generic, universal content that you want to appear across all Knowledge Bases. Instead of duplicating this multiple times (and thus having to maintain multiple copies of the same content), Universal Knowledge Base allows you to publish generic content across all KB’s for everyone to see, while still maintaining the individual permissions and branding of each KB under your umbrella.

Search

Another area where we focused development this past year was to improve the Search functionality of Vanilla. Studies have shown us that customers prefer to find solutions on their own before contacting support. And with many Vanilla customers using their community for self-serve support and troubleshooting, this was an important priority. In addition to an improved UI, search is now federated across both Community and Knowledge Base, ensuring that anyone looking for information gets the most relevant results, regardless of where it’s posted. With more flexible filtering and sorting, users can quickly filter on the kind of content they want to see, whether it’s a discussion, KB article or even a community member. Unlike more traditional search engines, if you update the content of an article, or if a new member is added, these changes are propagated instantly so members can find your new content right away. 

For our customers that are utilizing the Hub/Node architecture deployment to manage multiple communities, Search can also be federated across all your connected Vanilla environments. 

new vanilla search

Community Events 

Events (especially virtual!) are a big part of most communities. You can now create events across the community, or narrow the scope of your event to within a subcommunity, group or category. Groups allow you to share information, see who’s attending and invite people to the event by email. You can even place a widget on the homepage to remind everyone of upcoming events in the community. 

2020 was a big year for everyone and we’re looking forward to what 2021 will bring. Stay tuned in the Success Community for more details on new features and everything Vanilla! 

Benefits and Impacts of Online Communities

Product

Victoria Burt

Written by Victoria Burt

Victoria is the Product Marketing Manager at Vanilla Forums. Having held roles in Product Marketing and Product Management at tech companies over the last 10 years, Victoria lives and breathes bringing SaaS products & features to market

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