Creating Your SaaS-Based Community of Customers: Possibilities and Pitfalls

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In the 2014 Softletter SaaS Survey, Report, 37%% of the 202 SaaS companies participating reported that they were integrating a customer community management system directly within the SaaS application, with 16% stating they were planning to add this capability over the next 12 months. Community adoption in SaaS lags behind the integration of analytics (over 70% of SaaS firms have built analytics directly into their systems and the pace of adoption is increasing) but over the next three to five years community integration will increase strongly and steadily throughout all categories of SaaS applications.

The core functionality of a community system integrated into your SaaS system usually includes (but is not limited to):

  • Discussion forums.
  • Social media linking.
  • File sharing and uploading.
  • Voting systems that allow subscribers to nominate new features for development.

Implementing a SaaS-Base Community System

In evaluating the path a SaaS firm can take when implementing a community system into their application, a company has four basic choices. These are:

  • Build its own community management system.
  • Use the popular social networks such as LinkedIn, Grouply, Facebook or similar system.
  • Use third party forum and discussion boards.
  • Use third party systems such as Leverage, Jive, Pathable, Chatter (Salesforce.com) and others.

Each approach has its advantages and drawbacks. If you choose to develop your own community system, you will hopefully end up with something that is an exact fit to your needs but developing it may not fall within your core competence and the system may never be finished and never work quite right. And upgrading and maintaining a community system may not be what you want your development group to focus on.

Using an existing and popular social network is tempting. Costs are low to start and these systems are easy to get up and running. The problem with them is you do not “own” your community; the social network provider does. And this can be deadly. Facebook can and does shut down accounts with no warning (and often no explanation of why). If you read the TOS of most social systems, their control over “your” social existence is, in their legal opinion, absolute. In all good conscious, we cannot recommend Facebook for any B2B company as its primary community system, though it can be useful for marketing purposes and as a way to “feed” your community. The present security and privacy issues are simply too great and the system is not well designed for a more closed social environment. Furthermore, Facebook’s new pricing structures require you to pay to reach a larger customer community. That said, we do know of smaller companies that start their community building efforts with Facebook and have enjoyed success, but the above caveats always apply.

One of the most fascinating examples of the issue of community control involves LinkedIn, which is a bit surprising, as the system has always been thought of as fairly staid when compared with the Twitterverse and Facebook. This approach made the system a popular one for community building in the B2B market.

As with Facebook, LinkedIn, does and has shut down community (Group) accounts with no warning and often no explanation of why. This happened with the SaaS Marketing University LinkedIn group, where the managers temporarily lost access to “their” group because of a change in one of the manager’s SEO strategy (access was restored).

Linkedin and SWAM

Much more insidious is LinkedIn’s SWAM (site wide auto moderation) technology, which was implemented on LinkedIn with no warning to group owners and the LinkedIn user base about three years ago. SWAM first worked by automatically putting a LinkedIn user who has been blocked and deleted from one group from being able to post on any other group until the group owner reapproves them to post without moderation. The policy in effect disconnected a LinkedIn subscriber from the system. SWAM still does the same thing, but now the banning lasts an indeterminate amount of time.

This change in the moderation status takes place without the group owner’s knowledge or approval. SWAM is implemented against a user even if the group owner blocks and deletes a user’s post/membership by mistake. LinkedIn will not change your SWAM status even if asked to by the group manager who activated the SWAM trigger by mistake. (This is not an uncommon event.)

The only way to be UNSWAM’d is, according to LinkedIn, to contact the group manager of every group you belong to (up to 50 for a single account) and ask them to manually unblock you. SWAM is also applied to LinkedIn members who are paying for premium services.

Unscrupulous LinkedIn group owners and members quickly discovered the power of SWAM and so-called SWAM wars raged across the system. (We’ve seen one post on the situation stating that 200K LinkedIn members have been SWAM’d.) The problem is particularly acute on more controversial groups such as the political ones, where tempers run hot and vindictive behavior is not uncommon. We are also aware of situations where firms and people are attempting to use SWAMing as a competitive weapon against rivals.

SWAM is a potential PR and relationship nightmare for any software company looking to use it for community building. (Imagine the potential consequences of accidentally SWAMing a major client or prospect.) Until/unless LinkedIn changes or diiscards SWAM, we regard the system as unfit for building a SaaS community of customers and today the LinkedIn groups is a shadow of what it once was. (If you’re going to consider a major public social system, Google Groups is an alternative, though questions about its long term viability are a concern.

In addition to the above, social systems may have restrictions you find unacceptable or too confining. For example, LinkedIn only permits one message a week to be sent to your group. It provides almost no useful metrics that permit you to measure response to your notifications and promotions.

Third party forums and discussion groups can be useful, but they often have limited contacts to the social networks, limited connectivity to external databases, and are regarded in some circles as ‘old technology.’ But they are relatively inexpensive and often provide tight control over content posting and behavior.

The abilities of private social systems vary widely. Some are highly template driven and relatively inflexible. Others are more free form and can be more easily configured. Data integration and transferability varies widely from package to package. One developing trend is the development of verticalized community systems aimed at different markets. One example of this is the CivicsPlus system, which is optimized for small and mid-sized state and local governments.

Most of the current generation of community management products do not integrate closely with SaaS analytic systems. Over time, we expect this situation to improve, but it is a factor you should take into consideration when deciding what path to take in implementing your community management.

Your Community Integration Decision

Your choice of a community management system should be made carefully. Make sure you consider the following:

  • How much control do you have over your community infrastructure? Can you back up your community membership, archives and other materials? What recourse do you have if a third party shuts down your community? (In the case of the major social networks, the terms of use terms you agree to give you practically none.)
  • Is the system you pick configurable enough to meet your appearance as well as scalability needs? If not, how difficult will be it be to transfer your community content to a new system?
  • Can community analytics be integrated with your SaaS system analytics? Combining these two capabilities is a measurement and management dream.

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