Online community software had a big year in 2017, and it looks as if this trend will continue into 2018. On the one end you’ve got richer community experiences and more personalization, and at the other, big headlines around mergers and acquisitions to consolidate niche platforms into big name players.
With all this in mind, let's take a moment to review the current state of community in 2017 and then make some predictions based on the trends I see in my work as a community strategist, practitioner and consultant.
1. Collaboration Fatigue Will Drive Convergence
It’s not uncommon for companies to have multiple platforms to manage communication in all forms: one to one, one to many, and many to many. These platforms include:
- Email platforms (Outlook and Gmail)
- Social collaboration or community products (Yammer, Jive, Chatter for customers, partners and employees)
- Instant messaging or live chat (Slack, Google Hangouts, Lync)
- Audio and video conferencing services (Skype, Webex)
- Niche document, ideation or collaboration tools (Google Drive, JIRA, Trello)
But the question many are asking is when does choice overload start hindering our productivity? A recent article highlighted the challenge of having too many channels and tools to monitor and engage with.
What’s ahead? Expect to see convergence of voice, video and synchronous/asynchronous communication tools that help consolidate the mixed modes of communication under one umbrella. It may be through third party aggregators, but it seems like a smart move for Google, Microsoft and IBM who all currently offer email, community, instant message and video solutions.
2. Increase in 'No Code' Configuration
Salesforce is all about “clicks not code” when it comes to its Lightning experience. And it's in good company, too. Platforms like Jive and Liferay also offer extremely flexible point-and-click and drag-and-drop configuration of the community user experience and underlying page structure. A big reason for this is because speed to market continues to push platforms, customers and system integrators to do more with less.
What’s ahead? This trend will only continue. Expect to see expanded capabilities around this, including light code and scripting capabilities to enable deeper workflows, triggers and actions.
3. Big Data Will Turn Into Actionable Insights
In general, executives want to know if their community or collaboration platform investment has helped increase sales, streamline support or create productivity. Mature community platforms provide much deeper data on user interaction beyond traditional web analytics (page views, session length) around success measures like engagement, sentiment and vitality.
What’s ahead? In the near future we’ll find ourselves moving steadily from “What do we do with all of the data” to “Where else can we apply these findings?”
4. Continuity Across Marketing, Sales and Support
Since the rise of social media, we’ve talked about the need to engage in all digital channels and balance earned, owned and paid media. Communities always fit somewhere between owned and earned media. In my early community days the platforms we competed with for customer communities were Facebook and/or LinkedIn.
Communities are now part of the digital experience. The conversation and need therefore has shifted from competing to coexistence. For instance: Twitter is a great live channel to support customers. Community is a great platform to deliver support content to Twitter. It can also capture user-generated questions from customers (earned media), serve answers to customers (owned media) and tie into your service environment for cases.
What’s ahead? Expect to see a tighter coexistence and integration between open social channels (or earned) and owned media like communities where users continue their journey with context.
For example, a marketer creates an ad on Facebook. A customer sees that ad and clicks it, landing in your community. Their experience is automatically personalized based on what they clicked, and their Facebook profile data and interests are automatically updated in their community profile. This in turn enriches their CRM record.
5. Increased Automation of Community Management Tasks
While a lot of community management is strategy and engagement-focused, many repeatable tasks such as welcoming users, recommending groups, directing traffic, making introductions, publishing the latest news and events are ripe for automation. Using a chatbot or other automation tools can help the community manager focus on more strategic communication initiatives.
What’s ahead? Even more advances in application program interfaces (APIs), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will create opportunities to automate tactical community management tasks, freeing up community managers to focus on higher value activities. Want to see an example? Check out Slack’s Slackbot.
6. Expansion of App Marketplaces to Extend Platforms
Extensibility and integration of platforms is one of the most common asks I hear from customers when building our their digital strategy. In the community space, Salesforce leads the pack with its AppExchange. The app exchange enables community users to expand their communities into audience-focused and verticalized offerings. This goes beyond wide use cases into much deeper use cases through templates, apps and components.
Jive also offers an App marketplace model to extend its community platform, similar to Salesforce.
What’s ahead? Expect to see a lot more extensibility of community platforms through “plug and play” software apps and connectors. Examples could include:
- Connecting your customer community to marketing technology and automation platforms
- Integrating your employee community into your enterprise resource planning and talent management software
- Integrating your partner community into your marketing development fund or customer relationship management programs
7. Communities Will Unify Customer, Partner and Employee Experience
Companies and consumers struggle with the volume of disparate and niche tools. This goes above and beyond the communication tools listed above. Constellation Research principal analyst and 7Summits CSO Dion Hinchcliffe recently shared his point of view around the disfunction, citing the primary cause as not having digital channels line up with functional channels.
From my experience, this is largely because most of these tools are evaluated and purchased for a niche purpose without a view of the bigger picture (the customer, partner or employee journey).
You get the picture. The failure to understand the user and their journey leads to a fragmented user experience, siloed thinking and software that doesn’t integrate well. Consequently every two to three years this cycle repeats, with another failed tool and the hunt for a replacement.
This has created great opportunities for platforms that help integrate disparate tools into a unified digital experience. Companies need to focus more on designing experiences that meet their user needs, and then aligning tools and platforms with them.
What’s ahead? In the near future, I believe communities will play a large part in unifying the digital experience and collapsing the separation and disconnects between tools. What does this mean for users? Less clicks and confusion, and for companies deeper use cases and analytics.
8. AI Will Drive Rich Context and Personalization of Experiences
Data is everywhere. The holy grail for any digital platform is delivering a targeted and personalized experience like Amazon does, that gets smarter the more you interact with it. Marketers spends lots of time configuring their MarTech stack to tailored emails and websites based on audience parameters.
This is where communities have a unique advantage as they are built around a user's profile by default. That profile, as you’ve seen in consumer social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, can drive extremely targeted and relevant content and functionality.
What’s ahead? Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, coupled with community profiles, will drive highly targeted and personalized experiences. Software vendors that offer AI solutions like IBM with Watson and Salesforce with Einstein will more deeply integrate them into their collaboration and community products. This will provide a predictive and always-learning community that anticipates your needs based on your data and interactions.
For example, you visits your online banking community portal and it looks at your profile and historical spending data over the holiday period. It the proactively suggests you apply for a credit limit so you don't incur any additional fees. Or a patient community portal anticipates the need to schedule your annual physical or a condition-related check up. These are just a few examples of the kind of proactive versus reactive self-service we will get by fusing AI and machine learning with communities.
9. M&A Will Create Opportunities for New Players to Lead
This year, the biggest community headlines were merger and acquisition related:
- Lithium was acquired by Vista Equity Partners in May
- Jive was acquired by Aurea in May
- Lithium acquired Jive’s external community business in August
These acquisitions were long overdue and predicted by many insiders and industry analysts. In addition, larger enterprise software vendors like IBM and Salesforce invested heavily in the community cloud, and Microsoft expanded its collaboration offerings with deeper Yammer integration into Office 365 (including the rollout of Microsoft Teams ... a Slack copycat). Workplace by Facebook has gained significant steam with some large companies signing on and taking market share in the next generation social intranet and employee community.
What’s ahead? The recent M&A activities with Jive and Lithium will create an opportunity for existing software vendors like Salesforce and smaller entrants like Workplace, Igloo and eXo and content management/portal community hybrids like Adobe and Lifefray to take market share.
We can expect a lot more to come in 2018, such as:
- More collaboration where it matters (getting rid of flat portals)
- Tighter integration between digital marketing and support platforms
- Google stepping up its game in the community arena so it can continue to be a competitive offering in the workplace
Regardless of whether or not these predictions come true, what will remain is that communities are poised for growth as businesses and consumers alike look for solutions that combine the best of many digital worlds.