When there are new tools that we can use to engage with our community, we tend to focus on the great features those tools have, how easy they are for people to use, the cost of them and the value they offer.

One thing that gets lost, but that should always be at the front of our minds, is how the tool separates us from our community. If we wish to stop using the tool, do we have access to the community data? Or can the tool effectively hold us hostage?

If they can hold us hostage, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it, but you just have to be very aware of what you are doing. For example, Facebook and Twitter would fall into that camp of tools. You are engaging with people, but you can’t take your database of Facebook Page likes and do anything off of Facebook with it.

Some people felt betrayed when Facebook cut the reach of Pages. I get it, but it should be a lesson to you about putting too many eggs in one basket.

Community Software

If you host your own community on your own server where you have direct access to the database, that means that you have the freedom to develop and extend that community. It’s the opposite of having little to no power, as you do on Facebook.

That said, you should pay attention to how your software works. For example, if you don’t host it on your own server, if you use a remotely or cloud hosted solution. Most of them will give you access to the community data, but never assume. Always ask, always make sure. If they don’t give you that access, it’s a non-starter. Walk away.

Even if they give you access to the data, it’s not that simple. If you want to move to another community software vendor and you don’t have limitless resources, the format of that data could either save you money or cost you money. Let’s say that they give you an export of the text in some format, like XML or CSV. That’s fine, but what are you going to do with it? If you aren’t a programmer, you’ll need to hire one to write a converter so you can actually import the data it to whatever software you are moving to.

This is why I always argue for software vendors to write exporters to their most popular competitors. Seems weird, but nothing demonstrates a stronger confidence in your own product. If you can export your community’s data to the current versions of vBulletin and/or phpBB, you are in a good place because from those two applications, you can likely get to any other option you’d want to use. Pretty much all software vendors have importers for vBulletin and phpBB because they realize a lot of their new business will come from people currently using one of those two.

Add-Ons to Extend Your Community

As you add new features to your community, you should be careful to limit how much you are beholden to third party services to connect with your members.

A really easy illustration of this is something like Tapatalk or Forum Runner. With mobile traffic increasing, many communities are trying to optimize for mobile. But if you are thinking of listing your forums in one of these apps and then pushing your members toward it as your preferred mobile experience, you should take a pause.

Both apps function as a directory of forums, where people can visit any number of communities beyond yours. Their relationship through the app is owned by Tapatalk, not you. Yes, they have an account on your community, but if the main way they access it is through Tapatalk, that’s potentially a lot of power in Tapatalk’s hands. If you want to move people to a new mobile app, you can’t push an updated version to them. It’s not your app, it’s Tapatalk’s app. Tapatalk decides how it is monetized and whether or not your forum is in their directory.

It’s nothing against Tapatalk or Forum Runner. My intention isn’t to call them out, they are just a very easy example. Both apps look very nice. I don’t have a lack of trust for them, or anything like that. I’m saying that you need to think about the future. If you look at Tapatalk or Forum Runner as a directory to list your forum to encourage people to join, where people who already have the app can find it, that could be good. Just like it can be good for your forums to be indexed by search engines.

But if you push those apps as your default mobile experience, that’s putting eggs in someone else’s basket. You already have to deal with the app marketplaces like Google Play for Android and the iTunes App Store. So it’s more like a basket within a basket. With mobile being as important as it is, why do that? Instead, I would focus on making your site more mobile friendly or developing your own app. Tapatalk’s build your own app offer looks interesting, as long as you fully own the relationships and can push a totally new app that isn’t Tapatalk’s, if you should wish to do so in the future.

Third Party Platforms

Finally, we have third party platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, other communities and more. Obviously, there is a lot of value to be found here. It’s very much a risk/reward thing. There are massive rewards to reap, but there is a risk. That risk is small if you understand the importance of building your own list and making sure people know about the spaces you actually control.

I would suggest there is an even bigger risk by not engaging in third party platforms. My point here isn’t to tell you to skip spaces you don’t control. It is to encourage you to remember who controls the relationship each time you decide to use a new tool to engage with your community and to always have an eye on the future, what could change and how that connection could be taken away. Don’t put yourself in a position to be irreparably harmed by a change made by one of the tools that you use. Always plan for changes.