Is SharePoint great for external community building?

A conversation with Adobe and HiveLive to help answer that question.

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with Adobe about Adobe Groups, and their online community platform supplier, HiveLive, based here in Colorado. I've been researching social networking platforms for some clients, and while I've spent a good bit of time in the blogging and twitter space, and with SharePoint for internal collaboration and business process automation, online community building technologies like HiveLive, Jive, Lithium and Conenza, and others are tackling the job of helping businesses build different kinds of communities outside (and sometimes inside) the enterprise.

It was really insightful for me to talk with both Adobe and HiveLive, who supplies the social platform technology as a SaaS service, about Adobe Groups. (The two recently made some announcements about working together.) Adobe Groups (groups.adobe.com) is a term Adobe uses for all of their online community groups, most of which are completely community run. One of Adobe's key requirements was that their online platform be managed via a browser, not through code changes. Sounds very reminiscent of what I hear from customers about using SharePoint instead of traditional software development for IT projects, which is one of the reasons I think SharePoint is growing so popular these days. Anyway, Ted Patrick, Developer Relations at Adobe, told me they actually had three key requirements for the platform beyond the standard platform feature set; it's managed via the browser, supports single signon integration with Adobe's existing web site and customer accounts, and they preferred not to have to run the platform themselves (a.k.a. they want to buy it as a SaaS service.)Now as I look at those requirements, I'm thinking SharePoint could pretty easily met them for use as an external community building platform, but HiveLive CEO, John Kembel, made some pretty compelling arguments why online social media platforms have very different needs than internal collaboration platforms like SharePoint. John described external online community requirements in four areas: customer loyalty, market research, customer support, and lead generation (the lesser element of the four requirements, btw.) In summary, customer loyalty is building trust, authenticity and encouraging membership participation, which can also lead to product up sell opportunities. Market research is about crowdsourcing, voting, ideastorms, co-design... things you would do to solicit feedback and participation of customers in the product design and planning processes. Customer support is pretty obvious, it's another path for you to reach customers, hear feedback and support them. Lead generation is viral marketing word of mouth sorts of things, invitations to betas, etc. John's view of internal or employee directed community platforms was that they were more about collaboration, productivity and knowledge sharing. While those things are true about SharePoint, I see its strengths as a platform for business process automation, workflow, document management, and content collaboration. The social networking aspects of SharePoint, like its blog capabilities are not SharePoint's strengths, at least at present, and while building the group functionality in SharePoint might not be a big deal, I would imagine there would remain a lot of reporting, tracking, automation and SEO work to be done for SharePoint to do what HiveLive does.Let me sum it up this way. Adobe said in three months with 5 dedicated resources (plus services from the vendor), they established 760 user groups globally, with more than 22,000 members, working with around 800 community leaders. Now, I expect some portion of that was in place with whatever existing support forums may have been around prior, but it was pretty clear talking with Patrick that most of this occurred since transitioning to the new platform. Most Adobe Groups are built around capabilities like discussion lists, a blog, email lists, calendaring, job listings, media (photo/video) support, and an asset repository (so users can share code, files and templates). Adobe is also able to do SEO so that content in the community site helps their presence in the search engines.Could you do the same with SharePoint? I'm unaware of anyone who has to this same scale but someone may be out there who has. Is it the best use of SharePoint? SharePoint can certainly tick off most if not all of those features, though I still feel its best strengths are in the BP and workflow automation, and document management areas.So, here's my question to you the reader. Have you used SharePoint for external community building? If so I'd love to hear from you. Or maybe you've found SharePoint inadequate for the task. I'd like to hear either way. Feel free to email me or comment here on the blog. I'd love to hear about your experiences using SharePoint in this way.

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