Social Platforms Mature: OutStart Seamlessly Blends Internal/External Communities

I had a call today with the folks at OutStart, a vendor of social business software as well as learning and mobile solutions, to get an update on their Participate platform, which includes full community capabilities along with knowledge and expertise management tools. I’m happy to see that social media (or social service or Social CRM, depending who you are) is definitely maturing, with products and customer examples reflecting more integration, more inclusive definitions of community, and a broader range of content management capabilities.

There were three things that struck me about the OutStart demo I found impressive, not just that the product includes the features but that the market is demanding them:

  • Blending internal and external communities. I have written about this before, and I’m thrilled to see new vendors like OutStart who sell internal, external and blended communities. Some of the leading community platforms only sell to customer communities, not internal, because they make their money by the number of page views so only care about huge customer communities with big page view traffic.  Employee communities will never be as big or as profitable for them. But I think it is incredibly short-sighted not to realize how useful communities can be for employees, as well as understanding that employees play a critical role in customer communities, and we should be encouraging as much employee participation as possible.
  • Content control. Only 17% of TSIA members have integrated social media channels into the corporate website, but it appears that this is changing–at last. I made a comment to OutStart during the briefing that their platform now includes a lot of features normally found in content management systems (CMS), and it is great to see so much flexibility built into a customer service platform. The Participate customer portal treats discussion forum content as one library of content, with sections and links to knowledge articles, other corporate content, and even external content from 3rd party forums, expert blogs or news outlets. Additionally, OutStart offers very granular controls for who can see what content, allowing separate internal and external discussions and content to happily co-exist on a single platform with no problems. This also means that content can be developed and published to different groups along the way, embracing Knowledge Centered Support processes.
  • Integration. Only 8% of TSIA members have integrated social media channels, including forums, into their CRM/incident management system. It didn’t help that early community vendors formed strategic relationships with specific CRM/incident management vendors, with few packaged integrations available. Then the new breed of vendors came along offering combined CRM and communities, and while they do solve the integration problem, they require you to replace your existing tools. I was happy to see that OutStart has a tight integration to Salesforce.com (used by 19% of TSIA member companies), with an open integration framework available that customers can use to connect to their CRM system of choice.

Shawn Santos, our director of social media, is working on the 2010 TSIA Social Media survey, so it will be interesting to see if these integration issues are being resolved by member companies, and how the formerly separate worlds of web self-service knowledgebases and discussion forums are merging. Stay tuned for those survey results later this year. If you have any comments or questions, please add a comment or drop me an email, and as always, thanks for reading!

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