What’s the most effective, organic, and impactful place to meet your community members? There’s a reason why most of us hear the word community and immediately picture our local town or neighbors.
All communities – including online ones – require a shared sense of place. Reaching a community in a place where they’re already active is a lot easier than bussing them out to a new location.
Before launching an online community, figure out where your prospective members are! If your targeted demographic has never heard of Slack, you’re bound to face an uphill battle getting them to join, let alone come back or contribute. If it’s possible, meet them where they already are.
Below, we’ve listed several of the most popular community platforms. Depending on your type of business, community, and members, you may require an alternative platform. Understanding the most common platforms/mediums should help you get started on choosing the one that’s right for you.
Regardless of your preferred community platform and the structure of your online community, a member’s email address is one of the most important pieces of information your business can have access to.
Every member of your community that provides you with an email address is trusting you with a direct and personal connection to them. Most platforms, whether on social media or another channel, are controlled by a third party. An email address is controlled directly by the member, and isn’t mediated by any external influences.
All community leaders should collect their members email addresses, and use them – responsibly, of course!
Send your members frequent, regular, and useful information. You don’t need to craft formal newsletters. Personal and informal emails often connect better with people, and help make your community members feel like you’re speaking directly to them.
If you don’t regularly use your members’ emails, your community may forget about you – and when you do land in their inbox, you may see very low engagement.
There are over 2.01 billion monthly active Facebook users (as of June 2017). This makes it one of the most ubiquitous and global social networks. Because Facebook membership is free, its only requirement is a device and an internet connection. Chances are, your community may already be full of Facebook members – or are at the very least, people who are familiar with the social network’s infrastructure.
Platform Strengths: Accessibility, ease of use
Platform Weaknesses: Limited management control and customization, access to detailed analytics information
Most people are already using Facebook, so your community will easily fit into their daily routine. It can be accessed from a variety of desktop and mobile devices. It’s easily shareable, and members can invite their friends to join.
Members are more likely to engage with a post when browsing through their pre-existing Facebook feed, without having to alter their routine and go somewhere else.
Dynamic notifications help members keep track of the group activity that matters to them – Facebook allows its users to customize their notification settings and filter which group members they want to hear from.
Many people get overwhelmed by joining too many Facebook groups and may end up tuning out. If a member is very active on Facebook and follows many friends and groups, your posts may get lost in their feed. Members are also subject to many distractions (ads, newsfeed media, other group suggestions, etc) which may result in little or passive engagement while browsing the platform.
Discussion is based on a post and comment approach on the main group feed. While this can be great for simplicity, conversations may be hard to follow if the group has high engagement and membership.
Administrators are stuck with the interface that Facebook has developed. This can make accessing group information and metrics difficult, and limits customization options.
Groups can have multiple privacy settings:
- Public (anyone can access)
- Closed (anyone can request to join, subject to approval from an administrator)
- Secret (the group is invisible from public feeds, and new members must be invited by an administrator)
Limited direct integration options for third-party tools. Most of the options available will be to connect with content management tools and a handful of analytics platforms. Some tools, like IFTTT, Zapier and Automate.io, can help you get a bit more creative.
Creating a new group takes very little time and is free. They are 100% hosted on Facebook servers so there are minimal tech costs. However, access options and collecting payments must be managed from outside of the group.
Becoming familiarized with Facebook’s terms of service is critical. For example, creating a paid-access group is forbidden, but including a group as a bonus to a paid program is not. If your group violates Facebook’s terms of service, they reserve the power to shut it down – and if this happens, there’s very little you can do.
Control options are limited. Group administrators don't get full and direct behind-the-scenes access to business-relevant member information like email addresses, location, etc.
Analytics are available, but difficult to access without the help of a few third-party applications. Administrators can adjust notifications and user settings for things like requests to join and recent posts. Moderation functions (flagging posts, managing spam, etc) are steadily being added, but are currently limited.
Cloud-based Chat Apps
(Slack, Hipchat, Flock, etc)
These apps are cloud-based chat software that were originally developed as a collaborative team space. Chat apps allow communities to organize conversations around multiple topics, while being highly searchable and collaborative. They allow members to join through a URL or invitation sent by a community leader, and can be separated into public and/or private channels. Administrators can organize discussion threads into accessible and manageable categories/subjects.
Platform Strengths: Collaborative environment, exclusivity, searchability
Platform Weaknesses: Not optimized for large-scale community management
Easily accessible from a variety of devices and popular with professionals across various industries. Most of these platforms are quite user-friendly, but some members will require time to learn how to navigate them if they haven’t used one before.
Chat apps are less pervasive than Facebook, and may require extra incentives to entice new members to join. Because they are often not used as frequently as other mainstream social media apps, community visit frequency may be lower and extra encouragement may be required to help normalize these platforms as part of members’ daily routines.
Chat apps employ a very interactive approach that encourages full and lively conversations. Members can choose to follow specific threads and channels or not, allowing them to build an experience based on their own personal preferences. Content is easily searchable thanks to keyword searches and other filters, and distractions from outside sources are non-existent. However, large or active communities may overwhelm new members.
The community may feel more private and exclusive than social media. Discussions can be organized into separate channels/threads, which can make it easier to find information or create focused conversations.
Administrators can control who has access to what inside of the group, and can create both public and private areas within the same community.
Each app’s design limits the community experience, which can make it challenging to tailor the community’s specs to your exact needs. This may require some extra creativity to customize your experience by connecting to external tools and apps.
Getting started is easy and minimal technical knowledge is required. Back-end maintenance, hosting and servers are taken care of by the specific app you choose. Potential costs may increase depending on your chosen account type, desired features, or necessary upgrades. Like Facebook, many of these apps reserve the right to shut down your group if it violates the app’s terms of service.
Administrators have the option of exporting archives in most of these apps, which means regular back-ups can be performed.
Analytics and tracking is far more generous than with Facebook, but is still limited to high-level overviews if you don’t instal third-party metric tracking apps. There is easy access to member information such as email addresses and location information.
Any access management or payment processing must be managed outside of the app. There are also very limited moderation systems within the apps, with no flagging functions or spam filters.
Hosted Community Platforms
(Mighty Networks, CMNTY, Memeni, etc)
Hosted community platforms are optimized to help build communities around deeply shared interests. They have extensive feature lists that are designed to nurture membership-based communities more comprehensively than with a Facebook group or cloud-based chat app. Their customizability and management tools allow administrators to integrate features based on specific needs, and personalize the community experience for each member.
Platform Strengths: One-stop shop for highly customizable community experiences
Platform Weaknesses: Outside of members’ daily routines, price point
Easy to access from a variety of devices, but less popular and pervasive as social media networks. They tend to fall outside of your members’ daily routines, and may take some time for them to learn to use.
Members can follow specific threads and channels or not, and can customize their experience as based on their personal preferences and needs. Keyword searches and other filters make content is easily searchable. Dynamic notifications and customizable notification settings help members keep track of the conversations that matter most to them.
Large and active communities may intimidate or overwhelm new members, and may also be distracting.
Each platform’s interface is designed to encourage full and lively conversations, and provide a fully immersive experience. Optional features are available to allow administrators to customize the community as needed. Discussions can be organized into channels and/or threads, which helps encourage focused conversations.
Hosted platforms are much more private than social media, and generally feel much more exclusive for members. However, there are still design constraints resulting from using someone else’s platform.
Hosted community platforms are a turn-key, one-stop shop for community leaders. Signing up and getting started is straightforward but may require dedicated time due to the flexibility in customization that these platforms afford. Maintenance and servers are taken care of by the platform.
Potential costs may vary depending on your community’s requirements, desired features or upgrades. Many will also charge community leaders transaction fees and other payments, subject to the needs of the community.
Data exports are not always available, but backups are performed by the service. Although rare, many hosted platform sites reserve the power to shut down your group. If this happens, there’s very little you can do about it.
Extremely robust information reporting, with many options for analytics and metrics tracking. Most have direct connections to tools like Google Analytics. There is easy access to member information such as email addresses and location.
Built-in alerts and engagement tools help administrators keep tabs on what’s happening within the group. There is also easy in-service access management and payment processing, allowing you to charge your membership fees directly in the service.
Other features such as content management tools, online meeting and live-chat options, rsvp mechanism and group events help promote the community both online and offline.
Most have built-in, comprehensive moderation systems with flagging functions, spam filters and more.
Open source discussion forums
(Discourse, Vanilla Forums, phpBB, etc,)
Open-source discussion forums are optimized to stimulate rich online conversations. One of the biggest advantages of using an open source discussion forum is that it allows community leaders to self-host – giving you full administrative control and ownership. While we’ll be using Discourse as our primary example because we think it’s the best self-hosted forum platform currently on the market, much of this information will also apply to other popular forum software.
Platform Strengths: Highly customizable, extremely effective for large communities
Platform Weaknesses: Administration and customization requires tech knowledge, outside of normal routines for most people
Easily accessible from a variety of devices, but most of these forums fall way outside of the average person’s daily routine. Because of this, members may require extra incentives to join and engage, and are at risk of slowly losing interest as they’re disconnected to most of the other places/networks that they regularly visit online.
Members can choose to be involved in the discussions and topics that interest them, and they’re less likely to feel like they’re missing out on anything like they might with a chat or social media platform. Its interface also allows new members to jump in to the discussion easily. However, smaller communities are at risk of looking sparse or dead, as many forums show the last post or the number of threads and responses.
Very private and exclusive experience, with zero external sources of influence (ads, suggestions, other channels, etc). The community can stand alone as a hosted discussion forum, or be integrated within a custom membership experience. Forums allow large communities to self-moderate easily and effectively.
Its interface is designed to encourage full and lively community conversations, and its thread-replies format has proven popular and easy to use. Discussions can also be organized into channels and/or threads, which helps keep information organized and create focused conversations.
Administrators can tap into an extensive list of third-party apps and integrations to customize the community experience. Forums can be connected to almost any external tool with a little bit of tech know-how.
Accessible to beginners, but community leaders must be tech-savvy to effectively implement, support and manage the community’s back end. The forum can be hosted by Discourse, or completely self-hosted – access to the platform is free, but budget for costs such as server space, maintenance, security and more. Costs will vary depending on each particular set-up.
Public facing forums are often targets of spamming and hacker attacks. Community leaders and administrators will need to have resources in place to manage this should the need arise.
Discourse has a comprehensive moderation system with flagging functions, spam filters and more. It also features built-in alerts and engagement tools that helps administrators keep tabs on what’s happening inside the community and encourage engagement.
Data exports, backups and in-depth reporting are all easily available. Community information and detailed analytics are trackable, especially if analytics tools are integrated.
Easy in-service access management options and payment processing for membership fees. Rich features that can promote community both online and offline, including content management tools, online meeting rooms and live chat options, rsvp mechanisms, group events, etc.
Other social media
For almost all communities, social media plays an important role in expanding your reach and impacting a broader audience.
Most online businesses will find that their community isn’t confined to one social media platform. In fact, the average internet user has five or more social media accounts. Beyond Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Tumblr tend to dominate in popularity. Depending on your business’ demographics and interests, your members may use a combination of platforms to interact with your community.
Using a social platform like Instagram or Pinterest as your primary community platform comes with several disadvantages. Since most of these networks are looking for engagement of their own, your community members are at the mercy of countless other posts and business vying for their attention. These tend to be busy places, and even if someone follows you there is no guarantee that they will see everything that you post. Customization is largely nonexistent, and the only control you retain is in the content and conversation that you provide. At the same time, your community is at the mercy of ever-changing interfaces and network rules – what works one day may not work the next. It can also be very challenging to understand your metrics, and access to community information is almost non-existent. Finally, much like Facebook, relying on other social platforms as the base for you community puts the foundation of your business on borrowed land. The platform gets decide what you’re allowed publish, and you don’t retain any ownership of your own community or content.
We recommend that you consider social media as a supplemental building block for your community. If many of your members are already using Instagram, for example, you may find it helpful to post there regularly to complement your community’s main platform. If your community is showing up on more than one feed, it becomes more likely to remain at the forefront of your members’ minds. This extra presence helps your community remain central and relevant in their lives.
Which platform is best for you?
Deciding which platform is best for your business should start by uncovering the needs and location of your members.
- Who are your people, and what do they want?
- How do they like to communicate online?
Find out where your people are and try to meet them there. As we outlined in Chapter 1, a happy and healthy community is built primarily around its members, and not around your business goals.
That being said, we do need to make a quick point that you absolutely should take your own strengths into consideration and choose a platform that’s at the intersection of your community’s preferences and your strengths. There’s no point in trying to build your community around Instagram if you hate taking pictures -- you’ll be about as effective as showing up to a party with a giant sign that says “this sucks!” hanging around your neck and expecting to make a ton of new friends.
Even if you create a thoughtful, beautiful member experience, it’s going to flop if you designed it using tools that no one in your target audience uses, or with something that you don’t already use organically. Keeping your members at the forefront of this decision, and then figuring out where you and your member intersect should help you choose the platform that’s right for your community.
Community platforms aren’t limited to the ones mentioned above. There are dozens, if not hundreds of platforms available (both free and premium) that can help you build the community of your members’ dreams.