Online communities have become instrumental in building a sustainable online business. Using community software, you can create a community to connect and engage your audiences under your brand.
Since brand-led communities are versatile, you can use the community to scale content marketing (via user-generated content), collect feedback from the users, offer peer-to-peer support, host a knowledge base, and enable members to forge valuable personal relationships.
Although it is established that an online community can be a powerful business tool, the intricacies of selecting the right community platform and implementing it correctly are the key factors.
Here are some common questions:
- How much customization can you do in the community forum?
- Is it based on modern social media design?
- What is the pricing?
- How many members can you host in the community?
- Will you integrate parts of the community into your website or apps?
These are some of the critical factors to consider. In this article, I’ll highlight the best community platforms based on parameters such as usability, integrations, pricing, design, and customizability.
Also, note that Community management is a relatively new profession. Apart from the platform you select, the way you execute the community management plan will also determine the success of your community.
A community platform allows you to create a safe and secure online space where your members can interact with each other, your company, share knowledge, help each other, and create valuable networks.
The software that allows you to create an online community is known as a community platform. These solutions help you build a community around your business and keep members engaged. This improves user retention and boosts customer loyalty.
There are various options on the market, including Tribe, Discourse, Vanilla Forums, and more.
Whether you are creating a membership site, a community for your online course, or just a place for your customers to interact, you have to choose the best software to make it happen.
The best community platform is customizable, uses modern design practices, is easy-to-use, and comes with powerful gamification and moderation capabilities.
It should also be able to scale with member growth and offer a seamless experience by taking care of hosting, maintenance, and security. These benefits are available in a cloud-based (SaaS) solution.
In my opinion, the best community solutions are Tribe, Discourse, Vanilla Forums, Mighty Networks, Spectrum.chat, Slack, and Facebook Groups. These community management platforms empower you to create your social network (also known as a social community).
You can connect your audiences, customers, partners, employees under your brand to build authentic relationships. This will act as a safe social platform to share ideas and learn from each other with a collaborative approach.
An excellent community software for small businesses must be easy to configure and should facilitate engaging discussions. This can easily merge with various business functions — from marketing to sales and support. With powerful customer engagement, you will be able to drive retention. This can be further used for customer loyalty, advocacy, and referrals.
Many companies are leveraging social customer communities to promote customer self-service, collect product reviews, and improve user experience.
Plus, all community tools come with features like easy content posting, content management, member profiles, support for rich media, discussions, moderation, and more.
The content created in your community gets indexed by search engines and further boosts the organic visibility of your brand. If you see, search engines generally tend to feature user-generated content from sites like Quora, support forums, and Stack Overflow (programming questions).
Here are my top picks for the best online community software to try this year.
1. Tribe Platform.
Tribe is an excellent platform suitable for both creators and brand-led communities. The communities powered by Tribe work beautifully on both web and mobile browsers. You can even convert them into apps (PWA).
With Tribe Platform you can fully customize your community to reflect your branding. You can even convert components like activity feed, groups, posts, etc. into widgets and easily embed them inside your site as well as the product.
The design is inspired by popular social media sites. That means you create your version of Facebook, Quora, LinkedIn. This community tool is also highly secure and enables you to build communities with 100% GDPR compliance.
Your members can also join your community easily using the Social Login system that supports Facebook, Slack, LinkedIn, Google, and Twitter.
- Activity feed like popular social media sites to deliver personalized content.
- Support for different types of posts and rich media (e.g., directly video upload).
- Enables members to upvotes, comment, and reply to posts.
- Create groups and topics to form sub-communities and categorize the content.
- Change colors, add your brand assets, and modify the theme with CSS.
- Embeddable widgets to add social components to sites.
- Localize your community with 25+ international languages.
- Leverage powerful notification tools to keep members engaged.
- Rich gamification systems like reputation score, badges, and leaderboards
- Moderation system that is a combination of both user-driven flagging, standard tools for moderators (edit, delete, merge, etc.), and automation (e.g., keyword blacklisting)
- Powerful SEO to ensure that your community well-optimized to get indexed by search engines
- You can export all the member and content data since you have complete control over the community with this software platform
- Tribe has direct integration with 20+ popular third-party tools. One of them is Zapier so you can connect with 2000+ popular apps.
- With SSO, you can allow the existing users of your site and product to log in to the community.
- The extensive reporting capabilities allow you to measure key metrics for your community
Tribe offers four pricing plans:
Free: The first plan is free and comes with essential features like content posting, groups, topics, and 500 members.
Plus: The Plus plan costs $85 per month and allows up unlimited members along with additional apps like Zapier integration and SEO.
Premium: The Premium plan costs $249 per month and offers features such as SSO, additional apps, and better support.
Enterprise: The Enterprise plan comes with the capability to fully customize the community design and install custom-built apps. This plan also offers additional SLA on customer support, training, data residency, and advanced security features like audit logs.
Overall, Tribe is a well-established platform that currently boasts of clients such as IBM, ASUS, Pipedrive, Decathlon, and Convertkit.
You can get started with Tribe for free and upgrade to a paid plan for more features.
One of the most popular community platforms ($100/month – $300/month)
Discourse is an open-source forum software for discussions. It also comes with a cloud-hosted version.
- Infinite scroll to cover the conversations in one page
- Link unfurling
- Mobile responsive
- Single sign-on
- Additional member privileges based on the trust score
- Ability to reply via email
- Plugins to add functionality to your discussion forum
- Powerful API
- Translation in 45 languages
- Moderation system with the ability to flag content
- Personal messaging
- Reporting dashboard
Although the open-source version is free, you need to still pay for hosting and maintenance. The managed hosting option has 3 subscription plans.
Standard: This $100 per month gives you 100k monthly page views, unlimited members, 5 staff members, and 20 GB storage.
Business: This plan costs $300 per month. It gives you 500k monthly page views, 100 GB of storage, unlimited members, and 15 staff users.
Enterprise: This is a custom plan offered to large enterprises. Comes with 3M+ monthly page views, unlimited members, unlimited staff, and 200 GB storage.
Some of the popular brands using Discourse are Twitter, Samsung, Docker, and Patreon.
3. Vanilla Forums.
One of the most mature community platforms (starts from $689/month)
Similar to Discourse, Vanilla Forums also has both the open-source version, and Similar to Discourse, Vanilla Forums also has both the open-source version and managed services (paid plans). Paid plans unlock features not available in the open-source version.
- Can match your brand guidelines with themes
- Gamification system
- Moderation system (merge, edit, delete, demerit points, banning)
- Question and answer system
- Events (scheduling, sharing, discovery, and RSVP capability)
- Groups or sub-communities
- Social login and SSO
- WordPress integration
- API and Webhooks
- Integration with Salesforce, Zendesk, and more
Vanilla Forums offers 3 pricing options and it starts from $689/month.
Business: This plan offers 250k monthly page views, 5 staff members, jsConnect SSO, private or public community access, gamification, and more.
Corporate: This plan offers 1M monthly page views, 10 staff members, CRM integration, ideation, API access, advanced SSO, and more.
Enterprise: This plan offers a custom page view plan, custom staff users, enhanced security, uptime SLA, and more.
4. Mighty Networks.
The best platform to charge memberships and host courses (free – $81/month)
Mighty Network serves creators and entrepreneurs by bringing together their community, online courses, sales pages, and more, all under their brand, across the web, and native iOS and Android apps. Connect community members with an activity feed, sub-groups, member categories, chat messages, and more.
Create articles with a rich CMS, embed images, videos, and sound files, and post questions and polls, all of which support comments and like button. This is indeed a user-friendly platform to improve community engagement.
- Personalized activity feeds for members
- Topics and articles
- Direct messaging
- Make public, private, or paid community
- Zapier integrations for workflow automation
- Custom domain
- Charge for membership
There are 4 pricing options:
Free: You can create a subscription-based community (members will pay a fee to join the community. Community with activity feed, articles, and topics.
Community: Costs $23/month and allows you to point your community to a custom domain.
Business: Costs $81/month and allows you to host online courses. You also get access to Zapier integration and premium analytics.
Pro: Get access to native mobile apps, mobile notifications, and app store marketing all under your brand. Details of pricing can be collected by contacting the Mighty Networks team.
Choose Mighty Networks if charging a membership fee and offering courses is critical for your community project.
The platform that combines chat and discussion threads (free)
Spectrum allows you to launch a free and public community with a real-time chat-like conversation. At the same time, unlike messaging apps, the conversations on Spectrum can be discovered by search engines and indexed.
This gives you the best of both worlds — threaded discussions and real-time chat. However, communities built on Spectrum are not fully customizable based on your branding. For example, you cannot host the community under your custom domain. There are other limitations such as lack of SSO, moderation tool, integrations, reporting, and analytics.
- Unlimited chat
- Unlimited members
- Brandable signup page
- Secure, private channels
- Email member invitations
- Single DM inbox
At this point, Spectrum is a free platform, you can get started with this solution in case of budget constraints
The easiest platform to build Community of Professionals (free – $12.5/member)
Slack is a popular business messaging and collaboration tool. However, many are also using it for building communities for professionals. The primary reason for this is a free plan, top-notch usability, and wide distribution of the Slack app.
However, although it is free to get started you can easily hit the limits in the free plan. For example, in the free plan, only the first 10k messages are searchable. Also, you can’t build public communities using Slack — this blocks people from discovering your community via search engines. Apart from that, there is no customization capability, no moderation, and analytics features.
- Ability to create Channels for discussions and categorize the Channels using Sections.
- Real-time communication
- Powerful direction integration with third-party tools
- Member directory
- File browser
- Video calling
- Supports different pre-designed templates
Slack offers 4 pricing options.
Free: Unlimited private & public channels, 10k searchable messages, 10 apps/integrations, 1:1 video or voice calls, and file sharing.
Standard ($6.67 per member): Unlimited messages archive, unlimited apps, and group video calling.
Plus ($12.50 per member): SAML-based SSO, data export, 99.99% uptime SLA
Enterprise Grid: This is a custom plan for enterprise companies. Comes with unlimited workspaces, advanced security features, and compliance systems.
It is highly recommended for real-time discussion. Not suitable for asynchronous communications required for discussion forums.
7. Facebook Groups.
The best platform to acquire members easily (free)
Facebook Groups are used to create dedicated groups for people with a common passion so they can discuss various topics related to their area of interest. For a business, these Facebook Groups can be used to discuss your offerings and boost awareness about your company.
- Posts, likes, and comments
- Questionnaire setup for member approval
- Displaying rules for moderations
- Ability to assign mentor privilege to your most loyal members
- Create learning modules (similar to courses) to educate your members
- Connect the Facebook Group with Facebook Page
- Reporting and analytics
- Real-time chat with Messenger (if members are not friends, messages go to “Message Requests” section)
Facebook Groups are free and currently, Facebook is heavily focused on improving Groups functionality.
Overall, if you are just starting, Facebook Groups can be a good option. It doesn’t allow you to customize based on your brand, you don’t own the data, privacy can be an issue, and the platform is inherently full of distractions (owing to notifications and ads).
We explored some of the best community solutions based on the ease of use, growth potential, and features.
However, the question remains which community platform is best for your company? It would vary depending on your specific needs. That said, the first step is to list down all the features you need and your budget. Then you need to match the community platform based on this list.
Also, it is crucial to consider the business goal you are trying to achieve and the way your community platform can help you measure the success? With proving ROI, you won’t be able
The best part is that the majority of these tools have a free version or a free trial. That way you can test the community platform exactly based on your use case. You can make a final purchase once you are satisfied with the solution.
If you’re looking for my top pick, I recommend you get started with Tribe for free.