As smartphones and wireless broadband proliferated in recent years, people everywhere began looking for ways to leverage these groundbreaking technologies to create online communities.
These communities may revolve around a brand of clothing, a love of photography or music, important social issues or as a way to advance learning.
But whatever their impetus they all need the same thing: an effective community platform.
For community leaders that means a secure, reliable and flexible way to share content, inspire community members, attract new members and monetize their efforts.
For community members that means a safe, informative and fun place that will enable them to meet new people, expand their minds and further their interests.
But where do you find such platforms? That’s what we’re here to look at today: the best community platforms currently available. But first let’s set the stage.
Why are online communities important?
Whether your online community is designed to strengthen your brand or rally people to a cause it’s a great way to get your particular message across to a diverse and disparate community of likeminded individuals who otherwise might never have had a way of coming together.
In time that community can become your most potent marketing platform, act as an incubator for brand ambassadors or future leaders of your movement, provide a place to test market new products, and provide you with a steady revenue stream.
In addition, happy and engaged community members often become your best outreach mechanism, spreading the word about your community and brand to others, and attracting new members in a very cost-effective way.
So what makes online communities so important?
- They enable you to reach people who would otherwise have been inaccessible
- They can be an effective way to increase your customer base
- They provide an excellent platform for testing new ideas and products
- They often produce passionate brand ambassadors
- They provide multiple monetization options
What makes for an effective community platform?
When it comes to the best online community platforms, features, costs and other details tend to vary but big-picture considerations are usually the same, or at least similar. For a community platform to do its job effectively, it must be flexible, customizable and dependable. And that’s just for starters. It must also:
- Provide tools for promoting engagement
- Enable community leaders to maintain control over user-generated content
- Provide a variety of monetization options
- Give control of user data to community leaders
You’ll notice the word “control” appears twice on that list. That’s not because we’re control freaks. Instead, it’s a reflection of lessons learned (often the hard way) regarding what happens when community leaders cede control over their community to trillion-dollar corporations.
In return for providing a “free” platform for your community, those corporations retain the right to ban your members without consulting you, change community guidelines on a whim, hoard all the best monetization options and deny you access to most member data.
The people behind today’s best community platforms understand the importance of returning control over those fundamental aspects of community building to the people who can make the best use of them: the community leaders.
The 10 best online community platforms
Now that we have a better understanding of why community platforms are important and what makes for an effective community platform, let’s look at 10 of the best online community platforms currently available.
The Disciple community platform redefines versatility and usability. It not only provides a compelling user interface for members to navigate and enjoy, it also provides robust content moderation tools, a wealth of productivity and marketing tools and complete control over member data.
To facilitate online community engagement Disciple offer:
- Unlimited groups
- Group segmentation
- Private messaging
- Push notifications
- Live streaming
- Premium, freemium and multitier subscription options
- Event calendars
- Threaded comments and much more…
To facilitate community management Disciple provide:
- An intuitive management console
- Content library
- Robust content moderation tools
- Member profiles
- A wealth of monetization options
- A variety of layout options
- Effortless scalability
- Custom URL
In addition to all of that, the Disciple Media community platform is cross-platform compatible and provides an array of customization options you simply don’t get with Facebook Groups or other online community platforms. And let’s not overlook the Disciple white-label mobile app option that will help you take your brand to the next level.
To top it all off, Disciple provide a variety of pricing models that enables community builders to choose the one that is perfect for their budget. And when their community is ready to expand Disciple scales with their needs without having to hire ultra-expensive coders to modify the backend architecture.
2: Mighty Networks
Disciple is a hard act to follow but Mighty Networks do a commendable job of it. Mighty Networks have been around for some time and have garnered a loyal following enamoured of the platform’s versatility, reliability and wide-ranging functionality.
The product is easy to use which promotes the all-important content creation that keeps members engaged and gets the word out about where you’re at with your product, service or movement. You’re able to host a plethora of various media types including:
- Embedded video
- Downloadable e-books
- Audio files
- Live Streams
- Photos and more…
And you are able to maintain a large and valuable content archive accessible either through the web or their mobile app, or both, should you so choose.
To facilitate community engagement Mighty Networks offer:
- Private messaging
- Polls and surveys
- A clean, intuitive interface
- Unlimited members
- Threaded comments
- Much more…
To facilitate community management Mighty Networks provide:
- Unlimited admins
- State-of-the-art live streaming
- A multitude of monetization options
- Unlimited storage for community files
- Push notifications
- Low transaction costs
- A variety of subscription options
Mighty Networks get a lot of things right. But for a community platform aimed at those looking to conduct online courses, they are curiously lacking in a couple of areas. For instance, they accept a very limited number of payment options, and notably, no PayPal. Mighty Networks is also one of the most expensive options out there. If you need a whitelabel app its going to set you back $30,000 a year. If neither of those is a deal-breaker for you then you’re going to find a lot to like with Mighty Networks.
Like Mighty Networks, Thinkific is designed for those with specialist knowledge to share with the world. Whether you’re a language teacher, artist, musician, coder, yoga master or any other type of instructor, Thinkific provides the tools you need to communicate effectively with your students.
Thinkific allows you to create
- Audio lessons
- PDF lessons
- Downloadable content
- Text lessons
- Video lessons and more…
You can also build one big community or specialist communities around specific lessons or topics. And creating your courses is easy as pie with Thinkific’s drag-and-drop system.
To facilitate community engagement Thinkific offer:
- A clean, simple user interface
- The ability to pick and choose content formats
- A variety of payment plans
- Premium and freemium memberships
- Private messaging
- The ability to collaborate on projects
- The ability to replay content to master the subject
- And more…
To facilitate community management Thinkific provide:
- An easy way to design custom courses
- Phone and email support from the Thinkific team
- A free plan if you are currently cash strapped
- Custom domain branding
- Unlimited subdomains
- Drag and drop design of sales pages
- Stout moderation tools
- A variety of payment methods
The main downside to Thinkific is that you can’t have your own branded app for your community. Your course will be hosted under Thinkific’s branding meaning that there is limited value for developing your brand recognition and loyalty. It’s a course-first platform rather than community-first, so while it is a good option for some course leaders, if you’re serious about community building you may find some features lacking.
But, did we mention there’s a free plan?
4: Bettermode (formerly Tribe)
Bettermode got the attention of a lot of community builders when it was first introduced as Tribe. What drew most of the attention was that it offered a no-code way to build a fully customized community platform. That’s still one of its primary advantages now that it’s been rebranded.
Bettermode allows members to join groups, participate in discussions and create content that is automatically optimized for social sharing (should the poster want to share it outside the community).
To facilitate community engagement Bettermode offer:
- Intuitive design
- Simple login
- Private groups
- Personalized activity feed
- Private messaging
- Threaded comments
To facilitate community management Bettermode provide:
- Unlimited groups
- Unlimited members
- Push notifications
- No-code editor
- Easy customization
- Powerful analytics tools
- Faster launch
- Embeddable widgets
- Custom URL
- A variety of member permission levels
One reason Bettermode is not able to compete with Disciple is that it does not offer a white-label mobile app. Also, if design is not the community builder’s strong suit it’s possible the user interface could become a confused mess. Also, there are no spam filters.
All that said, a lot of people appreciate how easy it is to set up a fairly sophisticated online community in a relatively short space of time using Tribe/Bettermode. And the fact that they offer an array of pricing models means you’re likely to find one that dovetails with your budget.
Given that the dictionary defines discord as “tension or strife resulting from a lack of agreement” we’re not sure what the folks behind this community platform were thinking when they chose the name. But potentially unwise naming decisions aside, Discord began life as a messaging platform for gamers and has found new life as a community platform for people with a wide range of interests.
The thing that draws most community builders to Discord is the fact that it’s free for most users. Another reason a lot of younger community builders choose Discord is because of its more lighthearted interface. While some community platforms can seem dry and businesslike, that’s not the case with Discord, and the company is proud of that.
To facilitate community engagement Discord offer:
- The ability to integrate tools like YouTube, Patreon and more
- A free plan for most users
- A very user-friendly design and intuitive navigation
- The ability to communicate with text, video or voice
- Cross-platform compatibility with PC, smartphones and tablets
To facilitate community management Discord provide:
- A free option that provides wide-ranging capabilities
- The ability to create custom channels
- The ability to assign different levels of access for users
- AI-driven bots that help you organize
- The ability to integrate with YouTube, Twitch, Patreon and more
- Seamless integration with landing pages and forms
If you’re looking to build a community around teens and twenty-somethings you might want to give Discord some serious thought, as young people are likely to be amenable to Discord’s offbeat user interface and anything-goes aesthetic.
But it’s not all sunshine and puppy dogs. The free version puts a limit of 2,000 characters on messages. If you want to offer more than that you’ll have to pay. Still, the company put no membership limits on free accounts and besides the character limit and slightly overwhelming member experience there is not a lot to complain about.
Kajabi is a popular choice for those building a community around learning. Whether you want to offer language, music, painting or any other type of lessons you’ll find Kajabi provide the tools you need to get the job done.
One of the things that makes Kajabi so popular with online instructors is what they call “Kajabi University”. This is their online resource library that includes hundreds of valuable videos, PDFs and other downloadable resources related to every conceivable feature or issue with the platform.
To facilitate community engagement Kajabi offer:
- A clean, professional-looking interface
- Easy access to member purchase history
- Close-captioned lessons for the hearing impaired
- Access to a variety of lesson formats
To facilitate community management Kajabi provide:
- A simple and effective course builder
- Unlimited video hosting
- A variety of subscription models
- Outstanding support
- A podcast hosting platform
- Multiple ways to monetize your community
- An easy way to bundle products together
- Simple member segmentation
If you want to create a learning community Kajabi should be on your list of possible community platforms. They’ve been around 10 years and have had plenty of time to work the bugs out. What they haven’t done during those 10 years is come up with a white-label mobile app, eliminate the need for some people to have to hire a coder or expand the number of payment options they accept from students. Right now it is limited to PayPal and Stripe.
And one more thing; Kajabi is one of the more expensive online community platforms on the market today. There’s no free option and while there are numerous payment plans, none of them are cheap. So whether you choose Kajabi or not will depend on who your clients are, what type of tech they’re using (PCs, mobile) and whether or not you can afford it.
7: Facebook Groups
Facebook have a couple of things going for them that make them immediately appealing to anyone researching community platform options. The first is unparalleled name recognition and the other is that it’s free. Toss in the fact that most of your would-be community members probably have a Facebook account already and are familiar with the platform and how to use it.
For some community organizers who want to keep things simple, that’s enough. And who can blame these folks? After all, setting up an online community is a lot of work. Anything you can do or find that makes the job easier is going to be appealing.
To facilitate community engagement Facebook Groups offer:
· Product familiarity
· Easy access to any groups you are a member of
· Higher levels of engagement than is possible with regular FB accounts
· Users do not need to create a new profile, they can use their existing Facebook profile
To facilitate community management Facebook Groups provide:
· The ability to post up to 10 announcements at the top of the group page
· Hard to beat the fact that public groups are free
· The ability to choose a public or private group
· The ability to limit who can engage with a public group
· Non-members can share public group content which helps spread the word
· Paid Facebook Groups provide a high degree of privacy
Paid Private Groups are fairly popular but they sort of defeat one of the major attractions of Facebook: the fact that it’s free. Once you have to pay then you’re likely to become painfully aware of Facebook’s many shortcomings. Those include:
· Loss of control over user data
· The ability of FB to ban your members without your consent
· Lax security at just about every level
· Near total lack of customization options
· The fact that private groups won’t appear in Google searches
· The inability to earn money from advertising on your group
All that said, people continue to flock to Facebook Groups mostly because the devil you know is (sometimes) better than the devil you don’t know. Plus, with 2 billion users a public group has the potential to reach an absurd audience.
Not to be confused with Discord, Discourse is an open source community platform that allows community builders to tweak the code in any way they want to produce the look, feel and functionality they’re after with their community.
Right away this emphasis on coding eliminates a lot of community builders, but those who are coding savvy, or who have the resources to hire a coder or coders to customize the experience for them, will find a lot to like. Essentially, they’ll be able to create their own, bespoke community platform, and not many companies provide the ability to do that.
To facilitate community engagement Discourse offer:
· A custom interface designed specifically for your area of interest
· All the usual community platform features such as commenting, ‘private’ messaging and more
· The ability to log in with your social media account
· The ability to share content
· Teams, public and private threads
· Gamification can be customized to suit your needs
· The ability to set your own level of privacy
To facilitate community management Discourse provide:
· Open source code
· Powerful moderation tools
· Community segmentation options
· Unmatched customizability
· Comprehensive analytics
· Export data via APIs
· Outstanding tech support
· Moderate pricing options
While it’s hard to argue with being able to create your own bespoke community platform at a reasonable price there are a few things that will give some people pause about adopting Discourse as their community software.
The first is that there’s no live chat feature. In our chat-obsessed world that seems like a biggy. But only you can say. In addition, so-called “private messages” can be read by administrators. Which kind of negates the idea that they’re private. In addition, plugin options are extremely limited.
That aside, Discourse still has a lot going for it, if you have the budget and the patience and things like live chat aren’t important to you.
Podia provide community leaders with a simple and relatively quick way to create a community website with a host of useful functions and a wealth of monetization options. Podia online communities are easy to maintain, highly versatile and easy to create.
If you have a generous budget you can create just about anything you want with a paid Podia site. At the same time if money is tight you can opt for a free Podia site and still enjoy many of the features that make the software such a compelling choice.
To facilitate community engagement Podia offer:
· The ability to join a paid or free group
· Private messaging
· Threaded comments
· Powerful content moderation tools to protect you from trolls
· The ability to earn rewards
· Cross-platform compatibility
· Live streaming
· Content library
To facilitate community management Podia provide:
· A huge template library you can use to easily build your community features
· An intuitive interface with virtually no learning curve
· The ability to offer live chat on your sales pages
· No limits on any Podia features
· No transaction fees on sales
· Outstanding customer service
· Good to excellent content moderation
· Automated invoicing and VAT calculation
· The ability of your Podia site to be found by Google
As you can see there is a lot to like with Podia for both members and administrators. So why aren’t they ranked higher on our list? First of all, there’s no white-label mobile app. Everything is browser based. Second, the company tends to update the software pretty frequently and this can sometimes be disruptive. Also, they don’t accept PayPal and you aren’t able to categorize products.
If your primary focus is on selling products with a secondary emphasis on building a related community Podia is a solid choice. However, if your primary concern is community building you might want to explore other options.
Over the past decade a lot of video sharing services have dared to challenge the monopoly enjoyed by YouTube, the world’s second most popular website and search engine. Some, like Vimeo, have managed to carve out a decent niche for themselves, but most have not gained much traction. In fact, the only one that caused a stir in the YouTube offices was TikTok.
That might be about to change with Uscreen. Uscreen is a video hosting service that provides all the tools you need to create a vibrant community around your video content. And maybe best of all it’s completely ad-free.
To facilitate community engagement Uscreen offer:
- Simple and effective video management dashboard
- Live chat so members can communicate with creators
- Powerful live streaming option
- A highly personalized experience
To facilitate community management Uscreen provide:
- Wide ranging accessibility through all digital platforms
- Easy to share videos
- Unlike YouTube Uscreen is completely ad-free
- A range of payment plans you can offer your subscribers
- A plethora of marketing and retention tools
- Industry-leading speed on video playback
- A clean, intuitive interface
- Comprehensive tech support
With Uscreen you will be able to nurture more personal relationships with your subscribers through live chat and other community features. And remember, anyone who subscribes to your Uscreen channel has put their money where their mouth is and wants to see what you’ve got.
Will it eventually unseat YouTube? Probably not. But it will enable you to create a passionate, dedicated community for your video lessons, music or other content.
What is a community platform?
A community platform is a virtual space where likeminded people meet, share interests, learn new skills or share their experiences, opinions and vision for the future. One of the most popular types of online community is the brand community where fans of a particular brand come together in one place to share their passion and even enjoy sneak peeks at upcoming products.
With an online community platform your clothing, music, artwork, language lessons or whatever type of content you have to offer is freed from geographic restrictions. People from all over the world who would never otherwise meet are able to come together in one place and share their love and admiration for your particular product or service.
As you can see in the list there are different kinds of community platforms. Some are intended to enable learning, some are dedicated to providing a platform for your video content and some that are flexible enough to act as B2C or B2B platforms. Which type of community platform will be right for your purposes will depend on what type of product or service you have to offer, your target audience and your budget.
What makes a good community platform?
With so many different kinds of online community platforms out there this might seem like too broad a question. But in fact, all the best community platforms share certain baseline characteristics. They are:
- User-friendly UI: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. In this case, your User Interface (UI) will be the first thing potential community members see. So if they’re not impressed or they’re confused or otherwise put off by the UI you’ve lost them.
- Customization: Nobody wants their community platform to look exactly like that of their competitors. For that reason, any decent community platform will allow community builders to customize the look and feel to bring it in line with their brand image.
- Potent content moderation tools: More than one online community platform has succumbed to the scourge of trolls and others who have nothing better to do than spew hate and intolerance. The way you stay ahead of these basement dwellers is through content moderation tools.
- Security: Most online communities provide a way for members to make purchases. For that reason, it’s imperative that your community platform offer rock-solid security, including state-of-the-art encryption.
- Powerful analytics: In order to grow your community you need to know what members do when they log in. With first-rate analytics, you’ll be able to see what is working and what isn’t so that you can tweak your content offerings going forward.
- User engagement tools: The days when a member forum was all you needed to attract and keep users are gone. Today, your community platform needs to provide a variety of engagement tools including polls, surveys, live chat, DM, threaded comments, live streaming and more.
- Gamification: Gamification is another engagement tool that is crucial to nurturing the bond between brand and community member. In simple terms, gamification is the process of adding game-like elements to product offerings in order to promote engagement.
- A knowledge base: There are two kinds of knowledge base: one that contains past lessons and related materials and one that answers basic questions members may have about the platform, how it works and how to address issues. The best community platform should offer both.
- Monetization options: As crude as it might sound brands are in business to make money. The community platform they embrace to bolster their brand identity and image should also offer a variety of monetization options.
What are some community engagement tips?
With online community platforms, it’s all about engagement. Above we went over some of the tools an effective community platform should offer to ramp up engagement. Here are some tips and tricks you can employ to make sure you get the most from those community engagement tools.
#1: Tip Day
Even though you most likely provide a knowledge base members can access if they have questions it is likely some of them never use it. Instead, they slog on, unable to get a handle on some of the finer points of using your community platform.
Rather than leaving these folks out to dry, have a Tip Day once a month when you offer an array of tips on how to make more effective use of the platform. Someone should also be available to handle any questions that come up.
It might be tempting to simply say “check out the knowledge base”, but taking a hard-line is not likely to lead anywhere good. Instead, reach out to members, be patient and remember it’s them that enable your success.
2: Live Q&A sessions
Similar to Tip Day but more broad-based, regular Live Q&A sessions can go a long way toward ensuring member loyalty. Members appreciate it when community organizers take the time to acknowledge and engage them one-on-one. It makes them feel more invested in the brand.
You don’t want to be caught flat-footed by member questions if you can help it, so In order to prepare for the Q&A go into analytics and find out what topics are trending, which discussions have generated the most engagement and what tags, search terms and downloads are popular.
If you have a product launch coming up in the days following the Q&A send out notifications to community members that you’ll take questions on that topic during the Live Q&A.
3. Member spotlight
Once a month you can highlight a different member who has made a notable contribution to the community. This is a great way to acknowledge the effort certain members go to in order to help grow your brand. It also provides an incentive to other members to ramp up their efforts so that they might be spotlighted.
Chances are these key members can provide a unique perspective on your product, service or movement. One that increases member understanding regarding how to elevate their status within the community and how your company enables the success of these brand advocates.
4: Reach out to lapsed members
It’s not easy to find community members. So if you have some who have lately scaled back their community involvement don’t just let them get away. Reach out to them yourself or have key members write to them to say they are missed.
It’s easier and more cost-effective to reach out to members who have let their engagement lapse than it is to find and recruit brand new members. Sometimes all a wayward member wants is to know that their absence is noted. It tells them they are not just a number, they’re a valued member of the community.
5: Run contests
Everyone loves a contest and they are a great way to increase the engagement of those who may be starting to drift. There are any number of contests you could run, including trivia contests, brand-related quizzes, and treasure hunts where you sprinkle clues around the community and reward the first X number of members to find the treasure.
What is the best platform for community?
The best community platform currently on the market is Disciple Media. Disciple’s versatility enables community builders to create whatever type of online community they have in mind. Established brands, teachers, activists and fans will all find the tools they need to establish and nurture a thriving online community.
With polls, live chat, threaded comments, live streams, embedded video, in-app purchases and more you’ll be able to keep your members fully engaged and invested in a way you never could with Facebook Groups or other online community platforms. And with a wealth of monetization options your community will likely pay for itself, and then some.