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How to choose your online community platform
This post has affiliate links for products including Circle. Which I am obsessed with. So please send some cash my way 😘
In a world of a zillion (or at least 10) great options for communities, it's hard to figure out which to go with.
Before we begin, 2 important things:
- For my primary community with Soapbox Project, I've chosen Circle. I'll explain why I chose it over other communities I've managed/participated in.
- Your online community platform ≠ your COMMUNITY. Your community exists in a lot of places and your members exist as their full selves. Not just on the internet, and definitely not just in the community you're building. Selecting your platform is important, but not as important as how you build your actual community.
In this guide, I'll explain:
- Understanding your members' primary interaction purpose
- Narrowing down a fitting tool (or more!)
- Why I chose Circle
- Thoughts on going beyond the online forum
Understanding your members' expectations is key to choosing where to host your online community
I wanted to launch a community for Soapbox Project probably sometime in 2019. I hesitated and hesitated and hesitated. Finally, in March 2021, I launched it on Circle.
Most builders and hackers these days will tell you to launch ASAP. I generally agree with that, but not for community-building.
Here's a few things to ask:
- Do my members want to attend events or participate in discussions? Ideally, your community will have both events and discussions (and probably more stuff I'm not listing, like product discounts, jobs, etc.). Now that I'm 9 months into being a full-time community manager though, I'm realizing that most people lean towards one or the other. Most of our Soapbox members attend events. We have around 1 event a week, and these range from fireside chats that don't demand your participation, casual gatherings that require participation but don't demand a lot of focus, and action hours where you need to participate, focus, and meet others. A smaller percent of our Soapbox members post discussions. I almost shut down the community a month into launching, because it was pretty silent. I was the only one posting stuff, and it was ✨crickets✨ apart from the occasional intro post + like. Then, in May, we launched biweekly fireside chats and everything changed. I should have listened to what members were saying all along — "we want to take action and learn about the social impact space." Events are way better suited for this than discussion prompts. 💡 Options for community platforms: Circle now has its own in-house events feature (just launched during the time of publishing this post!) but I knew it could support embeds, so we've been doing some of our events with Mixily. I also considered Mighty Networks since other creators seemed to find some event-related success here. Given the 12390842983 event tools available, you can even do something as simple as launch on Discord and post Zoom links.
- Do we need asynchronous or synchronous communication? Asynchronous communication is more like Facebook groups, where people post stuff and others can reply whenever, wherever. Synchronous is real-time: it feels more direct message-y. 💡 Options for community platforms: Both are great, depending on what you want! Telegram is my favorite DM-feeling tool, and I'm part of a very active, vibrant, Newsletter Geeks group on there. (Shoutout Anne-Laure!) Discord is another one suited for highly conversational, synchronous communication. In my opinion, Slack is the closest best-of-both-worlds tool, but I'm just not a fan of a community platform that feels like work. I chose Circle because I knew we wanted asynchronous communication, and Circle's posts feel familiar if you've ever been in a Facebook group.
- Will members share long-form or short-form thoughts? If you're launching a community that's resource-heavy like Work on Climate, or if your community is mostly a way to post announcements for events and meetups like Climate Changemakers, you're likely not expecting people to post long-form essays week after week. You're looking for thumbs ups, RSVPs, links to jobs, etc. — this is short-form communication. 💡Options for community platforms: Slack, Discord, and Telegram are great for short-form. Circle, Mighty Networks, Tribe, Wondr, and Discourse are best-suited for long-form communication. Also technically Facebook is too, but... I'm not promoting them.
- How much customization do I need? This is the answer that finally tipped the scale in favor of Circle when I first launched. I needed a platform that would feel like a dedicated, branded space for our members. I wanted different layouts for posts. In the images below, you can see that we have our own branding, space names, and even can change how different spaces look. Plus, I can control the level of access each member has!
- Is this community free, paid, or a combo? If you need to paywall your community, it either needs its own membership OR should integrate easily with Memberful, Memberstack, Memberspace, Patreon, or Outseta. I bet I missed a few, but you can never catch em all. ⭕ 💡 Options for choosing community platforms: Some communities like Circle have built-in paywalls, but honestly these days, it's honestly not hard to set up a paywall for anything. I won't suggest something separate here because this is a whole new topic, but keep this in mind to free yourself of integration headaches/being stuck to a community platform just because it comes with its own paywall.
- How frequently do we want people posting in the online forum? This is one that I actually didn't consider until after I launched, so you can take this as my humble retrospective advice. Do you want your community to feel slow and thoughtful? Fast and real-time? If it's the former, it's okay to optimize for a couple posts a week instead of daily posts. I don't have much to say for options here, but a few things to consider might be how searchable posts are, what notifications look like, and if members can customize to reduce or increase the info they're getting from your online platform. Logistically too, some platforms limit/price according to # of posts. For example, many community-managers run into issues with Slack where you can't search beyond a certain number of posts.
- How long-term is the community I'm building? If you're in this for the long game, you want a community that can change according to your goals. And you should probably think more deeply on these questions before launching, especially if (like in my case), your community IS the product. If you're running a product-based community with the goal to connect your customers and provide proactive support, this question might not matter as much. For me, it's been incredible to see the speed in which the Circle team rolls out features based on our (the customers') feedback. 🔥🔥🔥 Love y'all.
Narrowing down community tools that fit your needs
Let's keep this section short. If you've answered all the questions above, you probably have 1-3 communities you'll choose from, and now it's the home stretch.
Some things I'd keep in mind to make your final selection:
- How well will this platform integrate with others? Will you have to make infinite Zaps or are there supported integrations?
- What other tools will I need? Do I need a paywall? An event ticketing service? A way to collect contact info?
- What's a good time frame to launch fast while still being intentional? (Some communities have more learning curves than others — this is why I didn't end up going with Mighty Networks; it felt a little more setup-heavy.)
Also Tweet me if you have more things to add!
Why I chose Circle for my online community platform (and am sticking with it)
This question merits its own post and you can read more here, but here's a quick list on why I chose Circle:
- I wanted to optimize for thoughtful, long-form, asynchronous discussions
- I needed control over the customization of the community
- It has a really supportive community so I can learn best practices
- Lots of other community builders I respect (like Anne-Laure with Ness Labs) were using it and had good things to say
- I needed a paywall that wouldn't be too hard to use. I integrated Outseta pretty easily with Circle — it now has its own paywall too! I'm not planning on switching because I want to paywall other stuff in the future for our members, so I'm going to stick with Outseta for now.
- The team "gets it".
- Mathilde. If you're wondering wtf a Mathilde is, Mathilde Leo is Circle's community manager. Not only is she super helpful, she's also a good person who cares about my well-being, which I find pretty stunning for a platform with thousands of customers and community members. She's checked in on me when I broke my leg, and she's vouched for me to speak at a couple community conferences, which gave me the confidence to even be writing stuff like this in the first place.
Beyond the online forum: building an actual community
To reiterate what I said at the beginning of this guide, your online platform is NOT your community. It's only a part of it, just as your community is only a part of your members' lives.
As community builders, managers, and stewards, we need to literally think outside the box (screen?) and ask ourselves: what else are we doing to build community beyond our online forum?
It's okay if your members will never meet in person. You can still have a vibrant, multidimensional online community that's all-virtual! Think of ways to bridge the digital with the physical though: can you host a Strava challenge for your members? Can you design fun experiences like a scavenger hunt that go beyond simply posting discussions and attending events? Can you do giveaways that you announce on your platform but require members to engage somewhere else?
Remember: our members are human, and whatever community you're building is NOT their whole life. (And it shouldn't be, unless you're a cult leader or in an MLM, and there's a lot of overlap between the two.)
In our increasingly connected yet increasingly lonely world, as community leaders, we can help our members find belonging and joy by leveraging our online platform as one of many tools and experiences that bring people together. Yay!! 🎉👯