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Choosing the Right Online Community Platform and Software

Creating and managing an online community has become increasingly popular in recent years. Whether you are a business owner, a course instructor, or simply someone interested in connecting with like-minded individuals, an online community platform can provide you with the necessary tools to establish and nurture your digital community. In this article, we will explore what an online community platform is, how to choose the best one for your needs, tips for building and managing an online community, different types of online communities, and future trends in online community platforms. 

Online communities build belonging between members sharing interests and needs. But launching a thriving community requires more than social media groups. Robust specialized platforms enable deeper connections and engagement. This guide covers evaluating options, essential features, use case suitability, onboarding members, moderation, analytics, design customization, integrations, pricing models, and more. Use these insights to choose tech enabling meaningful community relationships at scale.

Clarifying Your Community’s Purpose and Audience

Start by defining the specific audience you want to serve and goals you’ll achieve.

Key Community Attributes to Identify

  • What core interests unite your members?
  • What needs, pain points, and aspirations do they share?
  • How are current solutions failing to satisfy them?
  • What conversations and topics most interest them?
  • What activities would they find valuable from one another?
  • What rules and etiquette will foster a positive environment?
  • How large an audience exists for this niche?
  • What mixture of ages, demographics, geographies, etc make up the group?

An intimate understanding of your audience focuses community-building priorities.

Choosing Subscription vs Free Tiers

Paid memberships fund community growth but limit reach if priced too high.

Subscription Model Pros

  • Ongoing revenue funds community management and growth
  • Higher commitment from paid members
  • Allows gating exclusive extras behind paid tiers
  • Enables paid facilitators, mentors, and more human support

Free Model Pros

  • No barrier to start building momentum and scale
  • Achieve growth through word-of-mouth viral sharing
  • Opportunity to earn through ads, affiliates, and data over time
  • Build audience to advertise other products and services to

Factor expected income versus reach. Mixed paid and unpaid tiers provide balance.

Evaluating Self-Hosted vs Hosted SaaS Options

On-premise and managed cloud communities both have pros and cons.

Benefits of Self-Hosted On-Premise Communities

  • Complete control and customization over platform
  • Avoid monthly recurring fees
  • Keep user data in-house rather than with vendor
  • Integrate with internal databases and logins
  • Scale hardware yourself as membership grows
  • Choose open source tools like Discourse, Vanilla

Benefits of Managed SaaS Community Platforms

  • Quick launch and setup to start building fast
  • Worry-free maintenance and security
  • Automatic scaling and capacity increases
  • Usage-based pricing models in early days
  • More turnkey integrations with marketing stack
  • Leverage platform expertise serving communities

Factor technical resources, control needs, and cost. Mix self-managed and SaaS tools.

Defining Required Functionalities and Features

Outline must-have tools enabling members to connect and interact meaningfully.

Common Community Platform Capabilities

  • User profiles and member directories
  • Subgroups, forums, and interests feeds
  • Direct messaging and social interactions
  • Media sharing – images, videos, audio
  • Live chat, voice, and video conferencing
  • Events, meetups, and calendars
  • Knowledge base and wiki documentation
  • Gamification through points and achievements

Prioritize features fostering the relationships and value prop of your specific community.

Evaluating Discussion Forum Options

Forums facilitate ongoing member conversations and support.

Discussion Forum Features to Evaluate

  • Thread subscriptions and favorites
  • Search and tagging to find topics
  • User reputation and badges
  • Reader mode for long conversations
  • Polls and surveys for quick feedback
  • Moderation tools – moving, merging, deleting
  • Antispam and cyberbullying detection
  • Media embedding and reactions
  • Anonymity and pseudonymity preferences

Effective forums feel core to community identity. Ensure features encourage quality conversations.

Enabling Real-Time Communication

Live video chat facilitates stronger relationships and immediacy.

Real-Time Communication Capabilities

  • Video calls between individuals
  • Small private video rooms
  • Large townhall video webinars
  • Audio-only rooms like Clubhouse
  • Instant messaging and chat
  • Screen sharing capabilities
  • Integrated calendaring for scheduling
  • Call transcripts saved as knowledge
  • Option to record and store calls

Synchronous communication makes community always-available rather than just message boards.

Gating Exclusive Content and Perks

Special extras for members build perceived value.

Examples of Gated Members-Only Content

  • Sneak previews of upcoming products/events
  • Premium courses, workshops, and training
  • Entry into prize contests and giveaways
  • First access to sales, discounts, and deals
  • Additional access permissions and features
  • Badges, reputation levels, and public status
  • Behind-the-scenes and “tell-all” content
  • Ability to shape site direction through input

Special status fosters brand affinity driving retention and evangelism.

Personalization Through Recommendations

Recommending relevant subgroups, topics, and members personalizes experience.

Personalization Powered by Data

  • Connections based on social graph and networks
  • Content based on past interactions and preferences
  • Prompts welcoming new members driving engagement
  • Reminders about unfinished tasks requiring followup
  • Similar members to follow based on attributes
  • Groups and topics you may like as you use the community
  • Automated digests of activity while you were away

Personalized nudges guide people to the most resonant corners of community.

Optimizing Workflows Through Automation

Leverage bots, alerts, and rules to scale community management.

Community Automation Examples

  • Welcome messages
  • Milestone celebration notifications
  • Posting scheduled digests of popular topics
  • Closing inactive discussions
  • Removing spam automatically
  • Checking for objectionable content
  • Deleting inactive user accounts
  • Email alerts when certain thresholds met
  • Analysis of metrics for reporting

Automating repetitive upkeep leaves human moderators for judgement requiring nuance.

Choosing Design and Branding

Consistent design matches the community’s personality and target audience.

Design Elements to Customize

  • Logo, images, colors, and typefaces
  • Header, footer, and background templates
  • Page layouts and information architecture
  • Icons, avatars, and interface elements
  • Multimedia embed styles and presentation
  • Email and notification theming
  • Mobile responsiveness and adaptation
  • Dark/light mode preferences
  • Accessibility compliance

Design conveys professionalism while setting an inviting mood. Brand consistently.

Integrating With External Tools

Connections enable custom community experiences using preferred tools.

Common Integrations

  • Login and authentication providers
  • Email marketing and CRM databases
  • Analytics and data warehouses
  • Payments and ecommerce
  • Marketing automation
  • Calendar and scheduling
  • Chat, document sharing, and productivity suites
  • APIs to pull in data and media from anywhere

Connecting community activities across platforms smooths experience tremendously.

Budgeting for Ongoing Community Management

Plan operational costs sustaining community long-term.

Costs to Continuously Manage

  • Software fees – flat, per user, or revenue share
  • Human community managers
  • Moderators handling flags and issues
  • Ongoing content and activity creation
  • Technical management maintaining stability
  • Customer support and community response team
  • Potential legal support around risk issues

Dedicated community builders don’t come free. Budget for necessary roles.

Onboarding New Members Strongly

First impressions count. Guide newcomers effectively into the fold.

Effective Member Onboarding Tactics

  • Welcome emails and messaging
  • Prompts to complete member profiles
  • Suggested groups and members to follow
  • Tour explaining key features and navigation
  • Missions exposing members to core actions
  • Notifications when milestones like first post achieved
  • Asking for feedback to fuel improvements

Early nurturing converts visitors into engaged residents reinforcing community purpose.

Moderating and Encouraging Healthy Interactions

Cultivate positive culture through active moderation and community norms.

Moderation Best Practices

  • Publish clear content guidelines members agree to
  • Rapidly address harassment and toxicity when reported
  • Train moderators thoroughly on policies and culture
  • Ban repeat offenders or abuse automatically
  • Clarify appeals process for banned members
  • Tolerate constructive dissent while stemming true threats
  • Highlight positive examples of community in action

light-touch visible moderation prevents detrimental behavior from spiraling.

Tracking Member Metrics and Community Analytics

Data guides community health. Monitor progress towards goals.

Key Community Analytics to Measure

  • Member acquisition, churn, and lifetime value
  • Use frequency – visits, time spent, pages per visit
  • Engagement levels – posts, reactions, chat, events
  • Traffic sources – ads, influencers, SEO, etc.
  • Referral rates through member sharing
  • Active subgroups and forum trends
  • Automation ROI – signups driven, support reduced
  • CSAT, NPS, and member surveys

Data reveals what converts strangers into loyal community members. Optimize accordingly.

Conducting Research to Upgrade Experience

Solicit member feedback continuously through outreach. Iterate based on insights.

Community Research Methods

  • Interviews on challenges and suggested improvements
  • Focus groups discussing initiatives and changes
  • Surveys gauging satisfaction and desired features
  • Ethnography observing members navigating community
  • Activity logging tracking common workflows and pain points
  • UX testing site changes with representative members
  • Community ideas boards to submit suggestions

Close member connections informs evolution ensuring you don’t lose sight of needs.

What is an online community platform?

Understanding the concept of an online community platform

An online community platform is a digital space that enables individuals to connect, engage, and collaborate with each other virtually. It serves as a central hub for like-minded people to share ideas, discuss topics of interest, seek support, and build relationships. These platforms provide features and functionalities that facilitate community interaction, such as discussion forums, messaging systems, event calendars, and file sharing capabilities.

Features to look for in an online community platform

When choosing an online community platform, it is important to consider the features it offers. Some key features to look for include:

  • Discussion forums: These enable community members to engage in conversations, ask questions, and share insights.
  • Messaging systems: Private messaging capabilities allow members to communicate directly with each other.
  • Event calendars: Community events and activities can be organized and shared through an integrated calendar.
  • File sharing: The ability to upload and share files such as documents, images, and videos can enhance collaboration.
  • Member profiles: Profiles allow members to showcase their expertise and connect with others with similar interests.

Advantages of using an online community platform

There are several advantages to using an online community platform:

  • Increased engagement: Online communities provide a platform for members to actively participate and engage with each other.
  • Knowledge sharing: By connecting with others who have similar interests, community members can learn from each other and share valuable insights.
  • Networking opportunities: Online communities offer a unique networking environment, allowing individuals to connect and build relationships with like-minded people.
  • Support and resources: Communities provide a space where members can seek support, advice, and resources related to their interests or industry.

How to choose the best online community platform?

Factors to consider when choosing an online community platform

When selecting an online community platform, it is crucial to consider various factors:

  • Target audience: Understand who your community members will be and ensure the platform meets their needs.
  • Scalability: Choose a platform that can accommodate the growth of your community over time.
  • Usability: Evaluate how user-friendly the platform is for both community managers and members.
  • Customization options: Look for platforms that offer customization features, allowing you to tailor the community to your branding and requirements.
  • Integration capabilities: Consider whether the platform integrates with other tools or software you use.

Top online community platforms in 2023

As of 2023, there are several online community platforms that stand out for their features and functionalities:

  • Platform A: This platform offers a range of community-building features, including discussion forums, event management, and analytics.
  • Platform B: Known for its intuitive user interface and mobile app, this platform is ideal for engaging members on the go.
  • Platform C: With powerful customization options, Platform C allows you to create a branded community that aligns with your business identity.
  • Platform D: Offering advanced moderation tools and security features, Platform D ensures a safe and inclusive community space.

Comparing the features of different online community platforms

Before making a final decision, it is important to compare the features of different online community platforms to determine which one best suits your needs. Look for features such as:

  • Integration capabilities with other tools
  • Mobile app availability
  • Customization options
  • Security and moderation features
  • Analytics and reporting functionalities

Building and managing an online community

Steps to build an online community

Building an online community requires careful planning and execution. Here are some steps to get started:

  1. Define your community’s purpose and mission.
  2. Identify your target audience and their needs.
  3. Choose the right online community platform that aligns with your goals.
  4. Create a welcoming environment by setting clear guidelines and community rules.
  5. Promote your community through various channels to attract members.
  6. Nurture engagement by encouraging discussions and facilitating connections.
  7. Regularly assess and improve the community experience based on member feedback.

Effective community management strategies

Successful community management plays a crucial role in the growth and sustainability of an online community. Here are some strategies for effective community management:

  • Be an active and visible community manager, frequently engaging with members and responding to their inquiries and feedback.
  • Encourage participation by initiating discussions, posting relevant content, and recognizing valuable contributions from members.
  • Maintain a positive and inclusive community culture by enforcing community guidelines and addressing any conflicts or issues promptly.
  • Regularly monitor community metrics and data to identify areas for improvement and measure community engagement.

Using online community software to facilitate community engagement

Online community software can greatly enhance community engagement by providing additional tools and features. Some ways that online community software can facilitate engagement include:

  • Quick and easy communication through messaging systems and notifications.
  • Gamification features to incentivize participation and reward active members.
  • Interactive polls and surveys to gather feedback and opinions from the community.
  • Virtual events and webinars to promote knowledge sharing and networking.

Types of online communities

Finding the right online community for your niche

There are various types of online communities catering to different interests and industries. To find the right online community for your niche:

  • Research and identify existing communities related to your industry or interests.
  • Assess the size, engagement, and relevance of each community.
  • Join and actively participate in multiple communities to get a sense of their culture and value.
  • Based on your experience, choose a community that aligns with your goals and offers the support and resources you need.

Creating a branded community for your online business

Building a branded community around your online business can have multiple benefits:

  • Establishing your business as an industry leader and gaining credibility.
  • Building a loyal customer base and fostering brand advocacy.
  • Gathering valuable customer insights and feedback to inform business decisions.
  • Promoting new products or services to a targeted audience of loyal customers.

Benefits of building a community around your products or services

Building a community around your products or services can result in several advantages:

  • Increased customer satisfaction and loyalty through a sense of belonging and personalized support.
  • Word-of-mouth marketing as community members share positive experiences with others.
  • Faster and more effective customer support as the community can help address queries and concerns.
  • Valuable feedback and ideas directly from customers, aiding product development and improvement.

Future trends in online community platforms

Emerging features in online community platforms for 2023

In the coming years, it is expected that online community platforms will introduce new features to enhance the user experience. Some of the emerging features are:

  • Artificial intelligence-powered chatbots for improved member support and instant responses.
  • Advanced analytics and data reporting capabilities, providing deeper insights into community engagement and behavior.
  • Integration with virtual reality technologies to create immersive community experiences.
  • Enhanced security measures and privacy settings to protect community members and their data.

How mobile apps are revolutionizing community engagement

With the increasing popularity of mobile devices, mobile apps have revolutionized community engagement. Mobile apps have made it easier for community members to stay connected and engaged with each other. Here are several ways that mobile apps have transformed community engagement:
1. Real-time communication: Mobile apps enable instant and direct communication between community members. They offer features like chat, messaging, and push notifications, allowing users to stay informed about community events, news, and updates in real-time.
2. Access to information: Mobile apps provide easy access to information about community services, resources, and initiatives. Users can access community directories, event calendars, maps, and other useful information directly from their mobile devices, helping them stay informed and engaged.
3. Enhanced participation: Mobile apps have increased accessibility and convenience, making it easier for community members to participate in various initiatives. Whether it is signing up for volunteer activities, participating in surveys, or attending community events, mobile apps streamline the process and encourage more people to get involved.
4. Collaboration and networking: Mobile apps facilitate collaboration and networking within the community. Users can connect with like-minded individuals, join interest groups, and share ideas, fostering a sense of belonging and community spirit.
5. Feedback and opinion sharing: Mobile apps allow community members to provide feedback and share their opinions on various community matters. They can participate in surveys, leave reviews, and engage in discussions, giving them a voice in decision-making processes and shaping the community’s future.
6. Fundraising and donations: Mobile apps have simplified the process of fundraising and accepting donations for community initiatives. Users can make monetary contributions or support causes through in-app payment systems, eliminating the need for physical transactions and paperwork.
7. Increased outreach: Mobile apps have expanded community outreach by breaking down geographical barriers. Users can engage with the community regardless of their location, facilitating connections among people who may not have otherwise interacted.
Overall, mobile apps have revolutionized community engagement by making it more accessible, convenient, and inclusive. They have become essential tools for fostering connections, facilitating participation, and empowering community members to actively contribute to their communities.  

Conclusion

Vibrant communities providing meaningful value require dedicated platforms with extensive capabilities. You can’t just rely on basic social media tools. The best community software enables deep relationships through member profiles, forums, events, content, and real-time communication tailored specifically to your niche. Combined with extensive customization, automation, integrations, analytics, and professional moderation, specialized solutions enable communities to flourish. Study your target audience and purpose first and foremost. Let their needs guide your technology choice, not the opposite. With a platform designed for community needs, you foster durable bonds between members over time.

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By Dani Davis

Dani Davis is the pen name of the writer of this blog with more 15 years of constant experience in Content marketing and informatics product, e-commerce niche.

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