Community
Glasses icon
22-min read
September 15, 2022

The Essential Guide to Community Management Tools

When we think about community tools and platforms, we usually think of things that facilitate group conversations: chat, forums, social media. But when we look at the actual day-to-day work that community professionals — especially folks in Community Operations teams — do, there’s a lot more going on:

  • Creating and managing the community’s public-facing website(s) and content, including things like blog posts, wikis, knowledge bases, and other repos of community-generated information.
  • Facilitating both asynchronous and synchronous conversations and discussions.
  • Hosting and managing in-person, virtual, or hybrid events, ranging from impromptu video calls to large festivals or conferences.
  • Creating and scheduling email communications and social media posts.
  • Sourcing and delivering gifts and swag, e.g., for thanking event presenters or recognizing member contributions.
  • Gathering data and creating reports.

Does that seem like a lot? It sure feels like a lot to me. But that’s the reality. ‘Community’ is a broad term, and what’s expected from community professionals varies from one organization to another. 

That’s exactly why Community Managers need to create a stack of tools that work together to create a custom solution for their community and goes beyond the community platform.

For content & conversations

Site/content management

A website that serves as a community’s ‘home base’ for shared info. It’s where potential members learn more about the community and possibly even register to join the community or apply for membership. For existing members, the website can have restricted/login required areas for more members-only information.

 If you’re dealing with a large volume of information, you can create a knowledge base on one of these platforms and link to it from your community’s website.

Website

There are plenty of options to choose from for website platforms, depending on your budget and resources, such as coding knowledge/help.

Squarespace and Wix are DIY website builders that make it easy to build a website without knowing how to code. They both come with their library of professional template options to choose from, so you don’t need to start with a blank slate in terms of design and setup.

WordPress and Webflow are good choices for those who want more customizable features and offer more control for users who know how to code. WordPress is widely supported and has a vast ecosystem of themes and plugins to extend its functionality. 

Knowledge base

Both Notion and Coda are powerful tools to use as a knowledge base. They go beyond sharing basic documents, and you can embed written documents, databases, project boards, tagging systems, and so much more.

Notion is a powerful tool community managers can use as a Knowledge Base or wiki

Asynchronous discussions (forums)

Asynchronous discussion platforms are places where members can post and reply to messages over time. Async platforms are great for user support and other knowledge-sharing communities because they offer topical, searchable, SEO-friendly conversations.

For communities where these conversations are public, each thread creates an opportunity for potential members to discover the community through organic search. It expands the reach and impact of your community discussions even further.

Self-hosted platforms

Self-hosted platforms range from open-source projects like phpBB that’ll run on any basic web hosting through more commercially focused solutions like Invision Community.

Pros

  • Lower up-front costs as licensing ranges from free (phpBB) to relatively inexpensive (Invision, XenForo).
  • Follow similar UX patterns, giving users a familiar experience and making it easy for them to find their way around.
  • Search engines see a clear hierarchical relationship between pages, with clean code, adding up to strong signals for search rankings and making the platform great for organic traffic (SEO).

Cons

  • Technical chops needed to be comfortable setting up hosting, mapping domains, configuring system emails, securing the platform, etc.
  • Varying support levels and channels to deal with the day-to-day platform maintenance, depending on the platform and licensing.
  • Aging UX as most of these platforms are designed primarily for desktop use and not built specifically for mobile. (With resources, you could apply a custom design that better suits your needs).

Hosted (SaaS) platforms

These are an overlap between the self-hosted and hosted platforms, where vendors like Invision and Discourse offer managed hosting and services alongside self-hosted options. A step up from that brings you into the ‘you need to talk to a sales rep’ category, where you’ll find long-standing vendors like Khoros. There’s also inSided, a newer competitor in the space that’s quickly building a reputation and gaining momentum. Higher Logic and Circle are two other hosted platforms that fall into this category.

Pros

  • One-stop, end-to-end solutions that provide hosting, deal with setup and configuration, and provide ongoing maintenance and support.
  • More stable and less likely to run into compatibility or performance issues that may arise from conflicts. At higher levels (usually in enterprise pricing), service-level agreements or guarantees are usually baked into contract terms.
  • Dedicated support & contact person(s) available at a higher enterprise level, with more resources to assist with setup and ongoing success on the platform.

Cons

  • Lack of control as access to new features or feature updates depends on the platform’s roadmap.
  • License and service fees can add up quickly, and you may find yourself under pressure from their sales team to sign up for more.

Synchronous conversations (chat & messaging)

Synchronous conversations, or live chat, go hand-in-hand with async discussions. Where async discussions have an evergreen quality, chat is more ephemeral. It’s the café, the pub, the lounge — a place where members can dip in and out, dropping comments, quips, and GIFs.

Back in the day (before web 2.0), active online communities had a sort of trifecta between their website, message board, and IRC channel. The spirit of IRC lives on in Discord and Slack, the setup for both of which closely mirrors IRC.

Pros

  • Ubiquitous, always with you (and community members), across all devices, reducing friction in joining different communities.
  • Informal and designed for quick messages. Members don’t have the intimidation of a big blank space to fill in with a lot of text, but it still provides a buffer so they can chew on an idea for a moment before responding.
  • Engaging, with a back-and-forth energy that doesn’t happen on async platforms where it’s hard to get absorbed into a conversation where the next response might not come for another hour.

Cons

  • In larger communities, the volume of activity can become overwhelming for some people.
  • There’s a learning curve for new users. Whether it’s Slack or Discord, there’s a lot going on, making it hard to know where to start, and the platforms don’t do a great job of easing you in.
Discord is a live chat, synchronous community platform which is informal and designed for quick messages

If you’re interested in a live chat environment like Discord or Slack, but aren’t keen on using either platform, there are self-hosted alternatives like Mattermost, Rocket Chat, and Matrix that have their own benefits.

  • Privacy: Slack and Discord conversations are stored on centralized servers whose location you have no control over. Self-hosted solutions offer you control over where and how the platforms are deployed. This is useful if your community needs to comply with regional privacy regulations, for example, or if you want it locked down behind VPN access, or in an isolated on-premises network.
  • Custom development: If you have engineering resources, you can make changes to open-source, self-hosted platforms to suit your needs. So if you need to build some unique integrations, or if you want to change the UI, that’s all within your control. Unlike a hosted SaaS platform, Discord or Slack, you’re not bottlenecked or restricted by their decisions and priorities.

Going with a self-hosted platform gives you more control and flexibility, in exchange for you having to do more work on platform implementation and maintenance. That may not be appealing to everyone, but it’s worth considering if you find that Slack, Discord, or other SaaS platforms aren’t meeting your needs.

Groups on messenger apps like Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and WhatsApp are even more concentrated versions of the live chat environment. These groups are usually smaller, with maybe dozens of active members versus hundreds or thousands.

Content creation

Folks come for the content but stay for the community. When someone is first checking out a community, they often have a specific goal, like a question to be answered or a knowledge gap to fill.

 As CMs, we may not always be the ones providing the answer or sharing the knowledge, but we are the ones responsible for facilitating it. We do that every time we prompt a conversation, welcome new members, interview an expert, write a newsletter, publish a blog post, etc.

Content processes

Notion and Coda aren’t just tools for building community knowledge bases or wikis, they’re also wonderful tools for managing your content creation process. You can plan out a content calendar, visualize your workflow with kanban boards, and collaborate on written content.

Editing

Hemingway Editor is a simple that scores your writing for readability. You can use the free web version, or support the developers by purchasing a license for the standalone desktop app. For more editing features, Grammarly and ProWritingAid both have free and paid plans that check your writing for readability, grammar, punctuation, and style, and offer editing suggestions. Your text editor will also have native editing capabilities, whether that’s the Review toolbar in Microsoft Word or the Tools menu in Google Docs.

Other content resources

Google is doing some interesting things with their predictive text generation, which can serve as a writing aid if you get stuck. Copyscape helps you find duplicate content/plagiarism, and Thesaurus.com for, well, a thesaurus (also check out WordHippo for synonyms, antonyms, definitions, and more).

Visuals

Canva is the gold standard for browser-based image editing, but you can also do a lot with Google Slides or Microsoft PowerPoint. Simply adjust the slide dimensions and export your slides as images. Pixlr is a web-based editor that’s similar to Canva (but less polished). If you’re looking for a desktop app, GIMP is a free Photoshop alternative that’s been around since the ’90s.

A/V & streaming

‘Producer’ is another role we often find ourselves in as CMs. It’s usually part of hosting an event but deserves calling out separately because of the complexity involved.

Video streaming

I fell in love with StreamYard last year after playing around with different streaming stacks. It lets you run a professional-level production all within your browser. You can pull in different video feeds; add and remove people from the stream; and drop in graphic treatments (like lower-third titles). Your StreamYard output feed can then plug into multiple streaming destinations, like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, Vimeo, or wherever else.

If you’re looking for a more traditional video streaming setup that runs on your computer, OBS Studio is a popular choice. It works on Mac, Windows, and Linux. Streamlabs is another option that’s built on top of OBS, but is more resource intensive.

Video editing

Vimeo Create is the most promising web app I’ve seen, though Canva does offer basic video editing capabilities as well. You can perform very basic video edits in YouTube Studio.

Vimeo Create is a promising web video editing app

Podcasting

I’ve used ZenCastr and Cast (TryCast) as a guest, and I’ve heard good things about SquadCast. But to keep things efficient, I record the Zoom meeting — if I’m using Zoom for the event itself, why not? With Zoom, I have a video recording, an audio recording, and the chat log.

To edit your podcast audio, Audacity has been the top choice among free tools for years. If you’re a Mac user, you can also try GarageBand.

For an all-in-one solution, check out Riverside.fm. It combines everything into a “super app” for podcasting, streaming, editing, and even publishing content to social media.

Transcription

Descript will automatically produce a written transcript of the meeting (or Zoom video). As I edit the transcript, Descript edits the video and audio as well, giving me everything I need to create a “content package” for the event recap. 

Otter and Rev are other services that approach transcription in different ways. Otter focuses on audio-to-text transcription, versus the broader, more all-encompassing feature set of Descript. Rev’s services include human transcription at scale for a reasonable price, as well as AI transcription and live captions for Zoom. 

Otter focuses on audio-to-text transcription from an audio or video recording

For hosting & managing events

The strength of a community comes from the relationships between its members. Those relationships are built over time through shared experiences.

 As a CM, you can facilitate those shared experiences by hosting recurring events and activities. If all goes well, those recurring events will evolve from being one-off special occasions to regular habits, something that members fit into their routines.

Here are some tools that can help you do it.

Virtual events

At their core, virtual events are live videos, and what separates one virtual event from another comes down to the content and the experience, whether it be a virtual hangout or a presenter-centric webinar.

 Pros

  • Can be convenient for members to attend if they already use the platform.
  • Streaming services extend your reach beyond the community to potential members.
  • You can pre-produce all your sessions and push that video feed out to multiple destinations for maximum discoverability.

Cons

  • Level of analytics and attendee records differs from platform to platform.
  • People watching on one platform won’t be able to interact with those watching on another.
  • You’ll need to create an extra step to ask attendees/audience to join your community.

Like many others, I’m firmly seated on the Zoom bandwagon. Even before the pandemic made it a household name, I found Zoom to be the best option in terms of overall usability, call quality, and reliability. You can also live stream on YouTube and Vimeo and embed the live video on your website. But you also have Twitch, Instagram, Facebook Live, Twitter, and smaller platforms like Crowdcast.

If you want to be in all places at once, you can use a service like Restream or StreamYard to run a single broadcast across multiple channels.

If you want to connect members before or after an event, Meetsy is a great option for automatically scheduling smaller, more intimate group discussions.

Virtual conferences

This is where things get complicated: virtual conferences are virtual events with a bunch of added considerations. Virtual conferences are tough to get right. Regardless of the platform, there’s a learning curve on both sides.

Pros

  • Virtual conference platforms are more immersive.
  • Attendees can see their agenda, jump between sessions, and chat with all the other attendees all in the same platform. 

Cons

  • Organizers need to account for multiple sessions and tracks, breakout rooms, sponsor tables, customizable agendas.
  • A virtual conference platform event is less discoverable and shareable than a live stream.
  • Attendees need to create an account, register for the conference, and log back in when the event takes place.

I’ve seen two approaches work at scale. You either lean into streaming your keynote presentations or into a virtual conference platform, like how the Community-Led Summit was held on Hopin

Platforms like Hopin let you host virtual conferences

Legacy platforms like Splash, cVent, ON24, even Zoom, are also trying to get ahead in this space, too. Splash, in particular, has caught my attention with a “bring your own video service” approach. They handle everything else that goes around it.

Virtual spaces

Virtual spaces are nascent — but quickly growing! — platforms that push virtual experiences beyond a grid of video boxes on your screen. In the context of events, you can think of these virtual spaces as the equivalent of venues.

I think of these as lo-fi, metaverse-lite platforms that get us away from the very bland grid of talking heads on your screen. OK, yes, they’re still talking heads on the screen, but adding an element of virtual space, like being able to move an avatar around? That changes the dynamic. 

Pros

  • It’s very different and can be refreshing!
  • Depending on the platform, you might have some creativity and freedom to design the space.

Cons

  • They can come close to feeling like games and may not suit your community.
  • There may be accessibility issues with the UI or performance issues because of slow internet connections.

Rally Video, a browser-based video chat platform, makes it easy for participants to browse and jump between groups within a Rally instance. Toucan Events (and Toucan Spaces) goes a step further. Participants float on screen within conversation clusters. Participants can see who’s talking about what, and bounce between the conversations that interest them.

Browser-based video chat platforms like Toucan let people bounce between conversations of interest

With Gather, participants’ avatars are dropped into a 2D virtual environment. As they explore, the conversations they see and hear are based on the proximity of their avatar to everyone else. The aesthetic is very retro RPG and I’m totally here for it. Check out how Amazon used Gather for the marketing campaign promoting their Wheel of Time series.

Event management

Beyond the event platform are all the other logistics and considerations that you need to deal with as a CM. For example...

  • Is each event treated as a one-off, or are they part of a series?
  • How will you promote the event?
  • How will members register?
  • How will you communicate with attendees after they’ve registered?
  • Should members have a persistent identity, or profile, between events?

You have a few options, depending on your plans and the platforms you’re already invested in. Let’s say you’re already using Zoom for hosting virtual meetups. You could use a service like Eventbrite or Universe to handle attendee registration and communication. CommsorOS’s events feature lets you create a customizable page, manage attendee registration, auto generate a Zoom link, and send out automated calendar invites for each event. 

If you want to create a more polished experience than just dropping attendees into the Zoom app, check out Splash. (Keep in mind that Splash is still geared towards the enterprise, with pricing that starts in the low five figures per year.)

If you’re looking for a middle ground between the likes of Eventbrite and Splash, I highly recommend trying Luma. It hits on all the important things at a reasonable price. The event registration pages are slick and responsive – honestly, it’s the best I’ve used as an attendee — and the back end for event organizers is easy to work with. 

For communication & administration

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into managing a community — everything from coordinating projects and engagement activities to building a content calendar to create and distribute your content.

You’ll need tools to plan, share, and analyze your communications with members.

Email & newsletters

I’m of the opinion that you should use an email service provider for handling newsletters. They’re built for it and let you manage your subscriber lists, add custom fields for additional subscriber data, and view performance reports, so you know what’s working (and what isn’t). They’ll also handle opt-in management, keeping you in line with laws and regulations, like Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) and Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

There are a ton of email service providers to choose from: Mailchimp, Convert Kit, Sendfox, HubSpot, Klaviyo…there are so many! My favorite is MailerLite. Out of all the providers I’ve looked at, it offered the best value, especially for CMs. Other email service providers were too sales or commerce focused.

MailerLite is an email service provider that offers the best value for community managers

If you’re managing a community for an existing company or organization, chances are you already have an email service provider. See if you can use that existing platform, so that all your subscribers’ email data is kept in one place, and they can opt in/out from one location.

Social media management

Social media plays a prominent role in community programs. Your members are your members, no matter where they are, and social channels are how many of your potential members will find out about your community.

There are three main tasks/activities with social media management:

  • Listening: Passive, where you’re watching the conversations flow, seeing what people are talking about, maybe monitoring for mentions of specific topics or keywords
  • Engaging: Active, where you’re responding to others, or prompting conversations and activity
  • Scheduling: Builds on engaging and lets you define, in advance, what to post and when

There are tools that’ll help you with each of these tasks, a combination of them, or all three tasks (and more).

MeetEdgar does scheduling. Buffer does scheduling and engagement, but doesn’t do listening. Mention does listening and scheduling, but doesn’t do engagement.

If you’re looking for an all-in-one platform, three that come to mind are Sprinklr, Sprout Social, and Agorapulse. Sprinklr caters to enterprise customers, while Sprout Social caters to a wider range of company sizes and use cases. Agorapulse is similar to Sprout Social, but with some nuanced differences in features and pricing.

Sprout Social is an all-in-one social media platform that allows listening, engaging, and scheduling

Project & program management

CMs are working on more than one event or activity for their communities at any given time. You need a project management tool to keep track of all your activities — what’s happening when, what stage of planning (or reporting) they’re at, who’s working on what.

If you love spreadsheets, you can make your own project management tool using Google Sheets for everything from content calendars to budget planning. A good spreadsheet alternative is Airtable, which contains in-built automations and lets you create powerful dashboards as well as charts and time trackers.

For a dedicated project management tool, there are options like Trello, Asana, ClickUp, and Monday.com that you can use to collaborate with your team (or coworkers from other departments, where relevant).

ClickUp lets you collaborate with your team (or coworkers from other teams) for project management

You’ll need a forms tool to collect information from members (or potential members) or run surveys. Google Forms is an easy-to-use, lightweight tool. You can create and embed or link to Airtable forms that send responses back to your workspace (where you can store responses and analyze them using the charts or dashboards you made). Typeform lets you create complex forms using logic jumps and also provides analytics.

Integrations & automation

The trick to working with so many tools is to have a way to make them work together so you can collect data in one place. Tools like Airtable and Notion come with integrations and automation features built into the product to help you do this.

If you have engineering experience (or the help of an engineer), you should also check which tools have open APIs that you can connect to the core tools you use. This isn’t your only option — no-code automation tools like Zapier and IFTTT let you connect thousands of tools to one another, including many that I’ve mentioned here.

Analytics & reporting

You’ll be doing a lot of reporting on different community metrics, and you need analytics tools to understand your community health. Community analytics is a newer field of analytics, and tools like CommsorOS can help you collect and make sense of the data. CommsorOS gives you the power to understand community metrics such as growth, engagement, and activity across different platforms, all in one place.

For your community website, tools like Google Analytics, Fathom, Mixpanel, and Matomo show you how your website is performing. You can see how many people are visiting, how long they’re spending on your website (and each page), and where they’re coming from and going to, among other things. To understand how they’re interacting with your website — what they’re clicking on and how far they’re scrolling — you can use UX tools like Matomo, Hotjar, and Microsoft Clarity.

Gifts & swag

Whether you’re doing brand merchandise, physical gifts or virtual gifts, you’ll need a specialized merchandise service — one that, ideally, handles all the logistics of production, warehousing, and shipping for you.

SwagUp has a large catalog of items, from socks and t-shirts to coffee mugs and headphones, you can customize with your brand’s logo and colors to create custom merch. And, of course, there are stickers! I’ve had great experiences with StickerGiant, and I have to give a shout out to my fellow Canadians at Sticker Beaver. Another popular choice is Sticker Mule.

Fun fact: SwagUp integrates with CommsorOS for automated merch magic. 🪄 

You can also create merch that’s available to your community members to buy. Printful does custom printing primarily for creators and brands. You can order in bulk – say, for a big event or conference – or you can set up a print-on-demand storefront for members to buy from. It’s a fun way for them to support the community while getting some cool swag in return.

Where should you start?

That’s a lot of tools! It might leave you wondering whether you need one in each category. It’s hard to give a one-size-fits-all recommendation — it depends on what your community needs, and that’s why you need to build a custom tech stack.

Here’s a starting point based on the type of community you’re managing.

For indie creators

The goal is to turn your audience into a community, and you can work with a lower budget, DIY tech stack to build your community.

  • Website with a DIY/no-code builder with a domain you own, where you can share what you’ve created.
  • Social media to listen for mentions, chat with your followers, and schedule posts.
  • Newsletter to build your list as a proxy to membership in a ‘formal’ community.

For tech startups 

If your goal is to listen to and activate early users to turn them into advocates, a medium budget tech stack combined with integrations can work well for you.

  • Website with a blog and/or knowledge base to educate visitors.
  • Platform (for either async or sync discussions) to share product and company updates, answer members’ questions, and promote conversations between members.
  • Email to share important announcements, highlight what’s happening in the community, and bring members back to the community platform to engage.

For enterprise companies

At this level, let’s assume you already have a website and/or knowledge base, and now the goal is to enhance the customer experience. There are plenty of big budget tools with complex functionalities that can help you manage large communities of thousands or tens of thousands of members.

  • Platform (for either async or sync discussions) with built-in integrations or that can connect to a tool like Zapier, to share product and company updates, answer members’ questions, and promote conversations between members.
  • Email to share important announcements, highlight what’s happening in the community, and bring members back to the community platform to engage.
  • Analytics to measure and analyze metrics that tie the community’s impact to business goals.

What next?

You can audit your current tech stack and activities to see if what you’re using is working for you. Some questions to consider:

  • What tools do you need?
  • What tools are you already using?
  • Which of these tools is working, and which isn’t?
  • What tools do you need that you don’t already have?

Compare your options so when it’s time to create budgets and ask for new tools, you have the information you need to make the case and build just the right tech stack for your community.

With inputs from Shivani Shah

Andrew Claremont
September 15, 2022

Unlock the full potential
of your community