Choosing a community platform is often equated with having a strategy. This isn't the case — this decision is really just part of a much larger, all-encompassing community strategy. The platform you choose should support that strategy.
Yes, there will be some platforms that are a better fit for a community, but overall, platform decisions don't have as much potential to make or break your project as some other factors do. Most notably, how you'll build, engage, and iterate within your community.
A well-conceived community strategy that considers what members actually want and takes into account community management best practices will tend to thrive in a lot of different environments. On the flip side, even some of my favorite community platforms won't transform a lackluster strategy into a winning one.
Still, there are ways to approach this decision that will make it easier for you and your team to support your vision for your community.
These approaches can help you make effective software decisions for a project, even if you don't know or have first-hand experience with every community platform on the market. Considering how fast the world of community tools and platforms is expanding, that would be close to impossible!
Let's look at a few grounding ideas for choosing the right software for your community project.
Community platform: rules of thumb
There is no 'best community software'
There's no single community platform to rule them all — but there is usually a best choice for your specific project, which depends on so many things: your objectives, which features you need, etc. It's important to lead with what you're trying to get done, and evaluate software based on those necessities, rather than chasing the idea of a 'best platform'.
Don't get too hung up on 'built-in' features
For example, if it's really important for you to be able to host video-based workshops for your community, it doesn't necessarily follow that you need video features baked into your software. There are plenty of simple, external tools that can help supplement your needs. There are so many great supplemental technologies that you can plug and play together — your platform doesn't have to tick every single box.
This is also true when it comes to things like discoverability or habituation. I often see people defaulting to choosing platforms like Facebook or Slack purely because people are "already there". And yes, it's true that if you use the exact same strategy you would use for FB on another platform, you might not succeed — but it's not that hard to just acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of your platform and design strategy around that.
So for example, if I know my platform of choice doesn't have network effects, that just means I design a more robust email or onboarding strategy to remind people to use it.
Bundled isn't always better
Sometimes when you're evaluating software, you might be blown away by one that has a ton of features. But I always encourage folks to focus on the features they really need, to give themselves more flexibility.
Firstly, bundled tools do lots of things but tend to not do them as well as one-off tools, so people end up buying multiple software anyway. Secondly, people end up paying for features they don't need because they get starry-eyed at the "wow" factor of so many features. I use a "gym" analogy for this — high-end gyms tend to have a pool, sauna, classes, etc. If you're going to use all those things, great. But if you're just there for the elliptical, you can go with your local Planet Fitness.
With all that in mind, let's get into the nitty-gritty. Here's a lightweight framework I use to evaluate platforms and tools.
Choosing your community platform: a framework
1. Start with a vision for your community
If you've already started working on your community strategy you'll have a very clear vision for your community. (If that's not the case, I suggest you head back over to this article and work through the first few steps). Now, you can start assessing various platforms based on how well they can support that vision.
2. Create a list of 'must-have' and 'nice-to-have' features
In this list, you'll want to include:
- Member experience: How do you want your members to communicate? Do you want their conversations to happen async or in real-time? What's it like for them to sign in to the platform? How easy is it for them to create a post?
- Admin experience: What is the user experience like for you and your team? What are the metrics and analytics like? What moderation tools are available?
- Support for content features: What is the basic content hierarchy (channels, posts, comments, threaded comments)? What text editing features are available? How do links look when I share them?
- Look & feel, learning curve, usability: How intuitive is it to use? Will my team/members need any serious training to be able to use the platform effectively? What about the space itself? (It might not matter how 'pretty' the platform is, but how much potential it has to be customized to flow alongside your existing brand is sometimes an important element of a project.)
- Technological compatibility: Does it play well with your company's software, if your members use any? Is single sign-on possible?
- Price: Here I'd be looking for pricing complexity. Will you be paying a simple monthly fee, or pricing based on usage and à la carte set-up options.
3. Choose 3-5 platforms for comparison
I like to do this by creating a spreadsheet with my must-have and nice-to-have feature requirements laid out along the top, and a list of platforms running down one side. Not sure where to start sourcing potential platforms? We've got a pretty comprehensive list in our ecosystem of community tools. It's also helpful to consider macro-categories here: enterprise platforms, consumer platforms, and big social platforms are going to be categorically different and not really comparable. Here's an example of how I compare community platforms.
4. Model pricing at inception and at scale
How much is this going to cost if you have 10 members? 100? 1,000? Some platforms are priced in such a way that they're agnostic to scale — and you'll simply pay a flat monthly fee no matter how many members you have — while others get more and more expensive as the community grows, and may become prohibitively so at scale.
5. Create a mock-up of your community
Use your two front-runners and compare admin and user experiences. This will give you some insights into how easy they are to administrate and help you pick up things like bizarre bugs. This is also a great time to pull other stakeholders into the decision — that includes community members!
Ultimately, choosing a community platform is a process that I always recommend CMs weave through their entire strategy process — your choices will get better the more you consider them dynamically with content, audience, and long-term vision. Keep an open mind, and have fun!
Want to learn more?
The above is one of the concepts we unpack in C School, our 12-week Community Manager program. In this hands-on course, we offer education, mentorship, and independent practice — everything you need to land a full-time job in community.
If you’re interested in applying for a C School cohort, apply here if you’re looking for your first job in community. If you're already a CM, apply here. We've also launched a course to help experienced CMs transition into leadership roles. You can find out more here.
These are rolling applications, so you can apply now even if you want to participate in the future.
You can also email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. This program was built to help community folks break into this field and make their start in a way that enables long-term growth. If it's up your alley, we can't wait to hear from you.