What is a community platform?
If you run your own business, lead a marketing team, or simply work in the new creator economy, you’ve probably noticed how important communities are becoming.
By building an online community, companies can essentially take ownership over their digital tribe. Businesses can use community platforms to collect new leads, strengthen bonds with consumers, increase brand recognition, and even drive sales.
Brands have a fantastic opportunity to tap into a growing landscape with the right community platform. Today, we’re going to discuss what community platforms are, how they work, and why they’re so beneficial in the current, digital world.
What is a Community Platform?
Community platforms are virtual spaces where groups of people can connect and engage. Today, they’re used for everything from onboarding new employees, to collecting leads and inspiring customer loyalty. They can even be a powerful way for content creators to share their videos and articles with other people, to facilitate online growth.
A good community platform provides individuals or businesses with a set of tools they can use to create their own online “culture”. Some solutions provide services for creating courses, hosting events, or sharing live videos. Others support chat functionality, ecommerce, and monetization functionalities. The type of community platform you choose will depend on your goals, and what you want to accomplish with your new creation.
For instance, if you’re trying to strengthen company culture, your community platform might include features for sharing private videos or hosting online events. It could also provide chat rooms where people can share content. In a sense, products like Microsoft Teams and Zooms have a lot of the elements of a modern community platform.
If you’re hoping to reach and convert customers, then your community platform may be more similar to something like Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media networks, with news feeds, access to content, and shared video streams. There are even community platforms that focus on content creators (such as Patreon), or educators (like Podia).
Essentially, community platforms are all-in-one environments where companies and creators can activate and engage their followers, fans, or employees, centralize content creation efforts, and create meaningful interactions.
Common Types of Community Platforms
Community platforms come in a variety of different types, created to support specific goals. While the styles of community platform are constantly evolving, there are four main options commonly included within this category. These include:
SaaS Community Platforms
SaaS community platforms are perhaps the most attractive option for business leaders and content creators today. These are the all-in-one software solutions which offer customizable, and white labelled versions of various types of software.
Options like Mighty Networks, Circle, and Tribe.co are good examples.
SaaS community platforms are straightforward and easy to use. They take minimal time to set up, and often save users a lot of time. They’re often quite affordable, compared to purchasing and installing software on an app or website yourself. These tools also come with a wide selection of features to help you build and nurture your community.
Further reading 📚
There’s some debate in the online community around whether messaging apps are actually community platforms. Tools like Discord and Slack are often included in discussions about community apps, as they provide groups of people with an environment where they can share information and connect with others.
However, messaging apps really only support one component of a full community platform. They generally don’t come with some of the main tools business leaders and creators need to engage their communities beyond chat, such as course features and event tools. Once a community grows large enough, most people and companies will need to switch to a full SaaS community platform.
Open Source Software
If you’re looking for a more bespoke community platform, and you have the resources and time required to develop everything yourself, open source solutions could be a great solution. These tools require users to leverage existing code that already contains access to all of the features they need. For instance, Discourse is a common and popular forum software solution.
One good thing about open-source software is it’s free to download and use, although you may need to pay additional fees for things like security, management, and hosting. There are also some open source solutions which provide access to managed services for those who need additional help running and maintaining their communities.
A good alternative for some companies looking to build communities without accessing their own software could be to use existing infrastructure built into social platforms. Options like Reddit, Facebook Groups and Meetup are common here.
The good thing about social platforms with community features is it’s relatively easy to reach a wide audience quickly, without investing in any complex tools. Additionally, many of these platforms come with algorithms which help to promote your group to people who match a specific platform. However, the main downside is you’ll have less control over your contacts, communications, branding, and even who gets notified about new content.
In some cases, you may also be able to build a “community” experience into an existing website built on a platform like WordPress, with access to widgets and plugins. However, this may require you to have a bit more technical knowledge, as you’ll need to combine multiple apps and resources together.
Community Platform Features: What Do They Do?
The features of community platforms can vary depending on the type of resource you choose. As mentioned above, different community platforms are designed for specific use cases and goals. Additionally, as interest in community platforms continues to grow, vendors are investing in new features and capabilities to make these environments more compelling.
Interestingly, around 64% of online community site visitors say they’re visiting these environments more today than they did a few years ago. This highlights a growing need for online communities.
Most of the time, the features of community platforms are built around the desire to bring people together. You may be able to use your community platform to create chat rooms for group and private discussions, event calendars, polls and questionnaires, online courses, and more.
The biggest difference between a standard website and a community platform, is that communities exist as their own specific, unique destination for people with a shared interest. They offer more focus for members than the standard website, and more of a focus on two-way communication.
Some of the common features you may discover in a community platform include:
- Messaging or chat: Multimedia chatrooms including support for text, images, videos, and other content are common on community platforms, and help to generate engagement.
- Content: Most community platforms will allow companies to share unique content, such as articles, blog posts, news stories, and even links to other works around the web.
- Courses: Some community platforms include access to course creation tools, so you can provide educational experiences for your audience.
- Events and meetings: Many solutions offer in-built video conferencing and webinar tools, so you can produce online events, share content in real-time, or deliver on-demand video.
- Moderation tools: Most community platforms will allow owners to exert at least some control over who should be able to access which content, and which information is shared within chat rooms and other pages.
- Profiles: Members of community platforms can often create their own profiles on their accounts, where they can share pictures and information about themselves, as well as accessing recommended content and personalized information.
- Monetization options: Most community platforms come with options to monetize some of the community features. You might charge for access to your entire platform, or simply ask customers to pay a price to attend certain events or take courses.
- Integrations: Built-in integrations and API options allow users to connect their community software to other well-known tools such as Zoom and Slack. Depending on the type of user or customer community you want to create, you could even created a fully-branded and integrated mobile app experience for your tribe.
- Reporting: Reporting and analytics tools make it easier to track key metrics about retention, engagement, and conversions. These resources can be extremely useful if you want to make sure your community environment is driving measurable results for your business.
Depending on your specific needs, you may also be able to find advanced tools with higher logic options for automation, single sign-on for privacy and security, and other enhanced capabilities.
Why are Community Platforms more Popular Today?
Community platforms and tools for building online communities aren’t as new as they might appear. However, they have begun to garner more attention. Around 60% of businesses own a branded online community today. For the most part, the rise of community platforms can largely be attributed to the changes in digital environments prompted by the pandemic.
Since the pandemic, many organizations and creators have faced significant challenges when it comes to connecting with their target audience, particularly in-person. As a result, community engagement in digital worlds has become more important.
While there are various ways to connect with an online tribe, such as email marketing and social media, community platforms are one of the best tools for those looking to share high-value content and get communities involved in interactive sessions.
Some of the core reasons why community platforms have grown more essential in the current market include:
- Traditional marketing channels have grown less effective: There are numerous advertising and promotional channels available to companies and content creators today. However, most companies are already taking full advantage of these landscapes, making it difficult for new organizations to stand out. There’s a lot of “noise marketing” to compete against today, so brands need to think of new ways to make their brands more appealing. A branded community can be an excellent way to boost engagement and loyalty.
- Video content is growing more appealing: The majority of community platforms and tools provide companies with access to solutions for hosting and streaming video. This is important at a time when consumers are looking to consume more visual content online. Video has emerged as a dynamic and flexible tool, which captures the attention of all kinds of customers. At the same time, there are multiple ways for business leaders and content creators to monetize video content, to create additional sources of income.
- The rise of hybrid and digital events: Physical events were suspended for a short while during the global health crisis. However, in this time, companies and content creators began to discover the benefits of building and hosting events online. Virtual and hybrid events have become increasingly popular, as they allow brands to reach a wider audience, and reduce the need for expensive travel and real estate. Many community platforms allow companies to easily host their own digital events, so they can further connect with customers.
The Benefits of an Online Community Platform
As tools for community management and development, an effective platform can be an incredible solution for a growing business. If you want a reliable way to engage your community members, accelerate growth, and unlock new monetization opportunities, community platforms have a lot to offer. Whether you’re looking to build a community for customer support, or you want to boost customer relationships with member profiles, gamification and discussion forums, there are options to suit virtually every need.
While the exact benefits of community platforms can vary depending on the solution you choose, some of the core advantages include:
- Improved conversions and growth: A community platform can give business leaders and creators a new way to connect with their audience and increase sales. Many of the best online community platforms come with built-in monetization options for courses and memberships. Plus, because they improve user experience with your brand, they can lead to more loyal customers, with an increased lifetime value.
- Enhanced engagement: Community building platforms make it easy to reach your customers on any channel. There are tools which allow you to build your own Android or iOS apps, and connect with social networks. Plus, you can create and share various different types of content to suit almost any audience. The best platforms allow users to build everything from an activity feed to a chat room for consistent engagement.
- Impressive events: Because they often work naturally with CRM solutions and email marketing tools, community platforms are great for building and hosting events. Some options even allow you to create registration pages with a custom domain, without knowing anything about HTML and CSS. Plus, they come with access to notifications so you can remind each disciple in your community about upcoming experiences.
Should You Use a Community Platform?
Lately, countless startups and content creators have begun to discover the benefits of building their own community from scratch. Whether intended as professional networks, learning environments, or customer service solutions, community platforms can be extremely lucrative tools.
With features like custom sub-groups, private messaging, and video conferencing through plugins, these user-friendly tools make it easier to engage and retain followers, fans, and customers alike. Even small businesses can benefit from having their own white-label community experience. With a platform, you can access all of the features you need in one easy-to-use environment, from vanilla forums, to tools with learning management solutions.
As the digital world continues to evolve, and consumers look for new ways to build relationship with brands, there’s never been a better time to invest in a community platform. With some market-leading tools now offering their own free plan or trial options, you can even get started without spending a fortune on technology.