“What platform should I use for my startup’s community? Should I move from Slack to Discourse? Wait...there’s a Discourse and a Discord?”
Now is a great time to build a community online, and there’s no shortage of really great tools to help.
But despite the many options, there’s no single tool to rule them all. There are just too many variables, including community size, engagement model, the size and capabilities of the team building the community, and more.
While there’s no silver bullet for building and growing a community online, there are a few key questions to consider that will help guide your tooling decisions and your community strategy.
In this article, we’ll discuss the key factors to consider when choosing a community platform, compare the three most popular options, and make recommendations based on a few different community scenarios.
Here's what we'll cover:
We’ll discuss plenty of details, but here are the high-level recommendations.
But keep in mind:
But keep in mind…
But keep in mind…
When picking a platform, you’ll likely weigh some factors more heavily than others based on your situation. The factors here will provide you with a framework for assessing the options.
Starting from scratch (or close to it)
In the early stages of a community’s life, it’s important for the organizers to build strong connections with the first handful of members, since early adopters are more likely to join discussions, answer questions, and contribute in ways that make the community seem active and vibrant. Chat is good for this. Scalability and governance are less of a concern at this stage.
Hundreds of community members
At this point, chat platforms can start to feel unmanageable for a few reasons. First, moderation becomes an issue, since it’s hard for a small group of community managers to keep up with the volume of conversations happening (Discord beats Slack on this point).
Second, most community members complain that, on chat platforms, they often answer the same question or address the same concern many times over. The conversations just disappear too quickly for others to easily find, and since they’re not indexed or perma-linked, it’s difficult to reference previously answered questions.
Many thousands of community members
For large, well-established communities, forums are often the right choice, since live chat is difficult to manage and large scales.
Discourse provides fine-grained permissions and moderation that large communities will appreciate. Additionally, since large communities create lots of content, they especially benefit from indexed and shareable content.
Your choice of community platform should take into account your team’s ability to manage multiple channels, their timezone availability, and the number of folks available to interact on your chosen platform—all of which are a function of the team’s size.
Small teams tend to start with a single platform, since that’s what they can manage given their bandwidth. In general, teams of three or smaller should commit to a single platform to focus their time and keep overhead low.
These teams are more self-sufficient compared to small teams and won’t need to depend as much on other teams for support. They may be able to handle multiple platforms, but often choose to go deeper with a single platform, such as more clearly defining roles and responsibilities within the team, and designating team members to focus on specific parts of the platform.
Larger teams can handle multiple platforms and different sub-communities, such as a Slack for your MVPs and a Discourse forum for everyone else—but doing so introduces substantial overhead in terms of process management, identity resolution, and governance. That said, larger teams inside bigger companies tend to be better equipped to plan for and manage these situations.
What are the behaviors and norms you want your community members to model? Are you hoping for a casual vibe where members can congregate, discuss, and debate? Or are you more interested in cultivating deep knowledge sharing and collaboration? Once you decide, you should factor your engagement model into your tool choice.
In People Powered, Jono Bacon outlines three engagement models that we think are useful to consider when choosing a platform:
These communities revolve around ephemeral and emergent discussions about common interests, and emphasize connection based on those topics. Examples include communities about art, gaming, or general technology trends.
In this engagement model, community members share knowledge and insights about a common tool or technology, with an emphasis on leveling-up one’s expertise and experience. Members often teach each other through demos and examples, driving further participation from other community members.
Examples include company-specific communities, like the Roam Research Slack group, where members share custom CSS and browser extensions as well as how-to videos to share their knowledge and help others excel.
In communities of collaborators, members work together on shared projects. The primary example is open source software, where diverse people from around the world work together to build and improve a common codebase.
In addition to the key factors above, it’s important to understand the actual feature set each platform offers. The grid below assumes features for the baseline plans for each platform, and includes call-outs when features are offered only on paid tiers.
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We’ll now look at detailed recommendations based on the key factors and the pros and cons of each platform.
Of all the factors to consider, we think a community’s engagement model should have the most influence over which platform is used, so we’ve organized this section along those lines with caveats for size of community and team.
Casual communities should lower the barrier to involvement and focus on building close connections between users. For those reasons, we suggest using Discord. With Discord, new members can join with the click of a button (versus creating new accounts, as with Slack and Discord), which means they can get started quickly.
For servers managed by an official brand account, Discord also offers a verification program, which unlocks additional features, like custom branding and short URLs, a verification check mark, and higher quality voice service.
Discord is strong out-of-the-box, but doesn’t offer the depth of integrations and bots that you get with Slack. Additionally, content isn’t public and indexed, as with Discourse, though public content isn’t always as important for casual communities compared to the other engagement models.
Champion communities need to strike a balance between causal connection between members and deeper sharing of information, learning, and projects.
For those reasons, we suggest Slack. It’s widely adopted and understood, and enables the real-time communication crucial to building loyalty among community members. Threaded chats enable community members to follow interesting digressions without distracting the whole channel, and link unfurling makes shared content standout in the flow.
Finally, Slack offers tons of integrations that are useful for sharing work, like the GitHub and Trello integrations.
Slack will let you go fast early in the life of your community, but expect to hit a wall around 1,000 active users. At that point, you’ll likely want better moderation and permissions, and you’ll start to bump up against Slack’s 10,000 message retention limit.
From a community member standpoint, it’s annoying to create a new account for every Slack community you join, and for Slack to force you through the same onboarding, even if you’re already a member of dozens of other groups.
So why start with Slack? It takes most communities years to grow to thousands of members, if they make it there at all. That said, given Slack’s ease of startup and widespread adoption, it makes sense to take advantage of it for the speed early on, then consider a transition plan in the future once the pain points become prohibitive.
Communities focused on collaboration usually want to foster deeper participation from existing community members, lower the bar for new folks to get involved, solve problems as a group, and publicly share the solutions.
Discourse stands out in each of these areas. Since all content is public and indexed by search engines, members can reference previously answered questions and discussions, which means the core team can avoid answering the same questions repeatedly. New members can quickly learn the basics and overcome common challenges, and existing members can pose more complex questions and receive help from the broader community.
Discourse is especially powerful for large communities, which face plenty of challenges related to moderation, permissions, and governance, as well as the difficulty of delivering a great experience for all community members.
To address these challenges, Discourse provides granular permissions and moderation, which enables members of the community to progress to higher levels of access and trust.
For communities backed by medium or large teams, we also recommend implementing a live chat platform in addition to Discourse to foster a closer relationship with core team members, or as we call them, members of their Orbit One.
Self-hosted, large Discourse instances require ongoing maintenance and performance tuning, and hosted instances cost money. Managing multiple tools can become burdensome, but as long as the team has the bandwidth, these issues should be solvable.
More communities are moving exclusively online, and more tools for managing online communities emerge each day.
While the landscape of community platforms continues to evolve, Slack, Discord, and Discourse can reliably meet the needs of most communities.
But as much as we love debating the nuances of our tools, we can’t forget that “community" really just means “people.” David Spinks reminds us:
Finally, if you’d like help tracking your community’s growth and measuring its ROI—no matter which platform you choose—signup for early access to Orbit.
Have opinions? Join the conversation on Twitter or on DEV.