The future of community is distributed

Business
Patrick Woods
Co-Founder & CEO
The future of community is distributed
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

I'm Rosie, and I'll be your guide for this mission. Each week I'll go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. I'm here to share tactics, trends and valuable resources I've observed in the world of community building.

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In an online context, community is less of a place, and more of an act, and the power is in the hands of members to pick and choose where they interact. 

For most companies, community happens across a constellation of platforms—usually some combination of Twitter, a forum like Discourse, a chat platform like Discord or Slack, events platforms, and first-party tools, like mailing lists and in-app messaging. 

But the range of categories and options of platforms is growing quickly. Unsurprisingly amidst the pandemic, the number of virtual event platforms has rocketed as the world’s events went digital. There are emerging new categories too, like voice platforms, and growing depth in existing ones - like membership, driven by the maturing creator economy.

We’ve mapped out the community tools landscape, including over 200 tools across a dozen categories.

Since many new tools don’t actually make it to market, we’ve only included apps that are generally available, which means you can focus on researching only the tools that are ready for production use.

The landscape may not be exhaustive, so please let us know if you have a generally available tool we should add.

Orbit's Community Tools Landscape
Here's a spreadsheet including all the tools listed above, should you want to dive-in.

Forums

One of the older categories of tools for community is forums. These can vary from self-hosted platforms you control yourself to popular online forums that your own community is part of or runs on. It’s a changing category too, with new entrants extending functionality beyond threaded conversations, to incorporate more community capabilities, and some have begun to make the leap to become broader, community management platforms.

Community Management

This is a large category, which includes all-in-one platforms that offer not just discussion capabilities, but often news, blogs, events, and supporting functionality like analytics, membership, and moderation tools. 

Chat

Similar to a forum, chat platforms help folks to discuss topics, but here this is often focused on synchronous communication that’s ephemeral in nature.

Event Management

It used to be that event management platforms focused solely on selling tickets, or organizing registrations to in-person events, but this has shifted to incorporate some virtual events too. 

Virtual Events

Perhaps one of the fastest-growing categories is virtual event platforms, which range from generic video conferencing platforms to dedicated offerings that attempt to re-create the interaction opportunities from in-person events, like sponsor tables, multiple ‘stages,’ and networking. 

Membership

As the creator economy continues to develop, a growing category of tools enables you to create memberships for anything you want, like courses or video tutorials and directories.

Social Media

One common area where communities overlap with marketing is with social media. It can often be a noisy channel from a community perspective, but social media platforms are an important way folks keep up with and are introduced to different communities.

Webinar

This could be considered a specialization of virtual events, but the mature Webinar tool space incorporates specific functionality to broadcast presentations and get feedback from an audience of people.

Voice

Voice communication certainly isn’t new — it’s just talking after all — but the past year has seen an explosion in voice-only social communities, which emphasize the quality of the conversation, often in an ephemeral manner.

Engagement

The Engagement category covers a slew of different types of apps, but what they all have in common is that they’re trying to drive greater engagement and connection between members through some specific activity. It could be enabling serendipitous chats, playing games together, or prompting folks to share little tidbits about themselves so others can get to know each other better.

Workflow Automation

The explosion in community tools can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s great that we have more software to help us do our jobs, but creating a seamless experience across them all can be a challenge. Workflow automation apps provides us with ways to glue together tools so that we can exchange data between them.

Data Enrichment

When members join our community we often only get a few bits of information to go on - it could be just a name or email address. Data enrichment tools help fill in the blanks, by using those bits of information to surface other publicly available details, helping people to personalize outreach and create content and programs that their audience will find valuable.

Analytics

While some platforms provide their own analytics, many do not. A number of analytics tools have sprung up to help provide the stats community builders need to understand what’s going on within the tools they use. These range from app-specific analytics solutions, to those that gather data from across platforms into one place.

Community is cross-functional

Much like operations, community integrates across teams inside a business, helping drive sales, marketing, product, and even talent acquisition. The future will blur these borders even more than they are now and the importance of integrating tools and data across them will become essential. So it’s important to not view community tools in isolation of those meant for related fields, but as a continuation of them with necessary overlap. That’s why we’ve flagged these functions as an extension of the tools landscape.

Of course, this roster of tools will change over time. What won’t change is the continued fragmentation that results in an inordinate amount of complexity and inefficiency for people and teams responsible for building communities, who understand both the need for real human touch and intuition, but also the need to report on effectiveness and ROI.

Managing omnichannel communities

From the company’s standpoint, it’s a pain to manage multiple platforms. It’s easy to miss important moments, reporting is siloed and manual, and it’s hard—if not impossible—to understand an individual’s journey across all touch-points. 

This leads to inefficiencies in how the community is built, and worst of all makes it difficult for community builders to know and meaningfully interact with the members. 

Many community managers hope for the mythical “one tool to rule them all,” but after speaking with hundreds of community folks around the world, we’re convinced: the time of the all-powerful tool will never come.

That’s because this isn’t a problem for community members. While community managers aren’t happy about the current state of community tooling, community members couldn’t care less. 

The power is now in the hands of community members to pick and choose where they interact with their communities. 

That means community owners need to decide which platforms they support, accepting that some may be out of their control. Then do their best to reduce the administrative burden by building integrations and workflows that make it possible to give members a great experience, no matter what app, forum, chat platform, email address, or device they’re participating from.

But there’s a silver lining here. We’ve seen that bringing fragmented data together from this constellation of platforms can provide companies meaningful insights toward building vibrant communities, stronger relationships, and ultimately producing better software.

In this way, modern community builders enjoy the best of both worlds. On one hand, community members interact on the platforms they prefer. Meanwhile, the community builders, behind the scenes, can see and understand a member’s journey across platforms, all in service of delivering a stellar member experience.

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