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The future of community is distributed

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

Each week we go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. We share tactics, trends and valuable resources we've observed in the world of community building.

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Creators and companies alike are increasingly understanding the strategic value of community to grow their audience or their business. But given the fragmented nature of communities today, it's difficult for community builders to know which tools to use or platforms to adopt.

So we surveyed community builders from 115 different communities. From solo-founders to large teams, and from mature communities to those just getting started. The result is the Constellation Report, which charts the current state of community tools. The findings give us insight into how teams are making community happen.

Community happens across a complex constellation of platforms

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. The report found that a typical community is active across 6 platforms. This includes some combination of social media like Twitter, a forum like Discourse, a chat platform like Discord or Slack, an 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.

Teams need to manage 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 platform to rule them all,” but the report confirms that this isn't how things work in reality. 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 future of community then is increasingly distributed. 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.

To help manage members across platforms, the report found that teams use 7 apps to manage and understand members. These range from social media monitoring to analytics and workflow automation, all helping give community managers a better understanding of members and what’s happening within their community.

There's a big opportunity to uncover meaningful insights

Among these challenges, there’s a silver lining. 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.

Most teams though lack integration between their tools and data. The report found that 2 in 5 teams have no integration at all, with only 1 in 5 having tools which integrate with other teams across the business.

Integration provides an opportunity for community builders to 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.

Integration isn’t just crucial for the member experience; it’s necessary to unlock the full impact that community can have on a business. Community is cross-functional. Much like operations, community can integrate across teams inside an organization, helping drive sales, marketing, product, and even talent acquisition. The future will blur the borders between these teams even more than they are now and the importance of integrating tools and data across them will become essential.

Finding the right tools

The community tools stack then is large and ever-evolving. A typical community team is already using 13 apps, and they’re looking to try 3 more in the next year.

To help you navigate this complex space, we took our research and mapped out the tools landscape, creating the community tools index.

The tools index is a list of over 300 tools across 18 different categories, including the platforms where communities gather and the software used to help organize, communicate with, and understand community members. Since many new tools don’t actually make it to market, we’ve only included apps that are generally available. We've also ranked the tools by usage among community builders, so you know the tools are ready for production use.

We hope the tools index will help you discover new tools and make confident choices about your community tech stack.

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