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23 Comments

The best community platform

Traditional: Discourse, phpBB, Vanilla, Xenforo, IPB, Flarum (lot modern than the rest)
Modern: Circle, Tribe, MN, Playgroup, Forem, Habitate
Not-dedicated: Slack, Facebook groups, Telegram, Discord (built around gaming)

There are a lot more platforms that are not mentioned here, each platform has its own pros and cons. Proper time and effort should be spent on the subject, something I did while evaluating join.coulf.com - the private community I have built for indie product makers and founders.

Slack or a Fb group may sound like the cheapest way to launch your community. It actually is but with * attached.

Slack

Slack is a focused work environment mostly preferred by ages 25 and over. It is preferred by community builders because the audience already exists here, one less barrier to launch. Slack may have every feature to launch and run a thriving online community but it is just not built for it. Managing multiple networks, channels, ever syncing communications, per-user billing and the search limit makes it a less obvious choice if scaling is your consideration.

I personally didn't use Slack because I find it difficult to keep up with the communities I belong to. Slack is a workplace communications app and will stay so. You can try out Mattermost or Quilt.co which are alternatives and in some cases better than Slack.

Facebook Groups

Like Slack, a Facebook Group comes with no initial investment from your end, all you need is a Facebook account. Facebook has recently launched a set of features targeted at Groups to help the community builders (they research trends more than anyone), with the mighty Facebook supporting it you can sit back and see the most wanted features rolled out to your community. This would have been the best option on the list IF there weren't boycotts, scandals, drama, highly-intrusive ads, disrespectful use of users' data, and overall hate that their actions generate.

I personally didn't use Fb groups because one is I didn't want my members to see an ad when they scroll through our community feed. Two is, I built our community around privacy and naturally, Facebook is a no go.

Discord

Discord is one of the best options on the list. It has chat, voices, channels and is quite complete. Discord's work all these years is amazing. They grew their platform by listening to the creators and consumers on it. Their business model is pocket friendly and works as an upgrade with perks, core features have always been free. Ages below 25 (aka the young generation) do not care what platform a community is running, give them value and that's all they care. The problem with Discord is they're meant for the gaming community and the whole environment is themed around gaming. Although they're working and constantly improving to become more open to the rest of the industries. It is still a work in progress.

I wanted a custom domain solution and the themes around games were negative to me.

Discourse

Discourse is a more traditional and popular choice. Easy to setup, extensive resources, extension capabilities with plugins and its open-source nature, and it is free if you want to host it yourself. Its wide use helped many users become comfortable with its UI. Most product support and niche communities exist because of Discourse. Discourse may not be an option if you want to stay away from traditional forums. I would also say its UI is loaded. Some elements in the UI are unnecessary in my opinion.

I wanted more than just 'spinning off a Discourse instance', existing Discourse forums didn't seem alive to me for some reason. I do not mean the engagement rates. I mean the overall look and feel here. If you're looking for another option like Discourse then I suggest checking out NodeBB which is quite similar to Discourse.

IPB and Xenforo

When we say Forum you think of something that's running on Invision board or Xenforo. They both are long-standing and is recognized instantly. They're still a go-to for community builders because of how mature these products are. Both options are paid and IPB has a self-hosting license available. Each has a huge library of add-ons, themes and a community.

It wasn't the best option for me. My preferences were not a forum.

Flarum

It gets personal here. I wanted to go with Flarum the most! It was clean, threads were replaced by tags, ultra-fast and super lightweight. This could even run on shared hosting (not yet). The only reason to not choose this was it didn't have a membership system. Flarum is also a new entrant in this list, it has bugs, stability issues, update failures, high technical knowledge... It wasn't ready for production yet.

Explore

Modern and dedicated community platforms you can explore include:
Habitate - has a free plan for you to test drive. It integrates well with your website and is best for having engaging discussions. Built by @deepak09 here, it has got polls, a trending feed, events and uses a 2 click navigation for the entire community.

Playgroup - all their plans support unlimited members. @benmann is building it for us, community builders. Public communities, private communities (whose post' URL can be shared outside if you want to), affordable and scalable pricing plan are some of its features.

Haaartland - You only pay a flat fee (in cents $0.xx while writing this) for active members only. A huge plus depending on some metrics, if you have one thousand members but only 10 login for the given month, all you to pay is $3 for that month. It'll be even more helpful if your community is small (like 20 = just $6/m as opposed to $20 and $30+ in others for almost the same features).

Crowdstack offers unlimited everything and starts at $49/m, you can finally take out Fear of Growing Too Big (FGTB). They come with better management, engaging elements, public/private subgroups, and inbuilt memberships.

Openland is lit. It is chat-based and you can start paid communities with them, Openland only takes a cut in your payouts for the platform they offer to you.

Spectrum.chat is a chat-based platform where you can start a community. Spectrum is owned by Github and is constantly improved by the team.
If you're looking for alternatives to Spectrum you can tryfave.com which is built on the same open-source software behind Spectrum with additional features like login for example and support from the team.

Group App from @Dornubari here is a Facebook + Slack hybrid dedicated for creators. It lets you create your community network, offer courses to your members, introduce a paywall and more. With Group App's discovery system you're more likely to be discovered by interested members. They even have a generous free plan (forever free plan I guess).

Community is for you if you're looking for SMS communities. It may also be the best for you if you have a huge following or highly engaged audience and you want to develop 1-on-1 relationships with them. SMS is personal. Celebs with millions of followers are posting "text my number" because of them.

Coming to the might

Mighty Networks is a well-established platform. It is known for its powerful all-in-one software. It offers an intuitive community platform and built-in courses and is best for you if you're looking for branded mobile apps. MN has a forever free plan for you to checkout, all their plans include unlimited members as well. Personally, I didn't choose them as it seems more focused on mobile experience and branding, which wasn't my focus.

Tribe.so

Tribe has got comprehensive social components that will help you build a highly gamified and engaging community for your members. Tribe suits best for product communities and private networks. It's a hybrid of social media and community. Given its widgets and API, it can be tightly integrated with your website and your product or service. Tribe also has a generous free plan capped at 500 members, you'll however have to upgrade to a paid plan to introduce a paywall.

I didn't choose Tribe because right after evaluating it and moving it to the top of my list I saw Circle.

Circle.so

May sound biased/give you a feeling that I'm affiliated with them but no. Circle was the best of all from what I have seen, I highly recommend them. When I was researching about them the good comments were like "What's this software, it's great I want one too" "This community UI is just peaceful". Bad ones were like "It lacks integrations" "Many features like polls, paid memberships, events are not there", which is forgivable for how new they are. It can't yet be compared with something as mighty as Mighty Networks.

Circle comes with a clean, well thought, no clutter user interface. Circle is asynchronous and has plans for making messages synchronous. It integrates well with Zapier for memberships, invites, comments and few actions. Their backend gives you full control over branding, domains, and CSS injection.

My experience so far is good with them. I'm glad I chose Circle over other options. A disadvantage is that they're new and don't have mobile apps yet, their iOS app is in the works though. The platform we have got for our community is clean and helps me offer the premium experience I intended. Now I just hope it stays this way as the product matures with new great features.


On a separate note, community builders are invited to join.coulf.com too, even if it is a directly competing idea. I struggled to get support from communities other than IH while building Coulf as it's seen as a competing product. So I'd like to support healthy competition and offer support as long as one is indie.

  1. 3

    Thanks for sharing this, Dinakar. Really great insights.

    In my opinion having involved in building communities for the last 5 years I don't think there is any BEST community platform. Like how you have shared your thoughts differentiating the platforms I guess everyone needs to do it once in a while. My need and your need for a community will be different.

    I think at the end of the day it all comes down to basic features like thread, DMs, etc any community platform should have so that you can bring people together and build meaningful relationships.

    To begin with I don't think anyone needs a full fledged community platform you can start with a chat based Slack or WhatsApp and slowly redirect people towards Circle or so.

    It's the people that makes a community and not a platform. If the community is loyal I'm sure people would love to move wherever their leader decides to host a community.

    1. 1

      Valid points.

      Each platform serves different needs, solves different problems and holds different experiences for hosts and members. Someone building a fun image sharing community for free with the audience already using Facebook may prioritize Fb Groups over others and it makes sense for their purpose.

      Always better to start with something than analyzing every option in the market. I believe in learning by doing too. Moving the space to some other sounded too difficult (Plus I'm not technical), so I ended up researching on the whole.

  2. 3

    WordPress + BuddyBoss... I know the founders well -- some big names using it for their communities.

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      Another great one I have missed.

      I did check Buddyboss when I was starting with the idea. But I had to leave out WordPress dependant software because of WordPress itself. The news on WordPress's security breaches reminded me to stay from them as our community was focusing on privacy and hence less weightage to the ones built on it.

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        Ah yes, didn't know the criteria for the list but makes sense!

        Honestly the security thing is a little overblown as any app is subject to the same security issues. This is just my opinion of course, but one based on running an extremely popular WordPress business.

  3. 2

    "My experience so far is good with them. I'm glad I chose Circle over other options. A disadvantage is that they're new and don't have mobile apps yet, their iOS app is in the works though. The platform we have got for our community is clean and helps me offer the premium experience I intended. Now I just hope it stays this way as the product matures with new great features."

    Many thanks for the comprehensive review and verdict.

    I do wonder if communities actually care about the forum software. I have seen thriving communities using phpbb designed 20 years ago https://www.phpbb.com/community/viewforum.php?f=14

    E.g. https://lemonfool.co.uk/

    What counts more (at least to get going) is the contributions from members. Nothing worse than joining a community and talking only to yourself. I think only when you get a critical mass of users, then a lack of features etc may become a problem.

    "On a separate note, community builders are invited to join.coulf.com too, even if it is a directly competing idea. I struggled to get support from communities other than IH while building Coulf as it's seen as a competing product. So I'd like to support healthy competition and offer support as long as one is indie."

    IH is a pretty good free forum, so Coulf has to be a lot better to justify a charge (which I think is your plan). Communities thrive on a network effect ('wisdom of crowds') so unless you are dispensing incredible advice yourself, then you could struggle to build the necessary membership for lots of engagement. Also, if you can dispense incredible advice yourself, you could just set up a newsletter and get people to pay for that instead.

    1. 1

      if communities actually care about the forum software

      It doesn't play a huge role. But features differ and serve different purposes. These software almost always enhance only the user experience which goes unmeasured oftentimes. Software also plays a major role in scalability, a software being able to support a number of concurrent visitors with less resources may be an ideal option if you plan to go big (and self host it).

      What counts more (at least to get going) is the contributions from members.

      Agreed. This may not be the case always. Creators with an existing following may find it different for them.

      Coulf has to be a lot better to justify a charge

      Yes. Plans are in place. I also plan to help members with their projects 1-on-1 or at least more personally than the help we get here. 1-on-1 is something IH can't compete with us.

      1. 1

        "Yes. Plans are in place. I also plan to help members with their projects 1-on-1 or at least more personally than the help we get here. 1-on-1 is something IH can't compete with us."

        Ok great. As well as the screenshots of the forum, I would showcase your project-mentoring skills and achievements on the landing page while the service is free to use. If you are not inundated with free members using your 1-1 service, you may have to rethink the paywall idea.

        1. 1

          Thanks for the suggestions. I have already started to manage a project for one of our members, reaching out more regarding this in the coming days. I plan to keep the landing page this way for some more time. I'd rather focus on working with the members and add more resources for the moment.

          1. 1

            Great to hear you already have a project! Yes, best to focus on that first.

  4. 1

    I'd like to add to your list our platform - Comonetize.
    www.comonetize.me

  5. 1

    I'd appreciate if you also sort them by "rented" vs "you-own-user-info" platforms. For example, if people join your FB group/Reddit/Discord, you don't have access to their emails/some other info you can use to re-invite you in case FB/Reddit/Discord decides to use the ban-hammer on you. Not the case with Slack/Circle/maybe others you've mentioned.

    1. 1

      Yes, there are other angles to look at I have missed here.

      Facebook groups workaround by asking their emails in form of questions while requesting to join. With Discord, you can get an email field filled out and then zap them to the Discord invite. In both cases, the community (Facebook group and Discord server) has to be kept private for this workflow.

  6. 1

    Is there a community that allows members to sign up for an event (like Meet-Up) so you know how many people to expect at the event and can even send messages to attendees if you need to change dates or cancel?
    TIA

    1. 1

      @Deepak09 does it with Habitate.io I think he can explain it better than me. In the meantime, you can check his product community (here) built with Habitate, the event in the right sidebar is prominently displayed across.

      Mighty Networks has a dedicated Events feature as well, you can read more about them here

      Potion offers events and a community platform. You'll have to reach out to them to learn more about their offering though.

      For join.coulf.com we plan to use Zoom + Calendar Embed + Zap for the time being.

      1. 1

        Thanks so much! This is extremely helpful!

  7. 1

    I really don't understand why Slack is used for communities. It was created for the better communication inside the teams and using it as tool for communities sounds the same ridiculous to me as using Skype or Zoom for it.

    A disadvantage is that they're new and don't have mobile apps yet, their iOS app is in the works though.

    Why do you need the app? Do you already have thousand users that can't just use the app in a mobile browser? ;-)

    while building Coulf

    Not sure what you mean by saying "building"...

    1. 1

      Slack integrates with your existing stack well and like I mentioned people use it for work every day. It's a lot easier for someone to join a Slack workspace than guiding one to join a different domain or app. Plus, no initial investment is needed in terms of time and money. It takes a few minutes to set up the whole space and ~ $0.

      Do you already have a thousand users that can't just use the app in a mobile browser?

      I don't, it adds flexibility for creators with an existing audience. A successful newsletter or an existing community in a traditional forum software for example.

      what you mean by saying "building"

      Planning is a compatible word but "building" is more familiar here :)

  8. 1

    Thanks for the mention @Dinakar.

    We ship something new every week, be it features or improvements to what already exists. Helping you build a strong and vibrant community.

    If you are indie-hacker, just starting out, email me and we can help each other.

    Built with ♥️ Habitate.io

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      Meanwhile, @Dinakar, the landing page for coulf looks neat and simple. Wishing you the best.

      1. 1

        Thanks for the comments Deepak! I decided to keep it simple for now and focus on the community.

        We ship something new every week, be it features or improvements to what already exists.

        Awesome, this could be on your product update section. It'd be reassuring knowing the team is continuously working on their end.

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          Yes, it is better that way.

          And yes, we do have a channel where I am writing the product updates.

          https://community.habitate.io/channels/12/product-updates

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