So you’ve got plans for an amazing online community, and you’re looking for the best platform to help you build it. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by your options — there are all kinds of community platforms out there and not all of them will be right for your business.
The good news is that you can stop chasing the ‘perfect’ solution. In fact, the perfect community solution doesn’t exist. As we’ll see below, different software work best for different use cases, budgets, and feature requirements. So rather than searching for a platform that checks every single box, you’ll want to prioritize the criteria you need the most.
Focusing on your must-haves will help you identify the best software for your specific use case and community goals, so you can avoid the commotion of migrating your community to another platform due to a poor fit. To help you narrow down the factors that are most important to you, we’ve outlined 15 criteria to consider when choosing a community software tool.
Once you have a list of the factors that matter the most to you, use CommunityScout to find out which community software better suits your specific requirements.
15 factors to consider when choosing an online community platform
A crucial first step in choosing a community platform is to clearly define your goals. What is your main purpose for building an online community? What do you want your community to accomplish for your business, your managers, and your members? Whatever your goals, the software you choose should help you achieve them.
You likely have a few major objectives in mind. Here are some examples:
Customer support and customer success—Anticipate and address customer concerns while reducing support costs.
Customer discovery—Get to know who your customers are and learn their needs, wants, and pain points.
Product ideation—Gather product feedback and feature requests from your customers to facilitate ideation and product development.
User engagement—Engage and grow your member base through regular communication, dynamic interactions, and events.
Create a networking space—Connect like-minded people with similar skill sets and facilitate discussion.
Brand loyalty—Share your core brand values and cultivate a long-lasting relationship with members.
Brand leadership—Up your social proof and establish your brand as an industry leader.
Monetization—Create a monetized community with membership subscriptions.
Community of Practice—Group of people with a set of common skills or interests connect and help each other.
Consider your primary goals as you go through the rest of this checklist. This will help you keep a sharp focus on what your business actually needs from a community solution and stop you from getting sidetracked by extra features.
Pricing varies widely from platform to platform. If you’re on a tight budget, you may want to center your search around free options or software with lower starting prices (see Capterra’s pricing comparison for online community software).
Most software solutions offer tiered pricing for different product packages (e.g., basic, business, or enterprise). Keep in mind that some solutions price their plans according to the number of users, meaning as your member base grows, so will your costs.
To decide how much you’re willing to spend, consider the return on investment that you expect from your community. In a study of online communities, 18% said that more than 30% of their organization’s revenue is influenced by their community. A community can help you lower support costs, increase brand awareness, and grow your customer base. Will this ROI outweigh the cost of the software for you?
Another difference-maker is customizability — to what extent do you want the look and feel of your community to match your branding? Again, the level of customization varies largely depending on the software.
Some platforms offer basic-level customization, like defining your community’s color scheme and fonts and adding a logo. Other SaaS products offer higher-level customization with the ability to build a unique layout and navigation or a complete white-label experience.
White labeling lets you fully customize your community from top to bottom and present it as your own, making it an appealing option for brand communities. For example, you can add your own buttons and icons, change the navigation options, and adjust the headers and footers. Incorporating your own branding elements is a powerful way to improve brand recognition and user experience.
As you mull over different community software, you’ll also want to consider how easy it is to customize the community. You may prefer a visual block-based builder to a system that requires coding.
Think back to your community goals — what types of content will your community need to support these objectives? For instance, you may want to prioritize self-service resources, real-time communication, interactive content, idea sharing, or live events.
Here are some examples of content types:
For customer support: knowledge bases, Q&As, live chat, articles/blog posts
For community engagement: discussion forums, quizzes, user-generated content
For product ideation: surveys/polls, feature request templates, tools to submit, vote on, and follow specific ideas
For brand engagement and learning: events, videos, live streams, and webinars
Various templates supported by the Bettermode Platform
Next, think about the user experience you want for your community members. How do you want members to communicate with each other? What functionalities do you want to offer them? What should appear on members’ activity feeds?
Here are some member functionalities to consider:
Create discussion posts and comment on other users’ posts
Create questions and answer other users’ questions
Set up a member profile and add a photo
Upload images and files
Search member directory
RSVP to events
Plus some additional community features to consider:
Customizable notification settings
Personalized activity feed that reflects a member’s interests
User-friendly advanced search with filtering
An organized resources section
It’s essential that platforms offer various ways for community managers to interact with members. Research by Zendesk and ESG found that successful customer service teams use an average of two more channels of engagement compared to underperforming teams.
Think about the engagement channels that will best serve your community goals. See some examples below.
Email blasts to share specific community content such as product updates, newsletters, promotions, etc.
Push notifications to send reminders, updates, or friendly messages
Live events with RSVP capabilities to improve engagement
Live chat to quickly respond to customer concerns
Discussion forums for getting to know customers and answering their queries
Video hosting for sharing pre-recorded product tutorials
Live streaming to host webinars or teaching seminars
Gamification tools help capture users’ interest and incentivize their participation. If the main purpose of your community is to build engagement, gamification features will be at the top of your criteria list.
Some gamification tactics to look out for:
Enabling members to climb ranks based on their participation
Awarding members custom icons and badges
Allowing members to earn reputation points
Displaying ranks and badges on leaderboards and member profiles
According to a recent report, gamification boosts customer engagement and loyalty by an average of 30%. So a platform with impressive gamification features is worth a second look.
Integrations and embed tools
Integrations and embed tools help you incorporate your community into your workflow and get the most out of its features. As you evaluate a solution, consider whether it allows you to embed your community into your existing website or mobile app. This can help you create a social experience and ensure your customers come across your community while using your website.
Next, check whether the platform supports the tools your business relies on. If your business has unique specifications, you might want to consider a community platform that offers API and webhooks for full custom integrations.
Here are some common integrations supported various community solutions:
Zapier—Connect to your favorite apps and streamline your workflow.
Zendesk—Escalate support tickets and offer customer support. Enable members to search Zendesk knowledge base directly from the community.
Slack—Receive notifications from your community inside Slack.
Mailchimp—Sync community members with your Mailchimp list to improve customer engagement.
HubSpot—Sync community member activities with HubSpot contacts to track their behavior and run targeted campaigns.
Amplitude—Access insightful reports to better understand your members’ actions on a granular level.
Hotjar—Understand how users are interacting with your community using tools like heatmaps.
Intercom—Integrate your member property data and community insights with Intercom contacts to create contact segments and run effective campaigns.
Explore the Bettermode App Store to see how Bettermode makes it easy to connect your community with your tech stack.
Detailed customer data is a top priority for most businesses. Some platforms offer an analytics dashboard with insights to help you assess and tweak your community strategy. Some examples of insights are engagement stats, member growth and retention stats, and activity logs.
Community software like Bettermode take it one step further and integrate it with analytics tools like Google Analytics, Amplitude Analytics, and Mixpanel. These third-party integrations will bring you in-depth insights like customer health scores.
Ask your managers or executives what specific metrics are valuable to them and prioritize community platforms that offer these insights.
User registration and authentication
Consider how you want community members to sign in to the software. Some community platforms support single sign-on (SSO), making it easy and convenient for users to register and log in using an ID from an independent software tool.
A platform can also use social SSO, allowing users to log in through a social media account like Facebook. Whatever log-in method you prefer, consider the identification protocols that are being followed for security purposes. For example, some platforms support multi-factor authentication and password re-entry after a period of time has passed.
Roles and user permissions
Think about the different users who will be part of your community and whether you want to assign them specific permissions. Some software platforms allow you to create different roles to help you manage this. For example, you can create roles for admins, moderators, instructors, students, and guests.
An admin might be given permission to change the structure and settings of the community, while a moderator may be allowed to flag or block content. New users might be restricted from accessing certain parts of the community or using certain functionalities. All of these functions can help you moderate your community and keep it running smoothly.
Some community software allow you to use developers or connect to an API to modify your community. For example, if your business has unique needs, you may want to build custom integrations.
If you require this level of customization, find out what support and resources the platform will offer your dev team. For example, Bettermode's Developer Portal includes a toolkit with extensive technical documentation and a staging environment to test changes.
Some platforms offer enterprise-grade security that ensures data protection for your business and your members across the entire system. If this is important for you, consider choosing a platform that offers the ability to use your own custom SSL and security header.
You also want to prioritize a solution that undergoes regular audits, follows security best practices, is up to date on data residency regulations, and complies with standard certifications like SPAM and privacy laws.
Explore if the community platform has SOC II certification and is compliant with data protection regulations such as GDPR.
If growing your member base is a high-priority goal for you, there are certain criteria that you should look out for.
For example, you might want a platform that allows members to invite or refer others to join the community. Referral programs help you bring in new members while increasing your customer lifetime value by 16%. Another key feature is having community content that’s easily shareable on social networks. For example, are articles and discussion content accompanied by social sharing buttons?
Finally, you’ll want your community to bring you organic traffic. When evaluating a platform, check whether the community content is SEO optimized and searchable — when a person types in a Google query related to your community topic, you want your community content to pop up in the search results. You also want to ensure there’s a guest view so that new users can lurk on your content. This is a great way to regularly pull in new members with little effort.
Paid/private community option
Some platforms allow you to monetize your memberships or create private spaces. You can do this by placing the entire community behind a pay barrier or by locking certain areas within a larger public community.
If you intend to monetize your community — for example, to create paid online courses, or collect donations– you’ll need a solution that lets you create these exclusive paid spaces. Look for a software tool that lets members pay directly through the platform, with either one-time payments or subscription fees.
The ability to make a community (or parts of it) private is a favorite feature among brand-led communities. Moderation and keeping the community spam-free is usually easier when it filters the members in one way or another. Also, private or exclusive Spaces allow brands to leverage a team of advisors or Beta testers to enhance their business.
The big decision
Choosing a platform to host your community is a big decision — but it’s an exciting one, too. From price points to features and functionalities, there’s no shortage of software options and each one is unique.
Before you take the leap, check out CommunityScout, a free tool that helps you find the best community solution for your exact needs (based on 60+ factors!). Your ideal platform is waiting to help build your online community.
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