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Online communities provide a platform for individuals to connect around a shared interest, goal or activity. Users form a network, develop relationships and collaborate by sharing information and engaging with content.
Community software helps businesses build and develop these forums, cultivate followers and maintain memberships. These tools automate administrative processes and provide businesses with actionable data on metrics and trends such as site activity and user engagement.
There are a variety of solutions on the market designed to serve every type of business need, including brand building, customer support and many more.
We’ve created this guide to help you better understand the community software market so you can select the right tool for your organization. Whether you’re looking to invest in community software for the first time or looking to replace your current system, this guide can help you make a more informed purchase decision.
Here's what we'll cover:
What Is Community Software?
Businesses and associations build online communities to achieve several goals:
- Increase brand awareness
- Grow their customer base
- Support customers throughout the entire customer life cycle (i.e., considering, purchasing, using, maintaining and/or replacing a product or service)
- Provide a forum for discussion/feedback regarding products and/or services
Of course, first and foremost, communities should provide value to the end user.
Community software solutions help businesses build, launch, manage and measure the effectiveness of their online communities so as to strive for continuous improvement, i.e., provide the most value to the customer.
Key Features of Community Software
Look for the following community software capabilities as you compare solutions:
|Member management||Enable users to create profiles, join groups and/or chapters. Often includes search functionality or a directory. Can include membership dues management (works with merchant account platforms) to manage paid memberships.|
|Content management||Create web content and track how users interact with different types of content. Can include process documentation, wikis, articles and more. Set up online and emailed content alerts for when content is added or updated.|
|Forums and discussion boards||Facilitate communication and collaboration among users, allowing them to follow threads, share ideas, post questions and respond to inquires. Includes features such as @ mentions, the ability to like and/or share posts, insert emojis, add tags and other classifications to posts and archive discussions. Often includes the ability to send private messages as well.|
|Blog creation and management||Set up blogs for your business, employees or individual members. Allow users to create and share content, organize content using tags and other classifications and subscribe to blogs. Includes security settings, user permissions and the ability to turn commenting on or off.|
|Gamification/crowdsourcing||Increase user engagement in your community with tools such as gamification, contests, surveys and/or polls. Invite users to post scores on their profile or share to their social networks.|
|Media libraries||Upload and store files in a centralized, searchable location. Features often include customizable user permissions, share settings and the ability to turn on/off commenting. Enlist users in library maintenance by allowing them to tag out of date files, broken links etc.|
|Event management||Showcase events and conferences and work with your partners to cultivate sponsorships and your customers to build out your attendees. Features include online registration, agenda/calendar building and payment management.|
|Reporting and analytics||Includes dashboards and reports for several metrics, including member activity, site interactions, content shares and many more. Schedule one-off or recurring reports, view data in various graphical displays and export data to Excel. Create custom reports to track trends unique to your business or industry.|
Types of Community Software:
Community software can create and manage several types of communities. These can generally be grouped as follows:
Internal business tools. This includes communities designed to facilitate collaboration among employees and crowdsource ideas to solve internal business issues. They can also act as an internal knowledge center where employees can access reference material, join relevant groups and search for important business documentation and processes. Can also include professional development and training.
Capabilities might include:
- Employee directory
- Talent referral
- Opinion surveys and polls
Business-to-consumer (B2C). This includes a variety of communities designed to help businesses engage with current and prospective clients, most often centered around business development/sales, customer relationship management, support and training. Can also host reviews of products and services. Non-profit and professional development associations can also use this software to engage with members or users rather than customers.
Capabilities likely include:
- Branded blog, news, and/or social network
- Forums and discussion boards
- Content and media library
- Group/chapter management
- Event management
B2B communities enable businesses to interact with other organizations in their industry, most often through partner programs and industry and awareness brand marketing. This resource can be helpful when highlighting new programs, product releases and updates as well as when creating and/or responding to RFPs.
Capabilities often include:
- Business profiles
- Product/service videos
- Document sharing
- Event management/sponsorship tools
Consumer-to-consumer. This category includes communities built by consumers to serve and engage with other consumers, such as interest-based communities (e.g., sports, video games, city/geographical involvement etc.), professional development associations and product/service reviews forums.
Capabilities might include:
- Member profiles
- Group/chapter management
- Forums and discussion boards
- Private messaging
- Content management
Additionally, it’s possible (and likely) for a hybrid community to exist within any of these categories. An example of this is when customers interact with each other and the business joins in on the discussion.
Each community will require member management and offer some degree of reporting/analytics for administrative members. As the primary goal for these systems is to provide value to end users, it’s important to chose a solution with reporting functionality that supports your business and industry requirements.
Key Considerations for Community Software Buyers
Keep the following purchase considerations in mind as you compare solutions:
Open-source community software. There are several open-source solutions on the market that can help you get an online community set up with lower upfront costs than you’d have with a paid solution.
However, you will require an IT staff to host and maintain the system, which means, as one vendor states on their website “you break it, you fix it.” You also have limited support, training and customer service options with open source tools, so consider the needs of both your administrative and end users before choosing this option.
Integration with existing business software. Integration allows for seamless data transfer between applications, which is a chief concern when using disparate systems. Look for tools that integrate with your existing business applications (e.g., your CRM, marketing, help desk and social media accounts) to save time and reduce duplicate data entry.
Actionable insights/reporting. The key with reporting is to gain actionable insights. Your community software should help you strive for continuous improvement so as to provide the most value to your end user, so you should supplement your reporting strategy with feedback loops. Additionally, look for trends that allow you to enhance and tailor the user experience to each member group, which can lead to increased and prolonged membership.
Your Guide to Top Community Software, February 2021
Software Advice uses reviews from real software users to highlight the top-rated Community Software products in North America.
Learn how products are chosen