Four Online Community Platforms to Compare for your Startup or Small Business
Evaluating community platforms in the creator economy space to help you choose the technology that best fits your project.
If you've been following my blog for a while, you know I'm a big believer that there is no "one online community platform to rule them all." Online community platforms (or really, any technology) should always be chosen with a use-case in mind—you should always start with your vision, or a problem you're trying to solve, and choose your tools to support that outcome. A strong vision of what you want to achieve with your community, how you want it to feel to members, and what you want to see happening there, can make a huge difference in choosing the right technology.
(I've written in the past about the step-by-step process I use to make community platform decisions myself, and with clients).
But, even the best decision-making process is moot if you don't know where to start, and I hear from a lot of folks starting brand new communities that they don't know what platforms they should even be comparing. I'm putting together this post to give you a starting point for that. Here, I'll be giving you a high-level look into four standout community platforms that are a great fit for startups & small businesses (these are the ones I usually recommend my clients look at, as well).
A few notes before we get started:
There are lots of tools to support communities—from engagement tools like Donut to video platforms like Butter. I'm not talking about those here. I'm going to be talking about online community platforms: the core software you use to form the 'home base' for your community.
The landscape of community platforms is vast. There are many more platforms than the ones I'm showcasing here. Many existing comparison posts show you a huge array of platforms as if they are all comparable, even though they sit at vastly different price points and have different use cases, which I don't find is particularly helpful for decision makers. Because of my niche and interests, I'm focussing on standouts in the category of platforms best suited to support startups, small businesses, and the creator economy.
I've omitted what I consider to be enterprise community platforms from this post. This category of tools exist for a different use-case than most of my clients who are small businesses and emerging startups. Enterprise community platforms are for enterprises: they sit at a higher price point that I believe is only necessary if you need high-level enablement between community and large sales and support organizations. That said, if you're an enterprise who has stumbled across this post, your platforms to consider are most likely Khoros, Vanilla Forums, Insided, Higher Logic, and Zendesk Gather.
I'm also omitting what I consider to be 'big social' and 'network effects' platforms—in other words, platforms that weren't designed for creating owned, monetized communities, but are often used for that purpose. Here, I'm talking about Facebook groups and pages, Slack, and to some degree, subreddits. These platforms are all super different, but I tend to group them in my thinking because they share some core benefits and downsides. These are platforms that were created for other use cases, and that for the most part, I only recommend clients use as a primary community home base if I believe there's something about their specific audience or project that would prevent them from succeeding without tapping into ease-of-use and network effects. I could write a whole post about this category and when to use it, and I've written in the past about why I don't typically recommend Facebook groups as a community platform. (Slack is a bit of another story, but perhaps that's for another post).
I have decided not to create a feature comparison chart for this post for two reasons. First: I wanted to give you a more high-level look at what these platforms are and who they're best for. I still recommend that after you read this post, you take some time to check out these platforms in more depth for the features that you personally want and need. Second: I don't update my blog posts regularly enough to ensure a feature comparison chart would stay accurate. All of these companies regularly put out new features, and your best bet for accurate and up-to-date info is going straight to their feature pages.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links—which means that if you click on them and end up paying for a product, I receive a commission from the company. I do this because it helps me monetize this blog, which takes time to write and costs me money (for web hosting, the domain, and a few other services I pay for) to maintain. I include affiliate links when I have them (which mostly just depends on if a company offers an affiliate program), but if I don't have them, that doesn't keep me from recommending a platforms. These links also don't change the way I write about these platforms. If you click on one of these links and end up making a purchase, thank you for helping this blog stay afloat! If you're just not comfortable with affiliate links for whatever reason, the best way to skip them is to not click the links in this post and instead open up a separate browser to access these sites directly from Google.
Without further ado, let's dive into comparing four community platforms that are great choices for emerging startups, creator economy businesses, and small businesses in general.
Circle is one of the newest entrants into this space, but it's quickly gained traction because of its clean layout and extremely flexible posting paradigm. I'm listing it here first because it's actually the community platform I chose to use when transitioning my community off of Facebook Groups back when I was at Teachable. Let's take a closer look.
Pros & Standout Features
Simple, clean design with clear content hierarchy: select 'spaces' (organized under 'space groups') from the sidebar, and create and comment on posts within those spaces.
Extremely flexible space and post layouts give admin the ability to design dynamic communities under one roof, without introducing extra confusing features or content paradigms for members to learn. Use the same feature set to design spaces that feel like old-school forums, dynamic long-form conversation spaces, or admin-only blogs community members can read. This platform is built in a way where if you're even slightly creative with the out-of-the-box features, you can get a lot of different implementations out of it.
Lots of smart features designed for creator-economy businesses: like the ability to create opt-in forms on locked community spaces, lots of integrations with creator-focussed CMS and online course platforms, and the ability to use locked spaces to create tiered access communities.
No synchronous chat features—despite the familiar channel paradigm, those looking to replicate the real-time feel of Slack won't be able to do so.
While Circle does have basic moderation tools (like members reporting posts to admin, admin reviewing posts in a queue), it doesn't have all the moderation bells & whistles you see in some other platforms on this list (like reputation scoring and keyword-based moderation).
I usually recommend Circle for:
Communities of practice that favor long-form, asynchronous conversations
Membership communities that want to offer content features and conversations under one roof
Communities that need membership tiers in a clean interface
Creators whose audiences care deeply about design simplicity
Some stellar communities that use Circle:
SPI Pro (Smart Passive Income, Pat Flynn)
Teachable (Online Courses SaaS)
Fixed monthly prices based on feature access—starts at $39/mo, most popular plan at $79/mo, enterprise plans at $199/mo.
A list like this would not be complete without a nod to Mighty Networks—one of the earliest entrants into the community platform space geared toward creators and small businesses. Founded by Gina Bianchini, who previously cofounded Ning (a predecessor focussed on open-source social applications), Mighty Networks was one of the earliest platforms to identify the need for creators to launch owned communities without reliance on platforms like Facebook. Let's take a closer look.
Pros & Standout Features
The core differentiator of Mighty Networks from other platforms on this list is that it is a bundled software. So, in addition to creating a private community like the other platforms on this list, Mighty offers things like membership management, marketing sites, and online courses. If those are all things you plan to run alongside your business, Mighty could be a strong contender—but bundled softwares can also be a double-edged sword (more on that below).
One of my favorite things about Mighty Networks has always been the strong focus on creating strong 1:1 connections between members. They facilitate this through highly customizable user profiles and a filter-able member directory that lets you search for members who are near you geographically, online now, or new to the community.
Mighty Networks is also a bit more rich with native features than some of the newer platforms on this list—for example, they have a native events feature that integrates with common virtual event tools, like Zoom.
Mighty Networks also has a Pro version of their product that allows growing communities to transition to enterprise smoothly.
The core con to this platform to me is actually that it's a bundled software that has over time focussed more on course and membership features than community features. Although at the price point it may seem like a deal to get all that functionality under one roof, I haven't felt that each of their individual products measure up to the feature sets of comparable tools focussed on only one core functionality. For the most part, for example, if I were running an online course + community, I'd end up choosing a dedicated course platform (like Teachable) and a dedicated community platform.
Mighty Networks has a sleek and up-to-date design, but the user experience is still a bit more crowded than some of the others, with lots of options to reconfigure the experience via the sidebar.
I usually recommend Mighty Networks for:
Communities with a geographic/local chapter focus.
Projects that really need all three of the core bundled functionalities of Mighty Networks (courses, memberships, community) and are willing to do so in a lightweight way for the simplicity of keeping it under one roof.
Some stellar communities that use Mighty Networks:
Ted Ed Educator Hub (from Ted Talks)
Luvvie Ajayi Jones (author, podcaster)
Mindbody Online (fitness booking app)
Fixed monthly prices based on feature access—free option, most popular plan ('business') at $98/mo, 'community' tier plan at $28/mo
Tribe is a community platform that runs off of core functionality extended by configurable plug-in apps. It's been on the market for a while, and has some really robust functionality via its apps. As of writing this post, it looks like this platform is undergoing some major updates to design and functionality. Let's take a closer look.
Pros & Standout Features
Tribe's biggest standout is its "core features" + "community apps" model—which allows you to retain simplicity with out of the box features and add complexity to your community setup as needed.
Core features include all the basics you'd expect from a community: such as content organized by 'spaces' and moderation tools.
Extended apps (marked "coming soon") include things like a discussions feature meant to facilitate deeper conversations, a Q&A feature with an upvoting paradigm (which seems like it could be a huge win for companies looking to get product suggestions), and advanced Google analytics.
Enterprise options w/ some custom development from their team (like SAML SSO).
One of the biggest cons for Tribe for me has always been a confusing content hierarchy and outdated design. It looks like their platform is undergoing major design changes that may resolve this con—but many existing Tribes still include a split between "groups" and "topic feeds," making it unclear for members where the first place to go and interact might be. (You can see a live example of this in the examples section below).
New Tribe updates seem to have de-powered previous standout features from previous plug-in apps, such as moderation features that included reputation scoring and gamification features.
No member DMs, no mobile experience.
I usually recommend Tribe for:
Monetized communities where revenue building with scale justifies the price/user model
Projects that need highly flexible layouts, especially enterprise projects
Projects who want a main feed as well as subgroups, and a mixed public/private paradigm
Some stellar communities that use Tribe:
Pricing: Fixed monthly prices based on feature access, but also slightly based on usage (community size)—free option, 'Plus' at $49/mo, 'Premium' at $199/mo, enterprise options available with custom projects and pricing
Disciple is also one of the newer entrants to this space, and it earns its spot on this list mostly because it's the only community platform in this category with mobile-first functionality. Communities built on Disciple get their own dedicated community app (not just accessibility via the Disciple app). Let's take a closer look.
Pros & Standout Features
Like I mentioned in the intro paragraph, Disciple stands out because of its mobile-first functionality. For those looking for a dedicated app for their community alone, this can be a great option. One of the best things about this experience is tapping into push notifications to remind community members to check-in.
Native live-streaming feature for hosting in-app workshops.
Clever content folder feature that lets community leaders also house exclusive content for community members without relying on posts alone, which can get lost in a feed over time.
While it's clear why a company that produces completely custom mobile apps for each client would sit at a higher price point, the fact remains that Disciple's pricing is quite steep in comparison to the competition in this space. What's more, Disciple's pricing isn't all inclusive—extra monthly fees for membership numbers kick in right away (if you have under 100 members you'll pay $0.26/mo for each one, if you have under 1000, it goes down to $0.13/mo per member, etc); à la carte add-ons like a monthly fee for a custom domain or API access can add up, fast.
Like I noted with Tribe, Disciple also has the groups/feed bifurcation—which may take some time for members to get accustomed to and learn where to go first to interact.
I usually recommend Disciple for:
Projects for whom mobile experience is paramount because community members typically use the platform on the go—stuff like fitness apps and communities for busy professionals come to mind.
Projects that want to provide lots of exclusive content, but don't necessarily need a full fledged "online course" can make use of Disciple's lightweight content features.
Some stellar communities that use Disciple:
Rock Band The Rolling Stones use Disciple for their fan community
Jasmine Mays (fitness brand)
Cerebral Palsy Alberta (not for profit)
Pricing: web only version at $55/mo, mobile version at $549/mo
Thanks for reading! Here's hoping this comparison has given you a good starting place for choosing a platform to support a small business or startup in launching a community.
Want to take all this a step further?
I coach clients 1:1 to help with community strategy. If your team is working on a community project that you could use a hand on, check out ways we can work together here. I’d love to hear from you.
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Thank you for reading!