Online Communities: A Complete Guide

Online Communities: A Complete Guide

Creating a thriving online community isn’t something you can achieve overnight - making choosing a powerful community platform or community software even more important.

When selecting a platform to host your community, you want to make sure that it's flexible enough to meet your needs, that it will grow with you, and your business goals, and is reliable enough to stand the test of time.

If you're wondering how you can benefit from an online community platform and what you should consider when selecting one, in this article we'll cover everything you need to know.

What are online communities?

If you're wanting an online community definition, you're in the right place. An online community is essentially a home for you to house your internal communities. A central space where your audience and customers can share their ideas, tips, experiences, create bonds over mutual interests, and where you can support your community.

Whilst many people may have previously relied on social media such as Facebook Groups to create their online communities and build stronger relationships, many are now opting to use online community platforms instead.

Dying engagement, reach, data breaches, trolling, minimal customer service and a lack of control don't make hosting a community on traditional social media platforms easy. There are numerous online community features that are a cut above social media platforms, including flexibility, security, having a community available via web and a mobile app and being fully customizable, which makes them a far more appealing option.

Different types of online communities

Essentially there are two types of online communities - free and owned. Below are community platform examples:


Free communities are owned and controlled by a third-party. They are social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, or they can be old school forums such as Quora and Reddit.

what are online communities

The other type of free platforms are communication channels that aren't necessarily built for community building per se but can be used to communicate with others, they could be your website, email list, WhatsApp or Slack. All of these free and provide various types of functionalities but it's important to keep in mind that you're never fully in control of them.

Groups or forums can be banned or taken down, sometimes without so much as a warning. Slack and Whatsapp aren't built for people to build solid relationships and may limit things like file-sharing or being able to Livestream for example, and your email list or website isn't really a community because it's more one-way communication than encouraging people to get involved in conversations.


Owned online community providers such as Disciple are very similar to traditional social media but with distinct advantages. They have a similar look and feel to social networks that you're used to but they are owned and managed by you with a number of community features and community management tools available.

You can customize the branding to suit your logos, fonts, and colours. You own all of the data which means you never need to worry about security breaches. You have a content library where you can store all of your content in folders which means you can very easily upload content on-the-go from your mobile phone. You and your community can access things via web or mobile and you have multiple other options such as being able to create groups, subgroups, and the ability to monetize your content and services.

Essentially an owned online community provides you with all of the perks that you and your audience are used to, but with even more capabilities that you can use to your advantage. The best part? you'll never need to worry about trolls or that you'll end up in Facebook jail and lose your community overnight.

Things to look for when selecting a community platform

Ultimately, you want to choose an online community platform that accommodates your goals and offers an exceptional user experience that’s going to keep members engaged.It's also important to keep in mind that there's a lot more to creating a successful community than installing the latest forum software on your website and hoping people will come flocking to your community. Here are some of the features that you should be looking for:

Fun and Interactive

The best community platforms provide features and functionalities that make it fun and easy for members to share and post user-generated content. When selecting a community platform, it's important to make sure your audience has multiple opportunities to post content. User-generated content (UCG). UCG content includes things like photos, videos, blogs, and reviews. It gives people an opportunity to share what's going on in their world and share posts that shout about your brand - giving your products and services some extra exposure to their audience. The added benefit of encouraging user-generated content is that people are 2.4 times more likely to view it as more authentic and credible compared to a brand posting about their products or services themselves.Not only is having a community platform that offers functionality to encourage UCG a major win in terms of driving conversation and a buzz around your business or community, but it also acts as a vital way to create trust. A full 92% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know, and 70% trust online consumer opinions.Another great benefit of having a fun and interactive community platform which offers engaging features is that people are bound to build stronger relationships as a result. When people are engaged in certain topics and have a variety of different ways to communicate with one another, they're more likely to support the community as a whole. Running polls is a great way to drive conversation, livestreams is also a great way to build more personal connections with people and messaging helps people to build more intimate 1-2-1 relationships. When these kinds of features are available on a community platform and successfully implemented, people will not only sign up with enthusiasm, but they'll also be sure to stay engaged and want to keep returning to your platform to regularly check in with your community.


The main reason why over 90% of businesses are using social media for marketing purposes is because it’s so accessible. With over two-billion people regularly checking in on Facebook on their desktops, laptops, and mobile devices, it’s easy to see why companies are drawn to these enormous audiences. Unfortunately, this also means it’s almost impossible to get heard and make a meaningful impact.

different types of online communities

To get your customers off Facebook and spending time in your community, you’ll need to offer a familiar experience. Many successful brand social networks work because they’re built using online community platforms that are highly accessible and require no learning curve. With the huge number of different devices people use to access the web daily, it’s imperative that your community platform provides an optimized user experience that works for everyone.


One of the most common reasons for businesses to fail in today’s fast-paced market is that their systems and processes can’t keep up with demand. They can’t scale and adapt to change quickly enough, so they end up missing out on opportunities and failing to innovate. When you go to all the effort of building an online community, the last thing you want is for it to fall flat on its face because it grows so fast that it becomes impossible to manage.When it comes to online community platforms, scalability isn’t just about how many members your community can accommodate. It’s more about how it scales and adapts to the changing needs of your business. That’s why you need something that’s always up to date, powered by data-driven insights, and possible to integrate with your wider technology environment. Your community is a dynamic entity that’s constantly evolving; hence flexibility is a must.


Many of us are becoming increasingly obsessed with online privacy and security, which is hardly any wonder when you have companies as enormous as Facebook potentially facing regulatory investigations and fines in the tens of millions of euros. Although the overall user counts are growing, people are starting to pack their bags and set their sights on close-knit communities, with many citing security and privacy concerns as the reasons.

launching an online community

To be successful, businesses need to be transparent, and they can hardly entrust a company like Facebook or Twitter to safeguard their data. With an online community platform that puts security and privacy first, you get to be in control. Instead of having to worry about your data being sold to third-parties or misappropriated by unethical organisations, it should be yours alone to work with. That in itself is an important selling point for getting people to sign up and join your community.

Steps to take to launch an online community

If you're wondering what the best way to build an online community is, there are a number of things to consider.

1. Choose an online space for your community

We've discussed the different types of options available to build your community. Whether it's a free or owned version that you opt for, it's really important that you select a platform that will suit your individual goals and requirements.

If security and monetisation is important to you, then an owned platform is likely to suit you better than a free platform. If you're simply using your community platform as a way to broadcast upcoming events or news then maybe a website or Whatsapp will suit you better. Getting clear from the outset will help you to narrow down your options.

2. Determine your goals

Identifying your goals will also be really helpful when it comes to weighing up which platform to host your community on. What are you hoping to achieve as a result of creating your community?

Do you want to increase customer service ratings? Do you want to use it as a space to add value and educate people on products with livestreams? Do you want feedback on upcoming products or services?

Being clear on what it is that you're hoping to achieve in the long run will help you to select a platform that will help you to reach these goals and avoid any unnecessary hassle later down the road.

3. Identify community managers

Once you've decided on a platform and your goals, it's important to get a clear understanding of who'll be managing your community. Will you be managing and moderating your community yourself?

If you're working in an organisation, then will you have certain team members in different departments moderating different groups?

Having a clear idea of this will help you to assign the right roles to the right people and avoid any confusion on who is responsible for what.

4. Set up your community and launch it

So you've selected a platform, defined your goals, and identified who'll be managing your community. Now comes the exciting part. You get to put your community live and launch it into the world.

Luckily, here at Disciple we provide a lot of support on this step but if you're new to doing this, here are a few steps to take.

Firstly, make sure you've played around with all of the functions and features so that you can make the most of them and offer the best user experience for your community.

Make sure it's all branded exactly how you want it to look and you've checked how it looks on web and mobile.

Test, test, test! Test everything in advance before putting things live. View everything from the eyes of a community member who will be completely new to your space. Is it easy to navigate? Are things clear? Doing this before releasing it into the world, will help you to avoid any teething problems. Once you're all set, you're ready to launch!

5. Promote your online community

Once your community is all ready to go and you've put it live, it's time to get the word out and drive people to your online community. Promoting it to your database, putting a banner on your website, sharing it on your existing social media channels, and partnering up with influencers are just a few ways that you can encourage people to join your new space.