The 7 Best Online Community Platforms in 2021 (Includes Free Options) - Sell Courses Online

The 7 Best Online Community Platforms in 2021 (Includes Free Options)

Best Online Community Platforms

Online communities are hot right now and the demand for them is only going to get bigger as more and more people look to join communities in order to tackle the challenges of “digital isolation”.

For creators and entrepreneurs, they can be a great way to reach a new audience, improve customer loyalty, reduce customer churn, gather user feedback, provide customer support, etc.

Now, here’s the thing. In order to build a community, you’ll need what is called an online community platform.

There are numerous software solutions available in the market that fall into this category and each one has something unique to offer which can make it difficult for you to make a decision.

In this guide, I will share some of the best online community platforms that exist in 2021, the key features they offer, their strengths and drawbacks, and I’ll also share some quick tips to help you pick the right one for your business.

Let’s begin by discussing the key things you need to look at in an online community software before we explore each of the platforms individually.

(If you would like to go straight to the platforms’ section, you can use this table of content.)

How to Select the Best Online Community Platform

In order to choose the right platform, you’ll need to understand what an online community software is supposed to do and then you’ll need to be clear about your requirements.

The first thing you should know is that online community platforms are very different from traditional forum software.

While forum software mainly offer a discussion board for your members, community platforms generally offer a range of features for member engagement.

Some of these features are must-have — ability to create engaging posts, set up Events,  community organization tools, member directory, rich member profiles, personalized activity feed, member notifications, ability to create sub-groups, SEO compatibility, etc.

Moreover, you should select a platform that either has a native live streaming functionality or integrates with a solution like Zoom. Live videos are excellent for connecting with your members and boosting engagement.

Another feature that I believe is almost a non-negotiable is mobile apps since more and more users are now using mobile phones to access social networks.

Mobile-Only Social Media Users
Source: Statista

Plus native apps make it easy for your users to access your community on the go and they can be the difference between someone visiting your community once and never returning vs someone participating actively.

Beyond this, there are other features which may or may not be important for you depending on what type of online community you want to build and what is your end goal.

For example, if you want to sell access to your community or create a membership site, you’ll need monetization tools like payment processing, checkout pages, etc.

Similarly, you may want your platform to support gamification features which include the ability to reward your members with badges/points/freebies based on their activity in the community.

Another such feature is single sign-on (SSO) functionality. For example, if you have your online course on a different platform, you would want your community platform to integrate with your online course software.

Finally, you need to take into account your budget and the cost of the platform. Some platforms in this list work on the freemium model or are completely free to use and you may want to consider them if you’re on a tight budget.

Now, let’s explore the 7 best online community platforms out there.

1. Facebook Groups

Facebook Groups are one of the most popular options for building an online community and are a default choice for a lot of people.

With over 2.6 billion monthly active users, Facebook is the biggest social media platform. So you get access to a large audience and it’s much easier to drive engagement as well.

With Facebook Groups, you get a lot of useful community features. So you can create engaging posts with text, images, videos and polls, create scheduled “Events”, organize your content with “Topics” and “Units”, etc.

It also offers integrated Facebook Live functionality, so you can do live streams easily. Plus you can create “Rooms” inside your Facebook Group and do live video chats with upto 50 people.

Moreover, your members can access the group and engage with the content as well as other members through both the web as well as mobile apps.

Create a FB Group

However, Facebook Groups have several drawbacks which can be a deal-breaker in a lot of scenarios.

The biggest drawback is that you or your members don’t have much control over the notifications they receive.

It’s the FB algorithm that decides who will receive what notifications and you don’t have a sure shot way to notify your members about an important update.

Another major issue is that an average user gets a lot of noise on Facebook in the form of polarized debates, advertisements, messages, and notifications from friends, etc. which makes it a distraction machine.

Moreover, you don’t have a way to charge for access to your FB Group and you can’t even integrate with third-party checkout platforms like ThriveCart.

Finally, you need to keep in mind that you don’t own the community (or the audience). So a tweak or update in its algorithm can plummet your community’s engagement and reach almost instantly.

Having said that, Facebook Groups continue to remain a popular choice for hosting online communities and its best use case is when you want to tap into the huge audience base of Facebook.

2. Mighty Networks

Mighty Networks is the most popular hosted community platform that allows you to create an online community on your own website.

Unlike Facebook Groups, you have complete control over what your members see and it’s you who own the members’ data.

When it comes to community design and engagement, Mighty Networks has a lot to offer. It allows you to create ‘Quick Posts’, polls & quizzes as well as fully-fledged articles.

You also have the ‘Events’ feature which lets you create a one-time event or a recurring event. While there is no native support for live streaming, there is a direct Zoom integration which works very well.

In addition, it supports other important community features like personalized activity feed, member directory, ability to create sub-groups, manage notifications, etc.

What is Mighty Networks?

From an end-user point of view, the platform is pretty intuitive to use. There may be a slight learning curve for some users but as they use the platform, they’ll get the knack of it.

What takes the end-user experience to the next level is the fact that your members can access your community through Mighty Networks’ free iOS/Android mobile app. If you want, you can also get a custom, white-label app created for your brand.

Now, Mighty Networks is more than just a community builder. It lets you create and deliver online courses inside your community as well.

Moreover, It offers some handy monetization tools, so you can charge for access to your community and courses.

As far as pricing is concerned, Mighty Networks allows you to get started for free (+5% transaction fee). The next tier is the Community Plan ($28/month + 3% transaction fee) in order to get these features.

The highest tier is called the Business plan ($98/month + 2% transaction fee). It supports Zapier integration, allows you to create online courses and offers premiumium analytics.

Mighty Networks Pricing

Overall, Mighty Networks is one of the best online community platforms for creators. It will be an ideal option for you if you’re looking to bring your community, courses and memberships, everything in one place.

If you would like to explore the platform in more detail, you should check this in-depth Mighty Networks Review guide.

3. Circle

Circle is a branded community platform that is focused solely on the community building side of things. Unlike Mighty Networks, it doesn’t offer inbuilt monetization tools or the ability to create online courses.

Having said that, the platform takes care of all the important things for community design and engagement like creating discussions, content organization, community moderation, member connections, private messaging, and much more.

You can also create private Spaces inside your community and make sure only specific people have access to the discussions within a Space.

Another useful feature that Circle offers is the ability to embed a widget, a particular Space or the entire community on your main website which is awesome.

What is Circle

The most attractive aspect of Circle, though, is its clean and modern design. The platform has a simple and intuitive user interface which makes it easy for your members to find discussions and navigate through your community.

It even has an iOS app which makes it easy for your members to access your community on iPhones. However, it doesn’t have an Android mobile app yet.

Finally, Circle has direct integrations with WordPress as well as popular membership platforms like Memberful and MemberSpace. It even supports custom Single Sign On (SSO) integrations, so your users can login to Circle with their existing logins.

When it comes to pricing, Circle offers affordable pricing options with its Basic Plan costing $39/month, for up to 1,000 active members whereas the professional plan starts at $79/month for up to 10,000 members.

Circle Pricing Plans

While Circle is a relatively new option in the market, it is already being used by some big names in industry. For example, Pat Flynn uses Circle for Smart Passive Income Pro Community and Teachable uses it for their user community.

Overall, Circle is the best standalone community platform and it’s an ideal option if your main goal is to build an engaged community. It will work great for all types of users including course creators, membership site owners, online coaches, SaaS product brands, etc.

4. Tribe

Tribe is very similar to Circle in the sense that it is focused completely on community building features and doesn’t include tools for either course creation or even monetization.

The platform has been in the market for some time now and it is already used by top brands like Decathlon, ASUS, Pipedrive, and ConvertKit.

Tribe enables you to create a fully white-label experience and customize everything from the logo to widgets to colors and domain.

When it comes to content creation, Tribe allows you to write articles, post images, videos, ask questions and submit answers. It also allows you to categorize content and offers seamless discovery through a personalized activity feed.

What I like about Tribe is the fact that it supports native gamification features which includes badges, points, virtual currency and leaderboard system to drive community engagement.

Another thing that I like a lot is the fact that Tribe has a library of apps and integrations which can be used to extend the functionality of your community.

For example, it has a SSO app which can be used to integrate with other platforms like WordPress and allow your users to use their existing credentials.

What is Tribe Platform

Having said that, there are a couple of important features missing from the platform as well. The first one is the lack of native live stream functionality or even integration with live streaming solutions like Zoom.

Another issue is that Tribe doesn’t offer any mobile apps functionality. While your members will still be able to access your community through mobile browsers, the experience isn’t as good.

As far as pricing is concerned, Tribe has a Free plan which gives you access to all the essential features including the ability to use a custom domain. The Free plan does limit your community to up to 500 members but it’s still very generous compared to other platforms.

Beyond this, you’ll have to upgrade your pricing package to either their Plus plan priced at $85/month or Premium Plan priced at $249/month. Both these plans give you unlimited members.

Tribe Platform Pricing

Overall, Tribe is a decent online community software and it will be the best option if you’re looking for a free platform to launch your community on.

5. Disciple

Disciple is another popular platform that allows you to create a fully-branded community where you have complete ownership and control.

Setting up your online community on Disciple is pretty easy and quick and all the platform’s functionality just works great out of the box.

Like the other top options in this list, Disciple allows you to post/schedule all types of content, create sub-groups, moderate your community as well as track important metrics.

One feature that sets Disciple apart from others on this list is the native live stream functionality which allows you to go live in your community without requiring to use a third-party solution like Zoom.

What is Disciple

By default, your members can access your community on the web but you can also get branded iOS/Android mobile apps for your community.

Your members get their own personalized community feed, they can create new discussions or engage with existing ones plus they search for and connect with other members.

Finally, Disciple has some handy monetization tools which allow you to create subscriptions and charge for access to either the whole community or just specific areas inside it.

When it comes to pricing, Disciple has two pricing plans. The lower tier is the Web Plan which costs $55 per month while the Mobile App Plan costs $389/month.

Disciple Pricing

The main difference between the two plans is that two of the most important features — mobile apps and live streaming are only available on the higher tier. This makes Disciple one of the more expensive options out there.

Overall, Disciple is the most complete branded community platform out there and if you’re an established creator or a business owner who doesn’t mind paying the premium price, it should work great for you.

6. Hivebrite

Hivebrite is a specialized online community platform built from the ground up to help organizations build their alumni networks, volunteer portals, or other professional networks.

The platform offers all the important features you’ll need — create, update and moderate content, create events and sell tickets, send notifications via email as well as push notifications, create smaller groups inside your network, mobile access for members, etc.

You also get the necessary monetization tools which include the ability to create membership tiers, charge subscriptions as well as accept donations.

What is Hivebrite

In addition, Hivebrite has a few unique features which make it ideal for running professional networks.

The first one is the ability to create a job board where people can post job opportunities, interested users can upload their resume and can get contacted by others.

Another useful feature is the ability for members to showcase their startups and projects and get help from the community to find investors, co-founders, or even employees.

Overall, Hivebrite is ideal for educational institutions or corporations wanting to build an alumni network, nonprofits looking to build volunteer/donor networks and for that matter, any organization looking to build a professional network.

7. BuddyBoss

BuddyBoss is quite different from the rest of the options in this list as it is a WordPress-based community software rather than a hosted platform.

So using BuddyBoss obviously requires you to be more tech-savvy but if that’s not an issue, you can build the most feature-rich and customizable community platform for your business.

To start with, BuddyBoss covers all the essential requirements of an online community software like ability to create posts, social groups, member directory, private/group messaging, send notifications, personalized activity feeds for members, etc.

You can create events inside your community or sub-groups and you can also do live events through the native Zoom integration.

BuddyBoss Community Tool

On top of the essential tools, BuddyBoss offers some advanced features as well.

The first such feature is for gamifying your community and boosting engagement. BuddyBoss makes use of GamiPress, a free plugin to let you award points, ranks, rewards and badges to your members based on their activity in the community.

Similarly, BuddyBoss integrates with LearnDash, the most popular WordPress LMS plugin to enable you to create an online course and share with your community.

Moreover, you can sell access to your community and courses through LearnDash, WooCommerce or popular membership plugins.

Finally, BuddyBoss gives you the option to get your own branded mobile apps for iOS and Android devices. Your members can access your community and courses through the app and it also supports features for push notifications, in-app purchases, etc.

As far as pricing is concerned, BuddyBoss costs $228/year for 1-site license and $288/year for 5-site license. If you want to use their mobile apps feature, you’ll have to pay separately for that.

BuddyBoss Pricing

The biggest advantage of using a WordPress-based community plugin is the extendability of functionality.Even if certain things aren’t supported natively, you can find another plugin or add-on that allows you to add those features.

So if you’re looking for an online community software that gives you unlimited flexibility in terms of functionality and customization options, BuddyBoss will work well for you.

Best Online Community Platforms – Final Verdict

In this article, we’ve discussed some of the best online community platforms out there and I hope you were able to choose the one that’s right for you.

If you’ve not been able to make a decision yet, let me summarize my recommendations here.

If you’re an online creator looking for a platform to not just build an online community but also create online courses and be able to monetize, you should go with Mighty Networks.

On the other hand, if your primary goal is community design and engagement and you don’t need the course creation or monetization tools, you should check out Circle.

You may also go with a WordPress-based community platform like BuddyBoss if you’re already using WordPress for your online course/membership site.

I hope you found this guide useful. Do you have any questions about any of these online community platforms? Which platform do you think will work best for you and why? Please leave a comment below and let me know.

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