“Chat app or community software?” — this is a raging debate that community builders are grappling with. Just have a look at the following thread on IndieHackers:
Similar to this, countless articles and forum threads discuss different facets of building an online community using chat app or community software. Nevertheless, as the community market grows, both forms of communication and collaboration tools can be used for collecting and engaging people. However, can you build a community using a chat app like Slack?
In this post, we’re going to explore and help community builders select the right solution.
Comparing chat app and community software
In the present day, community builders starting from scratch often look into communication tools such as Slack or Discord to build communities. Once the community grows to a larger size, these communication tools won’t be able to support the members and help deliver the right experience based on the member lifecycle.
In this post, I will cover some of the core factors and selection criteria you need to consider when comparing chat apps and community software.
Synchronous vs asynchronous
This difference is ingrained in the very basic philosophy of both of the apps. Chat apps offer synchronous or real-time communication, which means all the members need to exchange messages in real-time. This also means conversations in a chat app swiftly change based on the thoughts or needs of the members.
Forums powered by community software are primarily asynchronous, all the members need not remain logged at the same time and they can take some time to collect their thoughts for discussion. However, the real-time messaging feature is increasingly offered by community solutions as well to cater to certain discussions that involve sensitive information.
Members of a community should be able to log in after a week a discussion has started and still have access to all the information in a structured manner.
Every community software offers a robust tool to organize content generated in the community. You can create topics or subforums inside a community and each of those topics would have a specific post where all the discussion would happen. Neat, right?
However, in modern chats, all you can do is create channels and there would be endless messages with crisscross communication. When a member wants to look into a specific post, it is would be difficult to get all the information.
Passivity and longevity
Community software ensures the longevity of the content. Since the threads or posts created in a community get crawled by search engines and the content is easier to discover from the search, with time members would be updating and sharing their knowledge for years. When a thread is completely outdated community admins can close the discussion, but the content will remain accessible.
For example, there are some decade-old threads on forums such as Stack Overflow and Tom’s Guide that are useful in 2020 as well.
In the case of the chat app, all the back and forth communication is lost with time. Chat apps only reward instant and live communication. So, when you are building a community ensure that the knowledge generated by your members remains useful to the members for a long time.
Due to the fleeting nature of chat apps, it becomes harder to moderate chat rooms. Chat apps sometimes offer filters to block certain terms but the moderators can’t examine each message without impacting the flow of conversation.
In the case of community software, a community builder can highlight elaborate community guidelines and have all the moderation tools to edit, merge, and archive content. The members are also empowered to report spammers and toxic content. In fact, with a community solution like Tribe, community admins can configure rules around reputation score and content contribution. For example, you can set rules so that members with at least a 50 reputation score can post content.
Brand visibility from SEO
If you are building a community that is public-facing and you believe at least certain segments of content would be useful for others, you must avoid chat apps. Chat apps keep your content locked and search engines don’t have any access.
When your content has a public appeal create a community using community software. If certain segments of the community should be private, leverage a solution that supports a hybrid structure. For example, with Tribe, you can build a completely public community, private community, or a mix of both.
When your content gets indexed by search engines, your community visibility increases. This in turn helps you scale your member acquisition via an organic channel.
Here is an example:
As you can see, the community content is given first priority for certain search queries.
Scalability in terms of pricing
Often pricing of a chat app is based on per member which can be prohibitive when it comes to scaling the community size. For example, in the case of Slack, the paid plan starts from $6.67 per member per month. So, a community with 500 members would be paying more than $3000 per month if they want to access all of the messages (not just the last 10k messages).
However, community software is generally priced based on one or a combination of the following:
- number of pageviews
- registered or active members (measured in units of thousands)
This ensures that the cost of running a community does not increase exorbitantly.
Where chat apps shine
Essentially chat apps are an alternative to emails. It can work really well in a company setting for internal communications and collaborations. Slack definitely does an amazing job of centralizing all the business messages in one place.
For example, it’s useful when the team members know each other and are aware of who to message when they want to get feedback or share something.
Given below are some of the benefits of chat apps:
- Reduced number of email exchanges
- Transparency in communication and faster collaboration via group discussion
- Ability to get a quick response to critical and time-sensitive questions
- Keep all the incoming messages in one place
- Ability to store internal files and share easily with members
Chat app vs. community software
Chat apps are effective for short, time-sensitive communication. “When is the all-hands meeting?” “Where do I access x?” or “Have you seen this YouTube video on product management?” need a short and faster response. They can also act as a medium for water cooler talk so members can socialize via non-work related conversations.
In contrast, community software is specially designed for robust communication and collaboration to store valuable knowledge over a longer time frame. Members can have detailed discussions on various subjects and categorize them efficiently so they can come back to the content for easy access. Members can also connect with members by following each other which is important for networking.
The core design idea of community software allows members to not only contribute content and make it accessible over a long time, but it also helps build powerful member networks.