As online communities grow globally, community platforms like Slack and Discourse play a critical role in managing and improving the overall community experience. These tools not only help members engage and collaborate, but also help community managers understand the needs of their community. There are so many great tools available that many community leaders struggle to select the right tool or tools to use or don’t even know where to start.
Recently, we were faced with this exact dilemma when we evaluated several of the most popular community tools for the CyberArk Commons community. Eventually came down to a choice between Slack and Discourse. In the end, we decided to migrate from Slack to Discourse, but that won’t be the right decision for every community.
In this blog I will walk you through our decision-making process, the differences between the tools, our selection criteria and why we decided on Discourse, so that other community leaders and curious members can learn from our real-world experience and decide which tool is right for them.
What is a community?
“When a rock concert ends the show is over. Communities are different. They provide a place where people can get together to repeatedly engage and possibly collaborate with each other. This forms a connective tissue between those people and the boarder community.”
Jono Bacon, People Powered: How Communities Can Supercharge Your Business, Brand, and Teams
Tools like Slack and Discourse form the “connective tissue” of communities online. These tools are not only essential for communication and collaboration between members, but they also play a critical role in managing the community.
The core functions community members look for in these tools are ways to send messages and ways to find information, i.e. past questions and messages. There are also some fun things like emojis, badges and gamification that enhance overall their experience.
Community managers, on the other hand, need a way to administrate the community, add and delete members and moderate conversations. Community metrics are also an essential aspect of community management, since they are necessary for analyzing community trends, performance and health. Metrics and analysis are often invisible to community members and overlooked by new community managers, but they are extremely important. A community platform might look great on the surface, or at least functional, but still be a nightmare to manage, thus limiting community growth and utility in subtle ways.
There are a lot of factors to consider and tools to pick from, but here are some considerations to guide your selection process.
Community Platform Criteria
When evaluating community tools, we wanted to make sure conversations were open, public and Google indexed. These qualities allow for the maximum exposure of conversations, making it easier for other members to access and find the information they are looking for. As mentioned above, metrics and analysis are also essential to good community management, so we wanted to make sure that we had a way to analyze community trends and performance with metrics like visits, signups, searches and participation.
• Open and public discussions that are google indexed
• Solid metrics and analysis for metrics like visits and member searches.
The Two Types of Community Platforms
Online community platforms fall into one of two categories, forum or chat. Forums (i.e. Google Groups and Discourse) are geared more towards accuracy while chats (i.e. Slack, IRC, and Freenode) are more about speed. If a community is simply about hanging out here and now, then a chat makes more sense.
If a community is about seeking information, then a forum makes sense, since it is easier to find and comment on previous topics in a forum. Deciding which category is right for your community depends on your objectives and priorities. This was one of the key decisions we had to make.
But, why not use both? We decided against using more than one community tool so that we could focus conversations in one central place, thus avoiding complicated explanations of why this conversation belongs on tool X while this other one belongs on tool Y. If we tried to have both a chat and a forum, then we would have discussions meant for one in the other and vice versa.
In addition, we would need to moderate both platforms and continually remind people how to use them. At one point we had a chat and a forum active at the same time and this is exactly what happened. My rule of thumb is that if it can’t be easily explained or isn’t intuitive to members, then it’s a problem.
Introducing the Community Platforms
There are a lot of tools to pick from but, the Slack and Discourse are the most common tools for community discussion (other than GitHub for technical issues.)
Slack is a chat-based tool that bills itself as a replacement for company email. It’s great for instant communication across a controlled invite-only audience. While Slack is an invite-only community, many open communities get around this drawback by creating an application that auto invites anyone who requests access.
Slack typically runs in an application, but there is also a seldom used browser version. Slack conversations are only visible to members and are not indexed by google. Each Slack community runs in a “workspace” within the Slack application and each workspace consists of several “channels” for organizing conversations.
Slack is free, but has limited support for searching past messages (less than 10k of past messages are searchable) and limited analytics. The paid version is priced by each monthly active user. This can become extremely pricey if you have a lot of users. And, if you are not sure how to calculate this number on your own, don’t worry; you are not the only one.
We used Slack for years and still do internally, but for community management we found it lacking when it comes to analytics, finding information and Google indexing. Slack is excellent for instant chats and conversations, but not great for long-lived conversations that may need to be referred at a later point.
As with other chat platforms, content is meant to be ephemeral. So instant and imperfect responses from whomever is around at the time are preferred; better responses days later are less valuable and forget about responding next week.
For our purposes, this was not a good solution for supporting community members and answering questions. We often ended up answering the same questions multiple times because information was hard to find and reference.
Discourse is an open source forum-based platform. Similar to other forum platforms, Discourse is great for public conversations that are indexed by Google. Community managers can control how users are invited and what information is public, but it is possible for users who are not members to view conversations (passive viewing).
Discourse is a modern take on the old school forum with its robust analytics, gamification and member trust levels. There is almost unlimited potential to customize the look and feel of your forum with Discourse. Conversations are organized based on categories, subcategories, and topics (questions) with the ability to tag conversations.
While Discourse is public and open by default, you can protect select conversations based on member trust level or only make them available to specific members. This allows you to use Discourse for public and private communication. Discourse is completely open source and free if you decide to host it yourself, but many people use the paid hosted version, which starts at a flat rate of $100 a month.
One of primary issues community members had with our Slack community was having to answer the same question multiple times or not being able to find previous questions or respond to old topics. Discourse addresses this problem and enables us to reference previous topics and answers. For community management, Discourse offers superior metrics for gauging adoption and usage. From a budget standpoint, Discourse costs were more predictable and cheaper for the size of our community.
While chats like Slack are viewed as the instant communication tool, this doesn’t mean that Discourse cannot be used for instant communication as well. It can and that is one of the ways we use it. Doing this saves us the headache of managing and moderating multiple platforms.
Based on our platform criteria it became obvious that we needed to move from a chat to a forum-style communication tool. So, we decided on to move our public community from Slack to Discourse. However, when it comes to selecting a community tool. There are no “wrong” answers. What’s important is finding the tool that best fits the needs of your community.
Sometimes this decision is made for you, because you need to use the platform that your members are familiar with or already use. In that case, go where your members are and make the best of it. If you are lucky enough to be able to choose your platform, think about the purpose of your community. Most importantly, is content interesting and relevant days afterwards or time sensitive and ephemeral? This will help you decide on the right tool for the job.
Come and See the Finished Product
Now that you’ve read a whole blog on Discourse and community, come and check out the CyberArk Commons. We are always looking to hear from members, so join the conversation on the CyberArk Commons Community. Secretless Broker, Conjur and other open source projects are all part of the CyberArk Commons Community, an open community dedicated to developers, engineers, cybersecurity researchers and other technically minded people. To discuss Kubernetes, Secretless Broker, Conjur, or CyberArk Threat Research, join me on the CyberArk Commons discussion forum.
John Walsh has served the realm as a lord security developer, product manager and open source community manager for more than 15 years, working on cybersecurity products such as Conjur, LDAP, Firewall, JAVA Cyptography, SSH, and PrivX. He has a wife, two kids, and a small patch of land in the greater Boston area, which makes him ineligible to take the black and join the Knight’s Watch, but he’s still an experienced cybersecurity professional and developer.