While communities, forums, and portals each have their own purposes and merits, knowing the difference between them can help your organization make the best choice for its business needs. You may think you want a forum, but what you're really looking for is a full online community platform and vice versa.
So, let's set the record straight: what's the difference between an online community and a forum? An online community and a portal? An online community and a knowledge base?
Online Community vs. Forum
Both forum software and online community platforms offer online discussion forums, which provide a place for customers and members to come together, ask or answer questions, voice concerns, and get peer-to-peer support.
However, the bulk of the similarities stop there. The only feature of forum software is discussion forums, while online communities have a host of other features like blogs, resources libraries, and numerous other ways to keep your customers engaged and offer them added value. While online communities tend to be the all-in-one option for customer engagement, forum software only offers the single option of discussion boards (which is sometimes enough).
Though forum software is simpler than an online community platform, it does tend to have a shorter implementation time. Due to this, budgetary restrictions and time constraints may make forum software appealing to organizations that don't need additional features and capabilities.
Online Community vs. Portal
You've probably heard the term online community portal applied to online communities in general. That's because portal often takes on more of a catch-all role for an online interaction space. However, a portal in the traditional sense is quite different from the online communities we have today.
In many ways, portals were early versions of online communities just with more limitations. For instance, a traditional business portal is generally one-size-fits-all, while an online community has the ability to create a more personalized experience for members.
Portals are also designed to have a top-down communication structure with most of the knowledge exchange coming from communication teams and formal experts. In contrast, online communities bring together many different voices including customers, experts, and advocates.
However, portals are still evolving and new community portals or community engagement portalsâ€ fix many of these communication limitations. They often include a peer-to-peer aspect, as well as other tools and resources that you would find in a one-stop-shop for customers. These new options blur distinction between portals and online communities, so when you're comparing choices, focus on the capabilities of each platform, rather than getting caught up in terminology.
Online Community vs. Knowledge Base
Perhaps the most easily distinguishable on this list, online communities and knowledge bases have the least in common because knowledge bases don't typically have a peer-to-peer discussion element. Instead, knowledge base software collects a wealth of information all in one place so it is easily accessible and searchable.
A knowledge base is similar to a resource or file library within an online community, meaning that it's essential function is often included within an online community. Standalone knowledge bases are more limited with little to no interaction or social element. The information is there for the taking, but users must find and interpret it on their own.