When the research project Membership Puzzle Project launched in 2017, it asked supporters of independent news sites about their motivations for contributing. “Being part of something bigger” – that is, a desire for community – was one of the six key motivations for readers to join membership programs.

This piece isn’t exploring the “how to” of community building; the Membership Puzzle Project has done a pretty good job outlining the first steps and methods used by newsrooms all around the world. Rather, let’s compare several platforms you might use for this purpose.

In Slovakia, I host a weekly technology podcast (which was founded in early 2018) for SME.sk which offers listeners a tech news digest with comments from me and my co-host.For the past couple of months and years, I was experimenting with different tools and platforms for community building for our podcast and wanted to share results.

The first platform that we set up for listeners was Facebook Groups, which we have been using for almost five years now. I will get into that a bit later, first let me share some of the less successful ones.

The very unsuccessful experiments

Tribe markets itself as a customizable community platform for businesses. We have tried it more than three years ago, since then the product changed and got more specific.

That community is still online and overrun with bots and spammers now. Although it offered a fairly robust feature set for admins and users with lots of integrations, it was an unknown platform.

Users mostly complained about its main feature, the discussion forum. It was impossible to keep track of new comments and follow topics comprehensively. After a while it just got abandoned by us, the hosts, as the activity was very low.

We ruled out Slack in the beginning, as it was everywhere at the time. We both had several work Slacks, so that would feel like an extra job.

For a while we wanted our developer team to set up a Discourse community which would only let in registered users at SME.sk. As digital subscriptions are a priority within the company, that made sense—getting a reader or podcast listener to register is the next step for them to become a paying supporter.

As this wasn’t a high priority for the publishing house, it took a few months and when we were handed the keys to the finished project we no longer wanted to use Discourse. It wasn’t something we were looking for, it seemed like a platform was for more serious conversation with lots of setting up.

Any idea that seemed to be (and feel) too much extra work was out of the question. We wanted it to be fun and useful for us in the first place because we knew that, without the participation of the hosts, the community would just stop existing or being active. 

For a community, you need a driver. I have been part of many Slack communities, and they usually fell apart once the founder(s) didn’t have time to engage with it.

Facebook Groups: The general choice

In 2017, I helped to launch a daily news podcast in Slovakia which kick-started many others and is credited with the reboot of podcasting in the country. It still remains the most popular and most listened to news podcast and also show in general (according to the latest data, on average an episode in April had over 75,000 plays/downloads, not bad for a tiny country).

One of the first decisions I made back then was to introduce the community to the listeners to give feedback. As it was a fairly new thing and if you ask listeners to send you feedback mail, you will never get so many people involved as if you asked them to comment on a Facebook post.

Facebook was and remains the biggest and most popular social network in the country and the company was hyping the groups feature at the time, so it was logical to set up a Facebook group for podcast listeners.

Now, it wasn’t just for the tech podcast I co-host, but for the whole podcast network of SME.sk. The immediate choice was to keep the group closed and have a screening process in place. Over the years, trolls still managed to get through, but were quickly flagged by other members before they could do much harm.

Even after almost five years, the group remains active with daily conversation about podcasting. It serves all the podcasts in the network, as many share the same listeners.

Despite Facebook Groups as the product having many features, text discussion remains the only one used (besides of course the blocking features used by admins).

In general, it’s a good community, although some of our journalists and podcasts hosts quite publicly left Facebook because of too much toxicity, so this is one of the downsides.

The good:

  • Everyone is on Facebook
  • Groups offer easy to understand moderation tools and admin settings
  • I would still recommend starting here if you are not sure whether a community is for you or not

The bad:

  • Everyone is on Facebook (also the trolls and spammers)
  • Facebook is increasingly considered a toxic place
  • Groups stopped evolving significantly

Discord: Great, but not for everyone

The listeners of our tech podcast demanded over the years a community of their own. The shared Facebook group with the whole network wasn’t suitable for them. We only posted about the podcast once a week when a new episode came out, and it was the only time they could interact with our content within the group.

After the few unsuccessful experiments, we were uncertain whether we could sustain an independent community.

Meanwhile, younger colleagues of ours launched a Discord server for their super popular satiric comedy news podcast. It quickly gained hundreds of users, including me. The next step was setting up our own.

I am not a gamer and Discord was primarily developed for gamers to communicate while playing, but more and more it is becoming a go-to place for community building of all kinds.

Recently, Pitchfork profiled Discord and how artists and fans connect. Many Substack writers have set up exclusive Discord servers for their paying subscribers, which is also beloved by YouTubers.

Setting up a Discord is easy. I have done it. It takes a few seconds. What is a bit tricky is how you design your server. At first, it feels like a Slack, where you just create a bunch of channels and let them be populated with content by users.

Discord has an overwhelming amount of settings and features; some of them you will never use, some you will block and others you want to tweak.

We were lucky to have an active Discord community within our network to copy some stuff from. We also had some listeners who knew Discord better than we did and could develop useful bots.

I invited a few of these users who offered help to become the “brain trust” of the server. They contributed with ideas and know-how, though I still spent hours reading Discord guides.

The result was a structured server for all kinds of discussions ranging from feedback on the current podcast episode to #tech_support room, #black_friday for discounts on tech products and #smart_home, which was a room users created because the topic was in high demand and needed its own channel.

We are really happy with Discord. There we have hundreds of our podcast listeners and if there are busy days for us hosts, there is always conversation going on. We set strict rules, and the discussions are overwhelmingly polite and thoughtful. I’m not sure whether it’s because of Discord or the people or the combination of that, but it is nice to be able to create your own nice corner of the internet.

The good:

  • Discord is becoming very popular
  • Offers a lot of settings, you can create useful bots
  • Has audio and video streaming capabilities

The bad:

  • Too many settings, and you will probably need to study some guides (it’s worth it)
  • With popularity come the scams
  • Might be too difficult for some users to start using it

Twitter Communities: Unfinished

My thinking regarding community building has always been to be where the most of your audience is. 

Twitter is very small in Slovakia, but you know most tech folks will be there. That’s why as soon as Twitter Communities rolled out globally, I didn’t hesitate and set up a community for our tech podcast.

The community on Twitter quickly gained hundreds of followers (me and my co-host regularly promote all these communities on the podcast).

But it suffers from how communities are built in to Twitter, or rather how unfinished the product is. There is no way to set up notifications for new Tweets in the community; on the other hand, both Facebook and Discord have quite nice notification settings.

Also, you cannot use polls, and some other features are also restricted. I welcome that Twitter has been shipping more products recently, but unlike the quick iterations and upgrades being done for Twitter Spaces, Communities seem to have stopped developing. 

I get it from the ROI point of view, probably more people are using and engaging with Spaces. But it is hard for a new feature to stand out if it was designed to not deliver too much engagement.

Anyway, we see our Twitter community members are happy to hear from us and even though it is the least active community, we are keeping it alive in case Twitter decides to make it better.

The good:

  • A semi-private space on Twitter

The bad:

  • Underdeveloped, lacks basic features
  • The overall value proposition is underwhelming and you end up resharing your public tweets in the community

Why not Reddit? Exclusive communities (for paying subscribers or members)

One of the other platforms we thought about using was Reddit. There are successful examples of YouTubers and podcasters using it for community building.

But we decided not to use it; when we polled our audience through our newsletter (yes, our podcast also has its own newsletter), Reddit was one of the least popular.

Communities are great for reader/listener revenue first publishers and creators, as research from the Membership Puzzle Project mentioned in the beginning showed.

Maybe don’t go and set up a lot of communities as I did (of course, if you like to experiment, go ahead), and focus on one, but first, find out which one is best for your audience.