Online Communities, Forums, and Knowledge Bases, Oh My!

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    Gone are the days of overflowing file cabinets, cluttered email inboxes, and fleeting word of mouth. In this day and age, it is imperative that your organization utilize the right technology to keep your customers and customer support teams connected, engaged, and informed, or you’ll find yourself falling behind your competitors, and fast.

    A variety of different technology options exist to keep your customers in the loop: online communities, forums, knowledge bases, knowledge sharing software, potato, potahto… well not quite. Buzzword culture, blogs, and advertisements might lead you to believe that these technologies are interchangeable, but this not the case. Online communities, forums, and knowledge bases serve very different purposes, and making the right decision for your business and customers requires careful thought and research.

    Before making a decision, it’s important to know all of your options. What exactly distinguishes an online community from a forum, a forum from a knowledge base, and so on? Let’s compare.


    Forum software is, quite simply, a platform for online discussion. Forums allow customers, employees, and members of the industry and community to come together to answer FAQs (or more complex questions), brainstorm, exchange best practices, and gain support from peers.

    Forum software is a much simpler option than a knowledge base or online communities, and it wears exactly one hat: a discussion board. If you’re working on a budget, and you don’t require additional features, a forum might be your best bet for a collaboration tool. If you’re in a time a crunch, forums tend to have a very short implementation period.

    Online Communities

    Online communities take platforms for online discussion a step (or a few) further with additional features and capabilities. Online communities encompass the discussion board quality of forums with the addition of knowledge resources including libraries, repositories, blogs, opportunities for documentation, guidebooks, and workflows.

    The addition of these features facilitates more complex discussions and a deeper understanding of relevant material within the forum, as users are capable of linking to resources, viewing those resources, and discussing them all in the same platform.

    Knowledge Bases

    Knowledge Bases, in a way, take the opposite tact of communities and forums and put knowledge at the center of their purpose. They allow you to build a database of FAQs and text entries, that can be used to enable self-service support for your customers. However, knowledge bases often have restricted permissions, where only certain users can contribute information. They also rely on structured data, making search, and finding things difficult.

    Knowledge Sharing Platforms

    You guessed it. Knowledge sharing platforms go beyond the capabilities of online communities with even more opportunities to facilitate collaboration, discussion, and the sharing of information. With a top-quality knowledge sharing platform, you can achieve all of the following:

    • Share information. Knowledge sharing platform often support a wider variety of media; meaning, you are not limited to written text when spreading company knowledge. Upload videos, infographics, reports, audio clips, and more to effectively communicate across your organization.
    • Peer to peer learning. Knowledge sharing platforms go beyond one-on-one discussion boards. They allow users to identify experts, ask and answer questions, tag others in comments and relevant posts, and comment directly on posts so that everyone benefits from the information gained in the discussion, not just those who are primarily engaged in it.
    • Global search. Search, search, search. We can’t say it enough. Knowledge sharing platforms have powerful global search that will save your employees hours upon hours of time looking for the information they need to do their jobs. Period.
    • Authority of authorship. Of course, you want everyone in your organization actively involved in collaboration and discussion. But you want all information in your knowledge base to be accurate and up to date. Knowledge sharing platforms give leaders the ability to approve content, grant experts the authority to answer questions, and so on.

    If you’re looking for a comprehensive tool to facilitate the sharing of accurate and relevant information and media facilitate discussions, and empower customers , a knowledge sharing platform might be the tool for you.

    Each of these three technologies has their own unique advantages. To choose the platform that is right for your organization, ask yourself what gaps are you trying to fill. Are you simply seeking a chatroom for your customers to bounce ideas off of each other? Are you looking for a space to store documents and discuss them amongst each other? Are you looking for a comprehensive tool to share and search multiple forms of media and collaborate cross-organizationally? The answers to these questions, along with your budget and time constraints, will lead you to the right decision. Happy collaborating!

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