Online Communities vs. Forums vs. Knowledge Bases: What’s the Difference?

Kirstie Macfarlane
Kirstie Macfarlane HLV Staff
edited October 2023 in Talk Community #1

In the digital age, our ability to connect with others and access information has been revolutionized by the increase in platforms and software designed to foster engagement. It’s not uncommon to see the term “online community” applied to various similar, but still very distinguishable technology solutions, including forums, knowledge bases, social media groups, and even listservs. 

This leads to some confusion about what an online community is and what it isn’t. So, as you explore member or customer engagement options, it can be hard to know which solution is the best fit for your needs. 

Knowing more about the functionality of online communities, forums, knowledge bases, social media groups, and listservs can help you make the best platform selection for your organization.  

Let’s explore the features of each… 


Online Community


Social Media Group

Knowledge Base


Real-time online discussion forums/threads allowing for peer-to-peer connection

One-to-many communication

Blog functionality

Searchable resource/

information storage

Automation tools that help drive engagement

Personalization tools that help create targeted member experiences

Gamification tools that enable you to reward engagement

Ability to moderate discussions and/or content

Forums vs. Online Communities

Forums, also known as discussion boards, are one of the oldest and most traditional tools for online community-building. They typically revolve around specific topics or interests and allow users to post messages, ask questions, and engage in discussions. 

The pros: Both forum software and online community platforms offer a structured environment for discussion. They both allow members or customers to share expertise, ask or answer questions, voice concerns, and get peer-to-peer support. Both also typically allow the option to post and participate anonymously. 

The limitations: Forum software really only has that discussion forum feature, while online communities have a host of other features like blogs, resource libraries or knowledge bases, and numerous ways to keep customers or members engaged. Forums may also lack real-time interaction – they’re typically asynchronous, which means responses may not be immediate. Additionally, they have limited ability to support rich media like images or videos. 

Though forum software may be simpler than an online community platform – which sometimes allows for shorter implementation times or a cheaper price tag – it lacks the all-in-one value and time-saving capacity of a true online community.

Social Media vs. Online Communities

As we’ve explored before, social media platforms – including Facebook, LinkedIn, and X (the app formerly known as Twitter) offer a low-barrier way to connect people with similar interests or who might be in the same industry.  

The pros: It’s free. If your audience is already there, then they’re already familiar with how the platform works and they’re likely already logging in regularly. Social media groups offer immediate engagement and notifications for new posts or comments. Users can easily share images, videos, links, and other types of media to enhance discussions. 

The limitations: When you host your community on a third-party social media site, you don’t have the ability to effectively monitor or moderate the content. The content that gets seen is often influenced by platform algorithms, which may prioritize popular or controversial posts over valuable, but less attention-grabbing content. And some users may be reluctant to participate in public social media groups due to privacy issues. 

By contrast, creating a dedicated online community allows you to cultivate the community you want. It is hosted and led by your brand, and you’re able to set guidelines, monitor activity, and foster the engagement you want. Your community users know they’re connecting with a group of their peers, rather than having a discussion that anyone on the internet can read or join. And if someone posts a question or complaint about your organization in your community, it’s in your community where you can respond as opposed to being in a public forum. 

You also own the data generated by the community and can use it to learn more about your community users as well as personalize their experience.  

Knowledge Bases vs. Online Communities

Knowledge base software collects resources and information in one place to make it easily accessible and searchable. Many knowledge bases have strict quality standards and are continuously updated and reviewed. 

The pros: Knowledge bases allow organizations to collect and organize resources and information in one searchable location. 

The limitations: Standalone knowledge bases have become a limited and outdated option in the face of online community software that includes knowledge bases or resource/file libraries that serve essentially the same function.   

Standalone knowledge bases offer little to none of the interaction or social element you gain within an online community. The information is there, but users must find and interpret it on their own. Online Communities, meanwhile, provide more robust information resources, allowing users to browse files, videos, and blogs, then interpret them with other community members or experts from your company through two-way conversations. Discussion forums, Q&As, and comments in an online community often make it easier for users to understand information, instead of just consuming it. And you can even invite online community members to contribute to the resource library in your community. 

Listservs vs. Online Communities

Listservs are email-based communities where members subscribe to receive messages related to a specific topic. When someone sends an email to the list, it gets distributed to all subscribers. While historically significant in facilitating online communication, listservs are considered outdated in the modern digital landscape. 

The pros: There aren’t many reasons to create a new listserv when you have the option to use more modern options, but for some organizations that already use one, your members may be familiar with it.  

The limitations: Listervs facilitate asynchronous communication, meaning messages are not necessarily delivered or responded to in real-time. Though the listserv owner has control over membership, subscription settings, and content moderation, members don’t have much control over what they do and don’t receive. 

They can lead to email overload, and they lack the multifaceted features and functionality that contemporary online community platforms offer. Online communities provide a superior experience by offering real-time interactions, multimedia support, structured discussions, user profiles, networking opportunities, and advanced moderation tools. They support various forms of communication – including discussion boards, forums, chat rooms, private messaging, and notifications – and users can still subscribe to receive email digests on their chosen topics and frequency. 

Creating Online Engagement

Modern online community software, like Higher Logic Thrive (built for Associations) or Higher Logic Vanilla (built for corporations), have grown to encompass many of the capabilities and functions that organizations formerly pulled together with separate forum, knowledge base, and listserv tools. And they offer a lot more control and time-saving features than social media groups.  

In essence, they have everything you need all rolled into one. Members of online communities have a single space where they can join in discussions and access information, while also receiving added value from peers and experts and creating their own content. 

The difference may be even more pronounced within your organization. Online community platforms can integrate with other departments and systems in your company to work in tandem with AMS or CRM software, marketing platforms, event platforms, or support and self-service tools for customers. These integrations can help you effectively market to prospective members and customers as well as improve engagement, advocacy, and retention efforts.  

An online community doesn’t solve just one problem, it adds value and offers a solution to many organizational needs as well as customer or member challenges.

This post was originally published in 2016 but has been revised and updated from its previous edition to ensure accuracy and relevance.