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

Community Strategy // There are different ways to define online communities. Get the inside scoop on the differences and the advantages.

Julie Dietz
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What’s in a name? When it comes to defining online communities and other customer engagement platforms, it turns out the answer is, actually, quite a lot.

It’s not uncommon to see the term online community used almost interchangeably with other similar, but still very distinguishable platforms or software, such as forums, portals, or knowledge bases. This has led to some confusion about what an online community is, as well as what it isn’t.

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 portals 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.

Online communities 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 understand information, instead of just consume it.

Defining Online Communities Takeaway

Each platform has its advantages, but online communities have the capabilities of forums, portals, and knowledge bases all rolled into one. The major difference for members of online communities is that they 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.

For your organization, the difference may be even greater. Online community platforms can integrate with other departments and systems in your company to work in tandem with CRM software, marketing platforms, or support and self-service tools for customers. These integrations can help you effectively market to prospective customers as well as improve current customer sales, retention, satisfaction and engagement.

An online community doesn’t solve just one problem, it adds value and is a solution to several business and customer challenges.


Julie Dietz

Content Manager & Strategist, Epic Notion

Julie is a Content Manager & Strategist at Epic Notion. In her past life, she worked her way through Europe and Asia as a freelance writer, editor and English teacher for local and international businesses.

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