Whether you’re a new community manager tasked with standing up an online space for your members, or you’re just not happy with the platform you’ve been using for years and need to find a new one, picking the right software or application for your community is a big deal.
There are a number of different tools available, all with their own features, quirks, and costs, and it can be daunting to get started with your market research, budgeting, and, eventually, implementation. That’s where CSCCE tools trials come in! In 2020 and 2021 they were a semi-regular event as communities necessarily embraced online connection – and now they’re more of a pop-up event as needs arise.
At this month’s community call/tools trial, thanks to a thread that took off in the CSCCE Community of Practice Slack, we took a closer look at Discourse. Discourse is an open-source community discussion platform that can be tailored to meet the needs of a range of communities. A brief tour of the platform by CSCCE’s Maya Sanghvi was followed by two demos from members of the CSCCE Community of practice: Andra Stratton (Program Manager for the Rare as One Network at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) and Isaac Farley (Technical Support Manager at Crossref).
In this blog post, we summarize the key takeaways from the call, and share a range of resources for anyone interested in setting up Discourse for their own community.
Disclaimer: CSCCE is not affiliated with Discourse, and the content of this article is inspired by the contributions and questions of the more than 20 people who attended the call.
Discourse is an open-source community platform that allows members to post and respond to others in threaded discussions. Members can also connect via DM, and earn points and badges by interacting with others. Any Discourse instance can be public or private, or a combination of the two (with some sections “locked” and only accessible to a subset of your membership).
The platform is designed to be everything you need, right “out of the box,” and is very customizable. You can also add plugins and integrations, and Discourse offers support should you need to migrate your community over from a different platform. This customizability is what sets Discourse apart from other forum-like tools (e.g., Stack Overflow). They offer a range of pricing plans, or, if you’re particularly savvy, you can self-host an instance for free (see the resources section for more on pricing and tech support).
Four features we love
- Discoverability of content – compared to more chat-like platforms (e.g., Slack), Discourse has a pretty decent search feature that can search different types of site content including profile info. And, because of the way conversations are categorized and tagged, it’s easier to browse and find things of interest.
- Customizability – small tweaks are all that’s really necessary to make your Discourse instance look like your brand identity (add a logo, switch out some colors and fonts), but you can also add splash banners, buttons, and multi-column layouts to help your members navigate the site.
- Simplicity – the simplicity of Discourse, a threaded discussion forum, makes it relatively easy for people to participate. Some technical proficiency is needed as an admin, and if you’re looking to make big customizations you’ll need a few extra technical skills.
- Analytics – Discourse admins have access to a range of user metrics, including daily and monthly active users, time on site, and posting frequency. The metric we liked the most? Being able to see what people are searching for on your instance as a way to understand what your community members are most interested in.
Managing a community on Discourse
Launching a community platform can be pretty scary. As one participant asked “aren’t you worried you’re building a ghost town?” Building your community platform is a big part of launching a community, but it’s really just the beginning. We talked about the importance of providing scaffolding (think how-to guides and FAQs), seeding content in your community (e.g., curating a series of initial posts), and being proactive in encouraging members to participate.
Andra talked about how she creates a regular email blast for her members as a means of reminding them about the community Discourse and highlighting what’s going on there. Her newsletter contains links to informational posts she wants people to be aware of, and also encourages people to go and answer other members’ questions. In this way, she’s giving people multiple ways to participate in her community – as a consumer or a contributor.
When Crossref started their Discourse instance, Isaac was involved in the initial launch phase. To help seed content in that community, he went back to past helpdesk tickets and pulled out ~25 commonly asked questions. He then shared examples of each of these tickets (with permission) as a “ticket of the week” and encouraged feedback in the discussion threads. These posts are now the most popular form of content on the site.
Like any online community platform, building your Discourse instance is just the beginning. Your members won’t just show up and immediately start to engage. As another participant on the call noted, “it’s just like planting a garden – you can’t expect plants to grow if you don’t water them.” Expect to spend extra time early in your community’s lifecycle tending this metaphorical garden.
Need help getting started?
CSCCE staff are currently working with a client to set up a new Discourse instance. If getting started with Discourse (or any online platform) is something you and your organization are doing, and you’d like some additional support, please reach out to email@example.com to discuss our consultancy offerings.
Next month’s community call – Mid-Year Social
Next month, we’ll be returning to a regularly scheduled time slot of the third Wednesday of the month at 11am EDT / 3pm UTC. Please join us on 21 June for our annual mid-year Social – an opportunity to connect with other STEM community managers in our curated networking forum (registration required). We hope to see you there!
Resources and documentation
- Discourse website – The main website, including pricing information and features set.
- Discourse sandbox – A place to try out Discourse features and become familiar with the basic interface
- Discourse blog – A source of news and updates about Discourse, including new features and use case success stories from Discourse users
- Discourse Meta – The go-to site for all questions Discourse.
- Discourse Meta Documents – Organized by user type, there is a wealth of documents available to point users, moderators, admin, and site designers in the right direction over a wide range of topics
- MS Society UK
- Let’s Talk
- On Science & Academia
- Wikimedia’s Movement Strategy Forum
For new users
- users – Discourse Meta – The dedicated place for documents about Discourse from the point of view of users, including how-to guides, organized based on categories like how-to and getting started
- Discourse New User Guide – This topic defines helpful nomenclature specific to Discourse, offers navigation tips for the website, and explains how to post and interact with content
- User Interface Nomenclature Guide – A series of annotated photos explaining what different icons and buttons do on a Discourse homepage, post, and notification menu
- An overview of features in Discourse Sidebar – Explanations for each of the items in the sidebar, including users, posts, and groups
- Trust Level Permissions Table (inc Moderator Roles) – Table of allowed activity based on what trust level a user has
For moderators and community managers
- moderators – Discourse Meta – The dedicated place for documents about Discourse from the point of view of moderators
- Discourse Moderation Guide – This is a useful guide to help moderators think through the different types of problematic content and the actions they might take to moderate the content / support more productive behaviors
- Understanding user statuses, roles, and permissions – A guide to different user categories, including activated, suspended, moderator, and admin
- The difference between Closed, Unlisted and Archived topics – An explanation of the differences between different forms of reducing or stopping activity on a topic, including use cases
- Reorder / adjust category listings and set fixed category positions – A guide explaining how to change the displayed order of categories on the homepage of a Discourse site
For admin and site designers
- admins – Discourse Meta – The dedicated place for documents about Discourse from the point of view of administrators; these topics include fairly technical details on how to set up or change aspects of a Discourse site
- Beginners Guide to Using Discourse Themes – Guide to design choices for a Discourse site, including color schemes, banners, and sidebar placement
- Invite users to a group – If you’d like to create private groups with content only accessible by a select group of individuals, this guide details how to invite users to a group
- Beginner’s Guide to Creating Discourse Plugins – This guide includes a high level overview of plugins and links to a six-part guide on how to properly set up plugins
- Configure Google login for Discourse – A guide to setting up single sign on with Google for your Discourse site
- Set up Slack notifications using the discourse-chat-integration plugin – A post on how to integrate Slack with Discourse to allow for posting notifications to Slack, managing rules using Slash Commands, and posting transcripts back to Discourse