The Unbundling of WhatsApp, Slack and Discord: A New Era of Community-Building
27 Nov 2023
State of the nation
Communities in 2023 are overwhelmingly managed on general purpose messaging apps like WhatsApp, Discord, Slack and Facebook Groups. Recently, however, there’ve been a swathe of community-building platforms launched, like Mighty Networks, Bevy, Circle and Khoros.
The former group are communication platforms that seem to have fallen more than launched, into community-building. They’re messaging apps, not community-building apps, but users have bent and shaped them to fit their use cases, which all have communication as the core tenet of their needs… And it’s been largely successful.
The latter group are the ‘new-money’ gang; purpose-built community-building platforms with features like event management, online course builders, content management, introductions, bookings and elements of social networking tools.
These niche community platforms have been popping up more and more frequently, especially in the wake of the Covid pandemic, and they are indicative of a trend that we think will accelerate: the unbundling of messaging apps.
For context, let’s take a look at the history of community-building. The feature image at the top of this article represents our analysis of how community tools have evolved since the dawn of the internet.
Quick sidebar: We need to pay tribute here to Li Jin and Andrew Chen, who in 2018 wrote a piece that informed this one, entitled “What’s next for marketplace startups?”. Our analysis and new thoughts on that piece can be found here. We’ve borrowed their title and framework for this article.
Okay. Back to community-building history.
The Forums Era (1990’s to early 2000’s)
The OG of digital community-building were the forums of the early internet. They were open platforms where anyone could post comments and questions, and they were typically organised by topic. Most forums emerged as a result of some organisation attempting to automate their customer support functions by outsourcing the job to their most loyal customers who would run the forums. They were useful repositories of information, and places to simply hang out and engage in conversation on whatever topics and people you identified with… People like you.
Lynchpin of success: 1) Brands pushing the agenda of outsourcing customer support, and therefore building tools to accomplish this, and 2) Computer nerds and loyal fans of brands, who would hang out on these forums and drive the conversation ('supernodes').
Key challenges: 1) Not user-friendly, feature rich or sophisticated in any way, 2) Typically open to anyone with an internet connection, so lack of gated access meant ‘community’ meant little more than ‘shared interest’.
The Social Media Era (2005 - mid-2010’s)
Along came social media, which quickly became the place where much of people’s time online was spent. They had more comprehensive communication features, gated access control and more. The social platforms also bolted on ‘groups’ features, where users could do all the social networking stuff, but within their own self-identified groups… And because this is where people spent their time, it became the Mecca for community.
Lynchpin of success: 1) People were already there, spending loads of time on social media, and 2) technology evolved to a point that these platforms were much more sophisticated, reliable and feature-rich.
Key challenges: 1) Value proposition diluted by competing and distracting, non-community features like feeds, classifieds etc, and 2) Social platforms are social by nature, resulting in an ill-fated environment for communities focussed on non-social or narrowly-defined topics.
Quick sidebar: The first two eras of community-building discussed above were very much ‘tack-ons’ to existing platforms. Forums were chiefly customer support add-ons for brands, and groups on social media were a feature, not a platform.
The General Purpose Messaging App Era (2015 - present)
WhatsApp and Slack were founded in 2009, with much more streamlined messaging services for consumers and enterprises respectively. A few years later, Discord joined the messaging app family and sparked somewhat of a revolution… Discord was organised at the uppermost level by ‘community’, with subgroups (or ‘channels’) for structured conversation.
Slack and WhatsApp subsequently tweaked their services to allow for communities of various kinds to use their messaging services too, and given the ubiquitous distribution they already had, these messaging apps became the lowest friction places to start communities.
Lynchpin of success: 1) Ease-of-use and reliability of service, and 2) Incredibly low friction due to large scale proliferation of these platforms in consumer and enterprise spaces (i.e. no switching cost).
Key challenges: 1) One-dimensional value proposition, with few use case-specific features beyond organised communication/messaging, and 2) Undifferentiated relative even to just an ordinary ‘group’ created by some friends.
The Unbundling Era (est.~2021? / currently happening)
In the world of marketplace platforms (not communities), a Great Unbundling took place during the 2000’s, when classifieds or listings platforms were taken out by purpose-built platforms that catered to one specific category of listings much more effectively than the general purpose listings platforms could. Jin and Chen of a16z called this the Unbundled Craigslist Era of marketplaces.
The same thing is happening in the world of community-building. Communities that have been run on Discord or WhatsApp - with an undeniable degree of success (as as the case with Craigslist) - are jumping over to platforms that cater to more than just the communication component of their needs. These platforms provide a horizontally-integrated value proposition for communities depending on their niche, allowing communities to differentiate from each other and from the ad hoc ‘groups’ on messaging apps.
The Covid pandemic and subsequent remote work revolution certainly stimulated much of this shift. Events have become overwhelmingly online, so communities that relied on events to drive engagement started using Bevy and Brella to manage their event-centric communities. Brands started using Hivebrite and Bettermode. Creators with large but light-touch audiences started selling their own courses and content to their communities by transferring over to Mighty Networks and Circle.
Next: Continued verticalization
As more and more purpose-built community platforms appear, we think communities who have previously bent and shaped the general purpose WhatsApps, Discords, Slacks and FB Groups to manage their communities will drop off and use the purpose-built tools for their niche use case, their vertical.
Creator communities will use tools that serve creators.
Parent communities will use tools that serve moms.
Business communities will use tools that serve the laptop class.
Characteristics of the eras
The chart above illustrates how the tools used for community-building have evolved across three dimensions we think are relevant. Those dimensions, or characteristics, are:
Concentration of Intent: The degree to which the tools support the particular objectives of community, as opposed to a diverse set of features that detract from the intent of community.
Sophistication of Service: The degree to which the tools are technologically sophisticated, reliable, easy to use and generally consumer-friendly (which has become a baseline expectation of the modern world which has been treated to incredible consumer grade applications courtesy of mega corporations).
Horizontal Proliferation: The degree to which the tool offers a breadth of features that support the various needs of community managers and members.
Key themes of this evolution include:
We went from high concentration of intent with forums that existed for a particular reason, with the limited features that allowed only for static asynchronous conversation on the topic of the forum in question, to low concentration of intent in the social and messaging app eras, where users were on these platforms for any number of reasons, distracted by feeds and content and flashing ads and friends and unfocussed conversation.
Services have become very sophisticated, with high reliability, cross-platform applications, intuitive UI and UX, advanced administrative controls and more. We might go so far as to say that ‘minimum viable products’ in the community-building space are no longer feasible, as the natural comparative products are scaled, sophisticated tools run by mega corporations with 1000’s of developers.
The breadth of features offered by these tools has only expanded in the current, ‘Unbundled’ era. Where previously these tools were general purpose, they have now become specific use case, with different features for different market verticals.
Strategies and recommendations
The shift from general purpose messaging apps to vertical-specific community-building platforms is happening right now. Of the 46 community managers we’ve spoken to during November 2023, at least 41 of them have used Discord, WhatsApp, Slack or Facebook Groups over the last year AND have or are looking to shift over to a more niche platform for their communities.
Quick sidebar: Data from our conversations to be released in early 2024. Note that most of the community managers we have spoken to are managers of ‘professional communities’ like members clubs, networking groups, co-working spaces and business conferences.
In line with the famous VC question “Why now?”, we recommend aligning your business endeavours with the supporting undercurrent that is this shift to vertical-specific platforms. Pick a community type that you know best, and build a platform with breadth of features specific to that vertical.
Of course this is generic advice that would apply in most any industry. But with an existing movement taking place as we shift into a new era of community-building - the Unbundling of Messaging Apps - this advice could never be more true.