This article is routinely updated as new features are rolled out. Last updated 4/11/2023.
The most common question I get from clients as a platform-agnostic brand community strategist is which all-in-one community platform is best? The only right answer at the moment is, "it depends." This comparison chart has continued to be my most viewed piece, so I figured I would break it down further into some of the nuances between two platforms at a time.
Which All-in-one Platforms are we talking about?
Glad you asked, let's get on the same page here. First, I define an all-in-one community platform as one place to host the three pillars of community programming: events, conversation, and content. This is important because many community tools like to call themselves platforms (please stop doing that!), but really they only offer one element of community programming. They might only offer you additional analytics, or events management, or a way to do matchups in your community. These are great tools, but they are designed to layer over existing communities and they are not a great place to start for starting your community (or to host your community if what you want is one centralized location).
There are a host of enterprise-level community platforms that afford you tons of customization for almost any type of community you want to build. These are platforms like Vanilla by Higher Logic, Khoros, and Insided. Generally, if you are taking the first step to become community-led as a brand, or this is your first time creating a community from your audience, you probably don't want to fork over the tens of thousands of dollars required to get set up in one of these platforms.
Like most of my clients, you are looking for a slightly more templated and dramatically less expensive community platform that can help you launch quickly but still provide room for you to grow. For this type of all-in-one community platform I recommend platforms such as Circle, Heartbeat, Mighty Networks, or MeltingSpot. So let's dive into the differences between the two most common platforms I build on: Circle and Heartbeat!
Circle (this is an affiliate link) is an asynchronous community platform that has a simple and sleek layout that can easily be customized and white-labeled. This platform is ideal for communities that are more focused on long-form written conversation and long-standing content. Circle has certainly gone after the the Creator Communities. These are communities that usually begin with an audience attained through a course, newsletter, or an event like masterminds. While they are clearly in hot pursuit of Creators implementing features like Courses and live video broadcasting, brands have started to pick up the platform for customer communities of all shapes and sizes. Find examples of communities in their showcase.
Heartbeat (this is an affiliate link) is a synchronous community platform that is similar to Circle, but where they are set apart is in their functionality around events. Heartbeat shines when hosting communities that need both public and private events (more on this in the next section). Heartbeat offers a broad range of dynamic features for your community including direct integrations with zoom and google calendar, a way affiliate links for members, and custom emojis. Heartbeat is leveraged by a variety of different communities, but we’ve noticed it’s especially popular with schools, cohort-based communities, solopreneur communities, and brands.
The Key Difference
Both platforms are phenomenal, but if I had to distill to one architectural and practical difference it is this: Circle allows you to make their conversation/content spaces "public" or "private," but not events. Heartbeat allows you to make events public or private, but not conversation channels or docs. Let me explain.
Circle's platform is made up of "spaces" which you can customize. Where Circle users love the tool is that you can set up a space like this one that is open to the public. So people outside of your community can get a glimpse into the value being provided by the community, but when they pick another space on the left, they are prompted to join the community if they want more. Great upsell from free content that you can host right there in the platform.
Heartbeat, on the other hand, has the same upsell, only from events. When you set up an event, you can make it public. This will generate not only the landing page for the event that members of your private community will already see, it also generate a public link so that people outside of your community can RSVP to the event (get all the reminders, etc.) without needing to register to join your community.
And the opposite is not true for each of them. You cannot host a public event with Circle. Even though you can set up an events space to be public, anyone who tries to RSVP to that event will have to join your community first. Similarly, you cannot have public threads or docs in Heartbeat. In order to access, someone must be a member of your community.
TLDR: If public events are a tactic you use to get people to join your community, Heartbeat is your choice. If content like a blog is the tactic you use to get people to join your community, Circle is a better fit.
Simplicity or Complexity
➡️Most Simple with Great Features From the very beginning we have been huge fans of Circle’s simple and sleek design. The spaces are intuitive and it’s hard to get too lost. Accessible for low-tech communities or an older demographic.
➡️ Simple with Good Features Where circle chose simplicity, Heartbeat is creating an ecosystem of community features and functions that lends itself to complexity, but also has great potential for growth.Simple with Good Features Where circle chose simplicity, Heartbeat is creating an ecosystem of community features and functions that lends itself to complexity, but also has great potential for growth.
Each Circle space can take on four different layouts: events, feed view, list view, or card style (and chat coming soon!). The feed view is a thread-style view that works great for long-form posts (their text editor allows you to embed and basic formatting for your post).
Heartbeat facilitates a whole ecosystem of different types of interactions. Each feature (or tool) is called an “app.” There is an app for threads, events, docs, courses, directory, or matchups. Within the threads app there are different channels that can be either post-style or chat-style.
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Circle’s Courses feature has launched! We are still testing it out, but really excited for this new upgrade.
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Heartbeat recently launched a Courses app in their ecosystem to build course content directly in the community. While the feature is new, knowing their plan to integrate a course framework into the tool is a big win.
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Users can RSVP to events directly in the platform and add the event to their calendar. You can host calls directly in Circle, or provide a zoom link. Bummer The privacy settings for events are set in the events space itself, not for each individual event. To have some public and some private events (just for community members), you need to have two separate spaces for events with the differing settings in those spaces. “Public” events also require the user to create an account and belong to the community, so there’s no real way to actually execute public events.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Users can RSVP to events directly in the platform. Admin can host video events on the platform directly (in a pre-existing voice room or create a new room), or users can start voice rooms and turn on their video as well. A zoom integration automatically schedules the zoom call and uploads the recording when an event is made.
🔥 Bonus: At the time of the event, a little live notification will appear at the top for any active users (so they can easily see what’s happening live and join in). Feedback for the event is also posted after the event for the admin to review easily.
Video / Livestream / Broadcasting
✅ Broadcasting video (one or multiple speakers broadcasting to an audience like FB Live) on Professional and Enterprise Plan.
✅ Live rooms (like zoom)
❌ No broadcasting
✅ Live rooms (can have just a voice room or a video room) on all plans Heartbeat has a video conferencing tool. (Multiple people on a video call)
Posts / Threads
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Asynchronous Posts + Chat Circle’s post format lends itself to asynchronous conversation. You’ll find thoughtful, long form responses. This means you’ll likely see less chatter, but the quality of engagement is much higher in these communities. If chatter in Discord is on one side of the spectrum, Circle’s posts are way on the other side. Circle recently released a chat-style space as an option, so now you can still have the chitter-chatter if that’s what your community wants.
Synchronous Chat + Threads Within Heartbeat’s Threads app, you can create three types of channels: thread-style, chat-style, or a voice room. Hearbeat’s format is synchronous (someone’s comment will pop up on your screen without refreshing) so it feels live and active when others are online. When a member is reading a post, you’ll see their profile pop up as active on that thread. While Hearbeat posts are far from simply chatter, the emoji reactions do give it more of a chatty feel than the long form conversation posts in Circle. You can also schedule posts in Heartbeat, which is super helpful!
Content / Resources / Knowledge Base
The best way we have seen members create a resources or knowledge base in Circle is to use the “Cards” layout to create a page of cards so that your eye can more easily catalog the information. It can be difficult to catalog content well in Circle. Circle’s search function is great, so members can find content that way, but when you think about turning conversations into evergreen content, it can be difficult to figure out the best way to sort this.
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While Heartbeat’s app ecosystem can add a layer of complexity to the platform, we believe the docs app are a great feature. You can take a thread that someone posted and save it as a doc for content reference. Docs are a notion-style database (however they currently lack the ability to tag or @mention).
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Within Circle you have the ability to tag members with badges that essentially puts them into a subgroup. These badges show up in their profile, can be automated with Zapier, and are spectacular for recognition. They cannot, however, be used to filter who has access to which spaces. In order to set up spaces for specific subgroups, you either need to allow for an open space where members may self-select in, or you must create an automation where some other database triggers that the member should be added to a secret group just for that subset of the community.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Groups is one of Heartbeat’s strongest features and allows for a ton of customization within the community. You can sort your community into groups and subgroups up to five levels deep. This is extremely beneficial as your community grows and you want to get better about sending content or prompts only to specific segments of your community. Groups also show up as member tags and can be leveraged as badges, though gamification is not their intended use. There are plenty of automations available around groups as well.
Circle’s badges include a title and emoji and may be assigned to members for gamification. There are automation triggers and actions for badges.
Heartbeat’s groups can be assigned to members for gamification and segmentation, but their formal gamification feature has yet to be rolled out.
Privacy Settings + SEO
✅ Each Circle space has the option to be made public, private, or secret. For public spaces, you can customize SEO features and the space can even be embedded in a page on your website.
❌ One hiccup here is that even “public events” cannot be RSVPed to by non-members unless they join the community with their email first. Very difficult to host public events in the circle platform.
❌ Heartbeat does not have functionality around SEO and all channels are private to the community (you can customize who sees what, but logged-out members cannot view).
✅ Events can be made public and users do not need to log in to RSVP.
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In Circle, you have access to admin and moderator roles.
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Heartbeat has the ability to create customized roles and toggle different abilities on and off based on the role.
Pricing + Plans
Ease of Setup
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Circle’s setup process is super simple and straightforward with a checklist to get you started.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Heartbeat provides a “Kickstart” app that walks you through the first steps in getting things set up. It’s super easy to get started.
✅ Circle communities have a directory and the option to enable direct messaging to connect with other members.
✅ Heartbeat has a member directory.
Matching or Meetup Feature
❌ no matchups
✅ Heartbeat has a meetups app directly in the platform where you can allow members to opt-in to be matched with other members (either in a common subgroup or in general) once or on a recurring basis.
The Circle Community (for people who are building communities on Circle) has a plethora of knowledge and experts willing to jump in to answer questions. The content tends to be difficult to sort through in a linear fashion (something we know they are working on).
Circle does allow you to customize the onboarding email that is sent with the invitation to join Circle.
Heartbeat allows you to customize the onboarding email and you can customize different onboarding experiences based on the group they are tagged in.
Application to join
❌ Circle does not have a custom application - you have to do this separately and use integrations to connect with the platform.
✅ Circle DOES now have customizable profile fields now to be able to control what information is requested in a user’s profile. This feature is an add-on price
❌ Heartbeat does not have a custom application - you have to do this separately and use integrations to connect with the platform.
✅ Open API
✅ Tons of Zapier + Integrately Integrations
✅ Open API
✅ Tons of Zapier integrations (working on Integrately)
✅ Analytics are available for professional and enterprise plans. Professional analytics include:Member analytics: daily active members, 30 day active members, top members, active commenters, post starters, most appreciated (likes received).Posts: # posts per day, # comments per day, top posts + comments in likes.Messages: # direct messages sent, # new direct messages, group chats, new group chats.
✅ Analytics are available for growth + custom plans. Growth analytics include:Overview: feature views broken into % over threads, DMs, docs, voice calls, and the directory, time before first view, emoji, and comment, and platform usage for website vs mobile app vs desktop appActivity: best times people are lurking or engaging, public vs private conversations, top active users (threads, comments, messages, and reacts), top threads, top channels, top docsEngagement: logins over time, and see increase over last month for threads growth, DM growth, logins, doc views, voice rooms
✅ Circle allows you to collect payments in your community through Stripe.
✅ Heartbeat allows you to collect payments in your community through Stripe.
✅ Circle allows for customization by allowing you to set a custom brand color, favicon and logo. In the Professional and Enterprise plan you can further customize your community by adding custom css.
✅ Heartbeat allows for custom url, branding color, and logo. The open API allows for you to build onto the tool.
✅ Professional and Enterprise Plan
✅ All Plans
✅ Has SSO
✅ iOs App
✅ Android App
✅ Desktop App
Public, private, and secret spaces
✅ Open: Anyone in my community can see and join this space.
✅ Private: Invited members only.Non-members will see a locked page, which you can customize in space settings.
✅ Secret: Invited members only.Non-members will not see this space.
✅ Threads can be made private. Members can opt-in to spaces or be added by default. You can also customize threads making them only accessible to certain groups.
✅ Has the ability to make events public or private just for members.
❌Coming soon, but not yet
✅ The ability to create and allow members to start audio chats.
Polls in Posts
✅ Search bar
✅ Filters in search bar
✅ Search bar
✅ Filters provided in search bar
✅ Docs can also be organized to help readers find information more easily
❌ Circle doesn’t have a referral program where members can refer other members to my community on their platform.
✅ Heartbeat DOES have an affiliate program where members can refer other members to my community on their platform and receive commission payout.
Notice information that's ready to be updated? Reach out to Bri at firstname.lastname@example.org
How to decide which community platform is right for you?
At the end of the day, the platform you choose matters less than how you design and implement your community. That being said, certain platforms can create way more barriers than necessary depending on the programming of your community. While it's important to plan ahead, try to make the decision about where to host your community based on where it is today and will be in a year, not what you anticipate it will look like in five years.
For a really practical approach, for each row in the table, rate how that platform’s features stack up based on what you need. Total each column up and make a quantitative decision. But we highly encourage you to get in and test each platform yourself (each has a free trial) to play around and get a feeling for it yourself.
If you want to fast-track the process and get on a call together, you can share what you need your platform to do for you and I can share what I know of each platform, things to watch out for, and where their strengths will help you shine.