Forums provide the opportunity to build an online community that allows your audience to connect in a place where they know their interests are shared. This sense of connectedness is more important than ever in a time where more work, communication, and socialization is being done online.
Online communities are particularly beneficial for businesses because they allow customers to interact with each other in a smaller circle than they could via social media, which increases engagement and brand affinity.
For instance, let's say one of your customers has a very unique problem with your product or service, and posts about it on your forum. That post is much easier to find than it would be on social media, where millions of users are talking about a million different things.
Even better, maybe another forum user has faced that same problem and can answer their question before your service reps even see it.
There is an incredible amount of value in reaching and building your community using a forum. Here, we're going to explore the best forum software to get you started.
Best Forum Software [Free & Paid]
- WordPress (With Plugin)
- Vanilla Forums
- Invision Community
1. WordPress (With Plugin)
Price: Free (plus the cost of hosting)
Using a multi-purpose platform like a CMS to power your online community allows you access to many different software options in the form of plugins and applications. For instance, you might use the bbPress plugin to create multisite forums, and maintain them from one dashboard within your WordPress site. This is a great option if you want to set up a regular website and forum together.
There are many options to choose from using WordPress, all of which will provide you with the basic forum features you need, plus plenty of useful extras.
Price: Starts at $99 per year (plus development and hosting costs)
Joomla! Is a CMS software like WordPress, but requires more attention to detail and management. This is a robust CMS that will power your forum plugins like Kunena or EasyDiscuss, which are specifically created for Joomla!'s system. The price point comes from the open-source content management system, which will allow you to build powerful online applications alongside your forum software.
Price: Starts at $100 per month (plus cost of hosting)
Discourse is open-source forum software that you can in tandem with your existing website and CMS platform. Not only can community members use it on their mobile devices, but they'll also get dynamic notifications, badges, emoji, and more. Best of all, there's a built-in moderation system to help you protect your community from spam and abuse.
Price: Variable based on your needs
Vanilla has an abundance of features -- one of the most notable being the intuitive dashboard that lets you manage every aspect of your community forum. You can view stats, manage users, and use an advanced editor that recognizes HTML, BBCode, and Markdown using this software.
Additionally, Vanilla gives you the ability to adjust permissions of forums or members if you're looking to control access. The software enables customers to submit, view and vote on ideas to drive innovation for your business, or use the Q&A option to connect with and help each other get more out of your products or services. Best of all, Vanilla offers an on-boarding process with useful checklists, training materials, and help from one of their support reps.
Codoforum is forum software that has a fresh UI with modern design. It's simple, clean, and easy to use. Codoforum is built with PHP using the latest coding patterns and is fully compliant with new PSR standards. This software provides a responsive layout structure for mobile and desktop, SSO and integration, as well as mention notifications for users.
Since it's free to use, Codoforum is a good option if you're still testing out forums or aren't sure whether they'll be useful for your own website and community.
PhpBB is a forum platform that has a typical and intuitive board set-up where users can post public or private messages. With phpBB, you can create as many internal messaging boards as you want without any additional costs.
Additionally, you can use extensions to add new options to your forum community. This makes the software very customizable, and allows you to adapt the software to the growing needs of your audience.
Among other things, phpBB lets you create password-protected forums for added security, sub-forums, the option to display active topics at the top of your forum, and the ability to add forum rules at the top of a forum to ensure your community abides by set guidelines.
Price: vBulletin 5 Connect $249, $15/month
Over 100,000 websites are built on vBulletin -- including NASA, EA, and Sony Pictures -- so it's a popular option for hosting your forum. The software includes tons of great features, including built-in SEO, security, and responsive web design. With VBulletin you can have an unlimited hierarchy of forums as well as private forums.
Best of all, VBulletin provides fun and unique features for your community members, including private messaging, a friends list, member birthdays (shown on the Forum homepage), and the ability to see who's online.
VBulletin is not known for being the fastest forum, but its design is clean and it offers quality support for its users.
Price: Varies for forum size/data needs, but starts at $45/month for 65 online visitors
IP Board was a very popular forum software that has since expanded to Invision Community, which includes a forum application in addition to its other offerings. According to the Invision Community website, the forums module powers thousands of message boards around the web, and Invision Community has many other community management apps to help you interact with your audience.
The software allows your users to take control over their own online communities, which you can monitor at your discretion. For instance, Invision Community lets users create and manage their own communities, called "Clubs", which are fully integrated with your website -- these clubs get designated Club Leaders, who can add new forums, calendars, or galleries to the community.
Flaurm has a streamlined design that is extremely easy to navigate. Forums using this software are fully responsive, and features include smooth animations and available swipe features for mobile optimization. Flarum was built by the developers of esoTalk and FluxBB, two of the fastest forum platforms, and has great performance reviews.
MyBB is a free and open-source forum software that powers thousands of communities. It features hundreds of plugins and themes for you to customize, and the users that exist on the forum will help you establish your own community. Users have also contributed to the translations available for the content on the software. Now, forums are available in over 30 languages to help you grow a more global community.
Price: Variable based on your needs
inSided is a full-featured Community Platform aimed at Customer Success and Community professionals looking to increase engagement, advocacy, and effectively gather product feedback.
They have a killer combination of a customer community platform, a knowledge base, and in-app support. What sets them apart from other platforms are integrations with software like Zendesk, Salesforce, Mixpanel, and Gainsight so that you can connect your community to your entire tech-stack and create a 360 degree view of your customer.
Ways to Build Your Community Using Forum Software
People notice when brands listen to and converse with their customers, and they especially notice when brands foster their own communities. How? Through the power of word-of-mouth marketing. Customers who view themselves as valued members of your community are much more likely to talk about your brand to their friends.
Here's how you can build a strong community using your forum software.
1. Spread the word.
Nobody will join your online community if they don't know it exists. Spread the word about your new forum by including CTAs to join your forum in email newsletters or social posts. Ask your brand ambassadors or loyal fans to start posting about the forum, and post content on the forum so when other users join, you already have an established presence on the channel.
2. Listen to and check on your community regularly.
Reviewing your forum and responding to what your audience has to say is a crucial part of community building. Your customers are far less likely to continue to interact and engage on your forum if they feel as though they are being ignored. Responding to their feedback shows your users that you value their opinions and care about their experiences with your product.
Additionally, it's your job to make sure everything is running smoothly on your forum. Checking on your community regularly will help you dissolve any service escalations, and give people the support they are seeking.
3. Foster a helpful discourse.
A forum should be a safe place for your customers, prospects, employees, fans, and audience to interact, ask, and answer questions. By establishing a helpful ethos early on, or creating community guidelines that prioritize patience and kindness within responses, your community will grow without the need to constantly monitor it 24/7.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in June 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.