If you’ve been around for as long as the internet has been, you may realize that forums and forum software, in some capacity, have been around since the beginning. They have always been a place for like-minded individuals to come together and grow an organic community.
Although typically anonymous, with today’s boom of social media, more brands are now looking to use a forum software on their website to better help grow these online communities.
Forum software allows you to create a space where you can bring your audience together and give them a place to connect. It’s also used as a means of gathering feedback and allowing users to offer inter-community support.
While there are various uses of a forum software, the underlying benefit and use is its ability to create and strengthen the bond between your products/services and your audience. We will analyze 9 of the best forum software, discussing the pros and cons, and how they can be used for your business.
But first, let’s consider what features are important to look out for when evaluating which forum software is right for you.
Important Forum Software Features
User-friendly interface and experience
With so many social tools and software, you want to ensure that your audience has a seamless experience. Otherwise, your forum users are not going to return back and use the forum to further ask questions, make comments, etc. The same goes for you, as the owner of the business, you want an interface that’s intuitive and easy to use.
Private messaging features
The idea behind a forum is to create a community for like-minded individuals to engage with each other. In most situations, you would want to give users the ability to privately message one another.
This allows them to create stronger connections, get to know each other better, and ultimately build the community. So, it’s typically an essential feature to have when considering forum software.
High customizability options
As businesses create more personable brands, you will want to be able to customize the interface to match. When evaluating the different forum software, look for those that offer features like customizing your brand theme, giving users the ability to edit profiles, fonts, profile pictures, and more.
Community building and management tools
With strangers interacting with each other you want to make sure that you have the proper tools and features to effectively manage it all from the backend. The forum software that ranks at the top is one that provides you with both management and community-building tools.
Such as being able to flag inappropriate content and allow members to report content. As well as features that foster community-building, like awards or achievements for being an active or long-time user in the discussions. Giving users benefits and incentives to further participate and continue to help the community grow.
This forum software is designed with content in mind. Businesses typically use Circle.so when looking for a forum software that encourages discussion around their content and ultimately turns these users into paying customers.
Circle.so gives their users the opportunity to create different types of communities including ones like coaching, newsletters, product, courses, memberships, and more. These can all be customized with different settings and discussions can be organized into private and public spaces.
For these reasons, Circle.so is commonly used by influencers and bloggers who are looking to connect further with their audience and also open up discussion amongst themselves. It’s also popular amongst those whose primary goal is to create a community around a particular product or brand.
Circle.so’s focus on community engagement and content means relevant features to help you achieve this. Firstly, they offer integration within your current website. Whereas forum software like Discourse has to be hosted on a subdomain, Circle.so makes it easy to include a new forum on an existing website.
Their customization options are sleek and give you the opportunity to choose colors representative of your brand. They allow you to use custom domain names and also provide the basic features we know to look out for like private messaging.
Pros of Circle.so
- Integration with an existing website
- Micro schools
- Newsletters and communities
- Membership communities
- Customization and branding features
Cons of Circle.so
- No free version, only paid monthly plans
- Doesn’t offer self-hosting versions
Packages range from $39-$199/month
As we previously discussed, forum software has been around for a while, and phpBB is one of the true originals. Having first launched their company in 2000, they are still thriving today and constantly updating their software and features to keep up with digital trends.
This forum software is a popular choice amongst businesses because it is open-source software. Meaning that there is a huge database of extensions that have been created and shared for free with other users.
This allows for a lot of customizability and the entire platform is completely free to use. For a free forum software solution, they provide users with a wide range of features to choose from.
They offer the basic important features that we previously discussed like management tools and user moderation, community-building features like community newsletters, and special role permissions.
As the forum software is self-hosted and open source there are constantly new extensions and tools being added by the community for free use.
Pros of phpBB
- Completely free, no hidden costs or fees
- Wide range of features and extensions
- Highly customizable
- Active support community with phpBB users for advice, tips, etc.
Cons of phpBB
- Basic coding knowledge needed to discover full use of the software
- Poor SEO support in comparison to its competitors
- Not as visually appealing as other platforms
- Lack of social media integration
Free downloadable, open-source forum software
Vanilla Forums is a forum software that is greatly known for its easy-to-use management dashboard, a wide range of features, and advanced marketing integration options. Offering more user-experience features in the dashboard in comparison to their competitors.
This forum software is widely chosen for its gamification features, well-designed theme templates, and business tools. Vanilla’s paid plan is commonly used by mid-sized and big businesses as they offer in-depth marketing integrations and tools.
However, Vanilla also offers users to download their open-source software for free. It’s simple, flexible and commonly used by smaller businesses that do not need extensive business and marketing services.
These in-depth features focus on enhancing user experience and helping businesses increase engagement through online forums. These features include things like social media integration, member notifications, automatic content curation, seamless onboarding experience, and customizable profiles.
These features make for a much more comprehensive experience as Vanilla offers users the ability to create member groups and private/group messaging chats. Since typically the communication ends between user and brand, Vanilla allows communities to grow even further by giving them the space to communicate amongst each other and create sub-communities through these chats.
Its features also make it a popular tool used by businesses that need a ticketing system. Including knowledge base systems and articles that users can search through for commonly asked questions and answers to their issues.
All of these features make it one of the most integrated forum software to date. The extent of their features is hard to compare to but does come at a high monthly cost.
Pros of Vanilla
- An incomparable and highly extensive list of features and integrations
- High gamification capabilities
- Advanced admin and management tools
- Customization tools for discussions, questions, idea voting, and polls
Cons of Vanilla
- The high monthly cost for business plans and access to all features
- Limited customizability options in the free version
A free downloadable version of their open-source software
Business plans start at $690/month
This forum software has taken the technology and modernized it, as it is user-friendly, quick, and very intuitive to use. Unlike other forum software, the interface offers amenities similar to those of big social networks. For example, you can easily mention people by their @name, paste images and links, quick replies and quotes.
It is also an open-source platform allowing users to customize it through various integrations and extensions. Offering users, the ability to host the platform for free on their own and customize it as they wish. As well as a hosting solution with a monthly fee for those who want a done-for-them solution.
Discourse offers modern features like mailing lists, long-form chat rooms, gamification features and more. One of the most prominent and well-known features is the unique ranking system where users are given certain moderation capabilities based on their activity and experience in the community.
This feature is popular amongst brands as it encourages community growth and self-moderation where users are able to be rewarded for their collaboration and honest engagement.
Pros of Discourse
- Intuitive dashboard and great user-experience
- Easy onboarding process and setup
- Free open-source downloadable version
- Integrated moderation and marketing features
Cons of Discourse
- Has to be hosted on a subdomain
Free open-source software download
Business plans start at $100/month
Invision Community is a popular forum software used by medium-sized businesses and large enterprises. It is easy to set up and manage, offering a customizable interface with unique tools for content creation and a detailed admin interface.
Although it is used by brands like Shutterstock, Evernote, Subaru, and more, it is commonly used by large enterprises as a support forum. Meaning that it is used by big businesses who want a simple and easily integrated forum software to manage large influxes of messages.
Invision Community offers various features from content apps to moderation and user management. Their flexibility in features gives you and community members the opportunity to create and manage communities within the main forum. These are also referred to as clubs where you can assign managers special access to manage private forums, calendars, and galleries.
Although less customizable than open-source forum software, its features for managing entire support systems are what make it attractive to large enterprises who are wanting to use it for this exact purpose.
Pros of Invision Community
- Comprehensive content apps and tools
- Achievement and recognition rewards
- Advanced security systems and settings
- Minimal setup and maintenance for simple forums
Cons of Invision Community
- Not as customizable as open-source forum software
- Not built to focus on community engagement (more commonly used for things like support)
- No free option only paid monthly plans
Free 14-day trial period
Packages ranging from $39-$199/month
Unlike its competition, Flarum is forum software that has not been around for many years.
Rather, it is actually one of the newest ones and ensures their interface reflects that. As a newer forum software, it is a platform that is based on providing its users with a modern, easy-to-use, and efficient platform.
Flarum is also an open-source platform which means that it’s free for its users to download and use. As a new software-focused more on design, their forum appearance customizability and functionality are a big attention grabber.
Businesses like GiffGaff, a leading British telephone network that services millions of customers, have used Flarum to build a peer support community where users can engage with each other which has ultimately improved support and customer engagement.
One of the most popular reasons that people flock to Flarum is its two-pane interface. This provides users an environment where they are able to be part of numerous discussions at once without having to open multiple tabs.
Its other engagement-focused features that make it a popular choice are its floating composer, discussion-specific notifications, live chat amongst users, and @mentions. Additionally, they provide features like touch-optimization, advanced permission settings and extensibility.
Pros of Flarum
- User-friendly and easy-to-use
- Open-source software and free to download
- Mobile optimization
- Two-pane interface
Cons of Flarum
- Minimal customer service support
- Still going through BETA versions so could run into glitches
Open-source forum software, free to download
vBulletin is another forum software that has been around for a while, over two decades to be exact. They developed their platform with bigger communities in mind, including engagement features powered by AI technology.
They offer both cloud hosting and self-hosting options, allowing them to be accessible by those who do and do not have the technical or coding knowledge. vBulletin’s interface is easy to use and can be set up in under 15 minutes regardless of which version you choose to use.
This forum software provides users with SEO tools, engagement features powered by AI, advanced security, and powerful moderations and admin tools. vBulletin uses this technology along with natural language processing to help increase organic engagement within the community.
This forum software also allows its users to create private groups and forums, helping boost overall engagement amongst each other. As well, vBulletin allows you to create blogs directly within the platform. This ultimately helps with things like SEO ranking for your forum and gives you the ability to provide valuable content directly within the forum.
Pros of vBulletin
- Built-in SEO and engagement tools
- Highly customizable themes
- Marketing and media features
- Mobile-device optimization
Cons of vBulletin
- More expansive paid version than most of its competitors
- Only paid versions, no free downloadable version
- Technical knowledge as minimal coding is required for setup
Monthly plans start at $249/month
MyBB is another well-known open-source platform that is entirely free to use and customize. This is a good forum software to choose from if you are looking for more design options. As they provide a theme editor and various different templates that are ready to use.
In comparison to their competitors, they offer fewer extension options, but the modern design and theme customizability make it a popular choice amongst businesses.
In addition to their customizability options for themes and templates, they also offer similar customizability options to the end-users. Where they provide them with the ability to adjust how they view the discussions they are a part of.
MyBB offers all of the key features you should typically look out for when evaluating different forum software, from gamification options to email blasts and support, security features, and more. They are also well known for their multi-language support.
While not all businesses may need this, particularly if you are focusing on one area with one main language. But for those that have users across the world who speak various different languages, this support feature can make or break your user’s experience.
Pros of MyBB
- Free open-source software
- Database management integration
- Design focused on customization options
- Email blasts and support
- Multi-language support
Cons of MyBB
- Limited spam control features
Free downloadable open-source forum software
Simple Machines Forum, also known as SMF, is another open-source software that has been designed with large communities in mind. A lot of corporate businesses tend to like CMF as it avoids heavy design features and provides a clean, professional, looks.
This forum software is popular amongst those who are technically knowledgeable and want complete access to customizability. As they provide various different plugins and features along with structured and clear code documentation.
As open-source software, they provide a valuable advanced package manager which gives its users the ability to quickly implement user changes on a mass scale. This is beneficial to large businesses that have to work with big databases.
Additionally, they provide advanced security features so big businesses can feel safe with their users on the platform, built-in SEO features, multi-language support, and highly customizable extensions.
All of these features make it a popular choice amongst those who are technically knowledgeable.
Pros of SMF
- Highly customizable
- Free open-source forum software
- Countless templates and extensions
- Paid subscription features
Cons of SMF
- Need technical expertise to implement
- Admin and management panel is not as intuitive
Free to download, open-source forum software
The best forum software is the one that checks off all of your boxes.
Whether you’re a small or large business, looking for self-hosted or not, marketing integrations, or otherwise, there is an excellent forum software out there for everybody!