12+ Best Forum Software (Free & Paid) – All You Need to Know
Finding the best forum software is one of the biggest challenges of starting a forum. There are so many options out there, and they all offer something different. So can you choose the best software for your specific purposes?
When you know what you’re looking for – and where to look – this task isn’t as difficult. To help you, we’ve put together a list of some of the best forum software options on the market right now. But first, let’s take a look at what features a good forum builder has to have.
What Should the Best Forum Software Offer
Forums have an unjustified reputation of being outdated. This is why one of your goals should be to find the best forum software to fight this misconception. So what features exactly should you look for?
A User-Friendly Interface Is a Must
Your forum should be easy to navigate. This doesn’t only mean that your forum members should be able to easily find what they’re looking for. It also means that for you as the owner of the forum, the software should be understandable and intuitive.
The Best Forum Software Has High Customizability
Way back when forums first became a thing, they all kind of looked the same. This trend seems to have persisted for way too long. Finally, forum software companies are putting in the effort to offer higher customizability of their product.
What does this customizability include? You will be able to create a visually unique forum – one that doesn’t resemble all the other forums on the internet. Also, the members of your forum will be able to customize their profiles, change profile pictures, add signatures, use fun fonts, or even work their way up through a reward system you set up.
Awards and Achievements for Active Members
Speaking of awards, they are an amazing tool for community engagement. Knowing that they can get an award or an achievement for being active prompts people to engage in quality discussions more frequently. The awards can bring certain benefits, such as access to secret subforums or ad-free browsing for a certain period of time.
Management Tools are a Crucial Factor
Being able to manage your forum effectively is much more important than making it look good. The best forum software provides you with community building and management tools that are comprehensive and easy to use. The members should have the option to flag or report inappropriate content, and you and your admin team should have available options for repercussions for rule-breaking.
Of course, there are many other features that most forum builders offer, but these are some of the basic and crucial ones. And now that you know what you’re looking for, let’s take a look at some of the best forum software options in 2020.
GroupApp is a platform designed to help you start an online community, grow it, and retain it. It gives you all the necessary tools you need to manage your online community and turn it into a prosperous business. There is a handful of features offered by GroupApp we’re sure you’ll find handy. It provides all the features you can expect with other software forums, but also many more.
GroupApp offers you a feature of hosting online courses for your community members. If you are good at something or see the demand of your community members to learn and improve, you can use GroupApp online courses builder to create and sell online courses quickly. The feature allows you to create, place and sell courses, all within the platform. You won’t need any additional online course tool or integration. With GroupApp you have an all-in-one platform for your community and courses.
GroupApp allows you to divide members into membership tiers or charge them the membership subscription. This allows you to turn your membership community into a recurring revenue-generating asset. This further means you do not have to depend on donations, as most Facebook groups communities do. Besides setting a subscription plan, you can further monetize your community group by introducing coupons and trial periods for your subscription.
The first thing you should be aware of is that you will have complete ownership over your community. This means that your community audience belongs to you and you control how you communicate with them. GroupApp doesn’t hold your community data hostage like Facebook Groups. Whatever you build on GroupApp belongs to you and your business.
If you would like to learn more about GroupApp, you can watch the demo here or start a free trial by signing up on the platform. Many benefits come with this specific community software – make sure to read Wealth Nation and Marathon Trade Case Study.
phpBB is an open-source software solution that also includes a large database of extensions created by other users. It is completely free, and there is nothing to indicate that this will change in the foreseeable future. Despite this, it still offers the option to test the demo before opting for this solution.
Some of the features offered by phpBB include mod and admin roles, special permissions, community newsletters (if you’re not sure how to create one, check out our 6 tips for the perfect community newsletter), and most importantly, there is an easy banning system for spammers and other rule-breakers.
Pros and Cons of phpBB
One of the best things about phpBB is, of course, that it is completely free. You won’t even be asked for your credit card info. Even more importantly, it offers a wide array of features and high customizability for literally $0. Also, there is an active user support community for everyone looking for some help or advice on how to use the software.
However, to be able to use phpBB to its full potential, you will need to know some basic coding. Reviewers at G2 also mentioned that SEO support is poor, as well as that it simply can’t compare to other, paid alternatives. A lack of social media integration is an issue for some users. Lastly, the visual components of phpBB are quite outdated.
Vanilla Forums is one of the most popular and best forum software solutions on the market right now. Their forums come with a wide array of options:
- Different discussion formats. Aside from general discussions and messages, forum members can also make polls or create other types of content. Of course, your admin team can enable or disable these features depending on your preferences. In addition to these, adding photos, videos, or tweets is easy even for complete beginners.
- Comprehensive editing. Vanilla’s editor recognizes HTML, BB, and Markdown. However, even if you’re not well-versed in these, there are ways to manage a forum from Vanilla without having to code.
- Member notifications. Vanilla brings community engagement on a new level with both in-page and e-mail notifications about the discussions the members active in and things they care about.
- Customizable profiles. Profile pictures or avatars, personal information, badges and achievements, and so much more. Member profiles are fully customizable.
- Private and group messaging. To avoid spamming and cluttering public discussions, members can send private messages to each other and add other members to their private discussions.
- Member groups. A step further from group messages, members can create their own private or public groups within a forum. This is especially useful if you have a large community.
- Social media integration. Do you have a Facebook group or page, a Twitter or LinkedIn account? Then you can integrate those social media profiles with your forum, making sharing between platforms easy. Also, new members can use their existing social media accounts to sign up.
- Admin dashboard. From this dashboard, your admin team can easily manage the forum, adjust settings, and add or remove various plugins.
- Default and custom roles. You can assign forum members different roles which include permissions you choose from over 30 different options.
So how much does this all cost? The good news is that it doesn’t have to cost you anything. There is an open-source version that you can host yourself for free. This is a good option for small businesses, organizations, or individuals.
However, for a more reliable product and better support, there is a Business solution. You can request a demo to find out if this is the best option for you. As far as the pricing goes, it is not clearly stated on the website, but sources such as Capterra claim that the price starts at $689 a month.
Pros and Cons of Vanilla Forums
Vanilla Forum’s wide array of features is its strongest point. As a Vanilla client, anything you need from your forum, you can get – but, at a price. Let’s be honest, the starting price of almost $700 simply doesn’t seem too attractive.
The free version, of course, has its limitations. As a reviewer from TrustRadius points out: “Although there is an open-source version of the software, some of the plugins (gamification, badges) are not available for download”.
Any company with an online presence should already be familiar with WordPress. It is much more than a forum software solution. It is a website builder used by tens of millions of websites across the internet.
With tens of thousands of plugins for WordPress, the customizability you could achieve on your website is unimaginable. Some of the best WordPress forum plugins include bbPress, BuddyPress, and wpForo. The features and appearance of your forum will, of course, depend on the plugin you choose.
In general, there are several good reasons why people and companies turn to WordPress when looking for the best forum software. Firstly, most of them already have WordPress websites, which makes the process of creating a forum easier. Secondly, WordPress is highly SEO-friendly, allowing for good marketing and exposure. Finally, you can create and manage a forum regardless of your level of backend expertise.
Talking about the pros and cons of using WordPress to build your forum is difficult, as each plugin has its own advantages and disadvantages. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the most commonly-used forum plugins.
bbPress was built specifically for WordPress, making it easy to integrate with any theme you choose. There are also hundreds of extensions to pick from, designed to allow you to introduce almost any feature you can imagine. Lastly, it is completely free.
On the other hand, bbPress still doesn’t offer as wide a variety of features as, for example, Vanilla. In other words, if you wish to add more features, you’ll have to install additional extensions. Consequently, the plugin won’t be as lightweight as it initially was.
Much like bbPress, BuddyPress is easy to integrate with WordPress themes and other plugins. There are also hundreds of extensions, and updates are pretty frequent. It is free and open-source, and you can use it on an unlimited number of websites.
However, as is the case with bbPress, the basic BuddyPress plugin has very few features. Unless you’re ready to download a handful of extensions, you will be stuck with a pretty basic forum.
wpForo Forum comes with several pricing tiers, which means that you can choose the package that fits your needs. There is even a free package if you’re not ready to spend a dime. There are built-in SEO features, antispamming, caching, and more.
As with most tiered-pricing products, the free version is pretty basic and limited. If you’re not satisfied with a very basic bulletin board, you’re going to have to cash out. Also, wpForo Forum can be a bit too complicated for those who are not completely familiar with forum-building software.
Yet another FOSS, Joomla! is an award-winning content management system. Much like WordPress, it is more than one of the best forum software options out there. It is a comprehensive website builder.
If you have a Joomla-based website, you can opt for one (or several) of Joomla’s extensions in order to build a forum. The Joomla! Extensions Directory is quite extensive (pun intended). Of course, not all of them are used for forum-building, but forum extensions are quite numerous, as well.
Some of the best extensions you can use to build a forum on your Joomla website include Kunena, EasyDiscuss, and ChronoForums. Let’s take a closer look.
Kunena is hands down one of the most popular and most downloaded Joomla extensions, and not only among forum-focused ones. It is community-driven and allows for effective community marketing, open-source, and rich in features. It might be a bit too complicated for beginners, but user support resources are quite useful.
Another Joomla extension, EasyDiscuss is designed to help you build both forums and discussion boards. It has been compared to Q&A platforms such as Yahoo! Answers. It has a long list of features, both for admins and for members.
Unlike Kunena, EasyDiscuss isn’t free. It offers two single-payment packages, EasyDiscuss Pro and EasyDiscuss Developer, priced $79 and $199 respectively. Obviously, they include a different number and type of features.
ChronoForums is yet another simple and feature-rich Joomla extension. It offers a free version with limited features. There are also several pricing tiers, starting at $19.99, which unlock additional features, such as multiple domains.
MyBB is a forum software largely similar to phpBB. It is free and open-source, offers a large number of plugins and themes, and has an active and helpful community. MyBB is multilingual and available in over 30 world languages.
Some of the features offered include:
- An advanced plugin system,
- Moderation and administration tools,
- Optimized discussions,
- Private messaging,
- Templates and themes,
- Community engagement features.
Pros and Cons of MyBB
All in all, MyBB is completely free, highly customizable and extendable, and feature-rich. In a way, it is the more modern counterpart of phpBB. One of the issues that Comparakeet points out is poor spam management. If you ask us, that is a small price to pay for an otherwise well-rounded product.
Simple Machines Forum
Just like the name suggests, Simple Machines is quite simple to use. What’s more, this is the best forum software in terms of the number of plugins and themes available. It is free, open-source, and updated pretty regularly.
Pros and Cons of Simple Machines Forum
Simple Machines is really what you make of it. If you opt for this software, you’ll have access to countless extensions and templates. In other words, you’ll be able to implement pretty much any feature that comes to mind. There is also the option to offer paid subscriptions with premium access to some of your content.
However, as the website SEOClerks points out, a high number of themes don’t necessarily mean all of them will match your version of the software. While this is easily fixable for those who know how to code, it could be an issue for inexperienced users. Another issue that some users point out is that it looks somewhat outdated.
Invision Community is a comprehensive content management system that offers more than just forum-building features. With Invision, you can create a blog, a Q&A platform, offer paid memberships and premium subscriptions, promote, sell digital and physical products, build apps, manage users, and so much more. The software also offers spam defense tools, admin and mod tools, and high customization.
Of course, with such a wide variety of features, Invision isn’t free. Its pricing system is quite comprehensive and offers a large number of packages. However, it is not necessarily expensive, either – the starting price is $45 a month.
Pros and Cons of Invision Community
Overall, users seem to be pretty satisfied with what Invision has to offer. Reviewers on Capterra have even called it the best forum software out there. They highlight some of the best features, such as security, customer service, and ease of use.
Issues that some reviewers have mentioned include lack of good gamification options and not-so-simple backups. Another thing that could pose an issue is the automatic upgrade. If your website exceeds the number of visits allowed in your package, Invision will automatically upgrade you to a more expensive one. While you are free to downgrade at the end of the month, this can pose a problem for some users.
The Bottom Line – What is the Best Forum Software
All in all, the internet is flooded with different forum-building solutions. However, only the best forum software offers a wide variety of features, combined with high customizability and an intuitive interface.
The choice is ultimately yours – it depends on your personal preferences, goals, and budget. If you would like to start with GroupApp, you can start a free trial by signing up on the platform. We’ll be glad to welcome you!