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Forums have an unjustified reputation of being outdated.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.

phpBB

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.

Is phpBB the best forum software

phpBB is a free, open-source forum software 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.

For a free forum software solution, phpBB offers a wide variety of features

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.

phpBB has been 4 out of 5 stars by G2 reviewers

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

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.
Is Vanilla Forums the best forum software

Vanilla Forums is one of the most popular forum software 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. 

Vanilla’s forum software comes in a free and paid version

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. 

Vanilla Forums has earned the score of 8.9 on TrustRadius

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”. 

WordPress

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.

Is WordPress the best forum software

WordPress is home to around a third of 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

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.

bbPress might be the best forum software for WordPress-based websites

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.

BuddyPress

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.

BuddyPress is a free WordPress plugin for forum building

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

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. 

wpForo Forum is a WordPress plugin that comes with several pricing levels

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.

If none of these meet your needs, some other WordPress plugins you could try include Simple:Press, Asgaros, and ForumEngine.

Joomla!

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. 

Is Joomla the best forum software

Joomla! Is more than forum software – it is an award-winning CMS

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. 

Joomla! has an evergrowing directory of extensions

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

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. 

Kunena is one of the most popular Joomla extensions

EasyDiscuss

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.

EasyDiscuss isn’t a free extension, but it comes with two single-payment packages

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

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.

The price of ChronoForums starts at $19.99

MyBB

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.

Is MyBB the best forum software

MyBB is one of the best forum software solutions, and it is similar to phpBB

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.

Comparakeet has given MyBB favorable reviews

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.

Is Simple Machines the best forum software

FOSS Simple Machines Forum is the best forum software when it comes to plugins

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

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.

Is Invision Community the best forum software

Invision Community is a comprehensive CMS with a long list of features

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.

Invision Community has multiple pricing levels, and the cheapest one is $45

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. 

Reviewers on Captera have mostly positive things to say about Invision Community

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.

Not reading the fine print could cause you some problems

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 intuitive interface. The choice is ultimately yours – it depends on your personal preferences, goals, and budget.