10 best forum software for online communities (free and paid) (2024)

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10 best forum software for online communities (free and paid) (1)

Forum software platforms have been a staple of online communities since the early days of the internet. In spite of the earth-shattering growth of social media networks over the last decade, these platforms have remained a safe haven for those looking to connect with like-minded individuals on a more global, anonymous scale.

Nowadays, the practice of how to make a website and an online forum is becoming increasingly popular among businesses, as online communities have proven to be an incredibly valuable asset. Regardless of wether you have a startup website, are a small business owner, or enterprise decision maker—to get started on your own, we recommend creating a website with a website builder like Wix that has a built-in, free forum software that can easily be added.

Forums can serve as a way to simply bring your audience together, or as a source of feedback and inter-user support. Regardless of what purpose you aim for these types of websites to serve, one of the most gratifying results is always the strengthened sense of connection between users and your product or services. Take a look at this selection of the best forum software available and start planting the seeds of your future thriving online community.

What is forum software?

Forum software is a type of application that enables users to create and post messages,read and reply to messages posted by othersand engage in discussions organized around specific topics or interests.These online discussion boards,also known as forums or message boards,serve as platforms for communities to exchange knowledge,share experiencesand seek support.

Best forum software

  1. Wix Forum

  2. phpBB

  3. vBulletin

  4. MyBB

  5. Vanilla

  6. Flarum

  7. Simple Machines Forum

  8. Discourse

  9. XenForo

  10. Invision Community

01. Wix Forum

Price: Free

Wix Forum is a drag-and-drop forum software that allows you to build outstanding community sites without a single line of code. You can start from scratch or choose one of the platform’s professionally designed website templates. In both cases, you’ll be able to customize every aspect of your forum and complement it with additional apps either with a membership website or other type.

This solution is focused on building vibrant online communities and providing powerful social features that encourage users to engage with each other and create meaningful relationships. Wix Forum takes a page from the popular social media book to provide users with personal profile pages where other members can see all their posts and follow them.

Unlike the vast majority of free forum software solutions, Wix Forum is not self-hosted. This means that you won’t have to pay for hosting, nor be in charge or fixing any technical problems that may occur. Furthermore, if you don’t want to create a forum website separated from your main site, this platform allows you to easily merge the two together.

Key Wix features:

  • Built-in advanced SEO tools

  • Customizable interface

  • Social features

  • Mobile-friendly platform

  • Members and profile pages

  • Reliable and secure web hosting

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02. phpBB

Price: Free

phpBB is one of the oldest and most well-known free forum solutions out there. First launched in 2000, this platform is constantly updated to keep up with the latest industry trends including mobile-first indexing compliance and anti-spam capabilities.

The forum’s user-friendly interface, paired with a solid administration panel and documentation, make it highly accessible even with little technical knowledge. It includes all the basic features needed on a forum software, such as user moderation, notifications, security and multi-language support. Additionally, there are hundreds of free extensions available.

phpBB is open-source and self-hosted, which means that you won’t have to pay for its use but will need to invest in a robust website hosting platform. On a high-quality host, this forum software solution can handle a large number of message boards and thousands of users.

Key features:

  • Detailed documentation and video tutorials

  • Robust messaging capabilities

  • Built-in SEO tools

  • Extensive management panel

  • Responsive design and cross-browser support

03. vBulletin

Price: Plans for vBulletin Cloud start at $14.99/month, vBulletin 5 Connect license requires a one-time $249 payment

Broadly considered one of the best premium forum software, vBulletin has been around for over two decades. This platform provides powerful administration, security and SEO tools, and has an AI-powered engagement feature that encourages community growth.

This forum software was created with large communities in mind. In addition to using machine learning and natural language processing to boost participation, vBulletin also allows users to create private forums and groups. Furthermore, it’s possible to create a blog within the platform in order to provide added value to members and strengthen the forum’s SEO performance.

The platform offers both self-hosting (vBulletin 5 Connect) and cloud hosting (vBulletin Cloud) options, making it equally accessible for users with varying degrees of technical knowledge. Both versions can be set up in just 15 minutes and provide the same features.

Key features:

  • Mobile device optimization

  • Highly customizable themes

  • Powerful media capabilities

  • Built-in SEO tools

  • Task scheduler

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04. MyBB

Price: Free

As its name suggests, MyBB allows users to make the platform their own. This powerful open-source, free forum software is fully customizable, providing ready-made templates and a theme editor to make it easy for users to achieve their design goals. Its customization capabilities are also available for end users, as they can easily adjust the way they view discussions.

This solution provides all the basic features of a solid forum software, as well as several additional plugins available for those who want to take their boards a step further. Examples of these include anti-spam tools, gamification features, email blast support, and CDN capabilities.

While the list of extensions offered by MyBB falls short of the variety other solutions in this list offer, its easy accessibility and modern style make it a feisty contender in the fight for the title of best forum software.

Key features:

  • Database management integration

  • Multi-language support

  • Complete design customization

  • Broad range of plugins

  • Email blasts

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05. Vanilla

Price: Free open-source version, business plans start at $689/month

Vanilla offers both free and premium versions of its forum software. The former provides users with a self-hosting platform with basic features and community-built plugins, while the latter is a powerful cloud-based solution aimed at enterprise-level customers.

Some of this forum software’s most renowned features include a wide array of marketing integrations, automatic content curation and gamification practices. These are not only aimed to support and increase user engagement but also to empower business effectiveness.

Vanilla can also be used as a help desk software to create a robust ticket system for customer support efforts. The platform’s built-in knowledge base system also makes it possible for businesses to easily develop a self-service that relieves support demand.

Key features:

  • User-friendly set up process

  • Mobile-friendly interface

  • Social and data sharing integration

  • Wide range of themes and plugins

  • Auto-saving feature

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06. Flarum

Price: Free

Despite being relatively new in the, Flarum has already made a name for itself as one of the best free forum software out there. The main reason for this lies on the core ethos upon which the solution has been built: simple, modern and fast. It’s fair to say that these values are more than present in Flarum’s platform.

This new-gen forum software is easy to install and loads fast thanks to its lightweight JavaScript framework. Out of the box the platform’s user interface is modern and sleek, with a heavy focus on user experience. This elegant, simple design is complemented by smooth animations and large buttons which provide an overall professional look.

But what truly makes Flarum stand out is its two-pane interface. This unique feature provides users with a flexible environment where they can participate in numerous discussions without opening a handful of different tabs. Other engagement-focused capabilities include a floating message composer, discussion-organized notifications, live chat and user mentions.

Key features:

  • Easy forum set up

  • User-friendly design tools

  • Two-pane interface

  • Advanced permission settings

  • Comprehensive APIs

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07. Simple Machines Forum

Price: Free

Also known simply as SMF, Simple Machines Forum is an open-source forum software built with large online communities in mind. Its interface stays clear of flashy decorations, opting instead for a clear and sober approach that gives the platform a professional look.

In order to allow for optimal performance and scalability, this free forum software offers a broad variety of customizable features and plugins, along with structured code documentation. As a result, SMF’s module and system is among the most flexible in the space.

Furthermore, SMF’s advanced package manager allows users to implement large-scale user modifications quickly. In just a couple clicks, you’ll be able to apply changes to large user databases. Long gone are the days when these modifications took endless hours and lines of code.

Key features:

  • Advanced security features

  • Highly customizable extensions

  • Supports 46 languages

  • Paid user subscriptions

  • Built-in SEO tools

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08. Discourse

Price: Free open-source version, business plans start at $100/month

Discourse offers a modern take on the notion of forums. A quick look at the platform’s interface makes it evident that this open-source solution has little in common with the traditional forum structure. This, combined with a long list of available features and integrations and complete mobile optimization, have granted this solution a spot among the best forum software.

One of Discourse’s most groundbreaking features is a unique user ranking system that provides experienced members with certain moderation capabilities. This results in a self-moderated community where users are rewarded for their engagement and meaningful collaborations.

If you are interested in this open-source forum software and don’t know how to host a website or don’t have the resources to do so, Discourse offers a managed hosting solution for a monthly subscription starting at $100.

Key features:

  • Mobile device optimization

  • Advanced moderation settings

  • Business plugins and social media integrations

  • Rich messaging tools

  • Performance analytic tools

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09. XenForo

Price: $160/year

XenForo is a self-hosted forum software created for businesses. The platform presents an elegant interface that can be easily customized to match the business’s brand identity. You’ll be able to change the forum layout, create your own typography style and implement your brand colors without a single line of code.

There are more than 2,000 plugins available in the platform, ranging from enhanced search capabilities to premium area paywalls. Among these, one of the XenForum’s core defining features is the use of gamification to encourage user engagement. This includes social sharing, activity milestones, appreciation tools and a reward scheme.

In addition to the basic yearly license, XenForo offers several premium services users can add to their forums such as a media gallery, enhanced SEO tools and advanced resource management. Extra additions can be purchased from third-party vendors.

Key features:

  • Built-in SEO

  • User engagement rewards

  • Robust content tools

  • Customizable templates

  • Wide range of add-ons

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10. Invision Community

Price: Plans start at $45/month

Invision Community is deemed to be one of the best forum software solutions for businesses and enterprises. It combines a fully customizable interface with rich content creation tools and a comprehensive admin panel that makes it easy to set up and manage.

The platform enables users to customize every aspect of their forums, down to the activity feed on a user basis. This flexibility extends to end-users as well, as they can create and manage their own online communities within the forum. Known as clubs, these areas get designated managers and can control private forums, galleries and calendars.

Furthermore, Invision’s solution can be used beyond forum platforms to build fully functional and mobile-responsible support ticket systems, blogs, file-sharing networks, eCommerce sites, content management systems and more.

Key features:

  • Achievement rewards

  • Premium clubs memberships

  • Powerful business tools

  • Advanced security settings

  • Comprehensive content apps

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What are the benefits of using forum software?

Forum software offers numerous benefits for individuals,organizationsand businesses,making it a valuable tool for communication,collaborationand community building.Here are some of the key advantages of using forum software:

  • Fostering community:Forum software creates a platform for individuals with shared interests to connect,interact and form meaningful connections.It facilitates discussions,encourages sharing of knowledge and experiencesand helps build a sense of belonging and community.

  • Enhanced customer support:Companies can utilize forum software to provide comprehensive customer support,allowing users to ask questions,seek solutionsand share feedback.This direct interaction with customers helps improve product development,identify areas for improvementand enhance customer satisfaction.

  • Effective knowledge management:Forums serve as a repository of valuable information,capturing discussions,FAQs and solutions to common problems.This collective knowledge base can be easily searched and accessed by users,reducing the need for repetitive support requests and streamlining problem-solving.

  • Brand building: Active forum participation allows organizations to establish themselves as thought leaders in their respective industries.By engaging with users,providing valuable insightsand addressing concerns,companies can build brand credibility and enhance their reputation.

  • Market research:Forum discussions provide valuable insights into user needs,preferencesand pain points.Companies can analyze these conversations to gather market research,identify potential product improvements and develop features that align with user expectations.

How to choose the right forum software

Choosing the right forum software for your online community is crucial for ensuring a thriving and engaging online space.Here's a step-by-step guide to help you make an informed decision:

  1. Define your community's goals and needs:Before diving into software options,clearly define the purpose and objectives of your online community.What do you hope to achieve?What are the specific needs of your target audience?Understanding these goals will guide your software selection.

  2. Assess your technical expertise:Consider your technical capabilities or the availability of technical support.Some forum software requires more technical expertise for setup and maintenance,while others offer user-friendly interfaces and simplified management tools.

  3. Evaluate features and functionality:Research and compare different forum software options based on their features and functionality.Consider essential features like user profiles,threaded discussions,moderation tools,search and navigation and integration capabilities.

  4. Consider scalability and growth:Choose software that can accommodate your community's growth.Ensure the software can handle increasing user traffic,data storage requirementsand potential feature expansions in the future.

  5. Review pricing and licensing options:Compare pricing structures and licensing models of different software providers.Open-source software may be cost-effective but may require more technical expertise,while paid software often provides support and regular updates.

  6. Test and evaluate potential software:Most forum software providers offer free trials or demo versions.Utilize these opportunities to test the software's user interface,featuresand compatibility with your needs.

  7. Seek community feedback:Gather feedback from potential users or existing community members to understand their preferences and expectations for the forum software.Their insights can help you identify the most suitable option.

  8. Prioritize security and data protection:Ensure the forum software prioritizes user data security and privacy.Check for robust security measures,data encryption and compliance with relevant data protection regulations.

  9. Consider mobile compatibility:In today's mobile-first world,choose forum software that offers a responsive design and a user-friendly mobile experience.This ensures your community can access and engage with the forum on various devices.

  10. Seek support when needed:Don't hesitate to seek assistance from the software provider or the online community if you encounter any technical difficulties or have questions about the software's functionality.

What features should forum software offer?

Forum software should offer a range of features to facilitate effective communication, collaboration and community engagement. Some essential features to look for in forum software include:

  1. Discussion threads and topics: Enable users to create and engage in discussion threads organized by topics or categories for easy navigation and focused conversations.

  2. User registration: Allow users to register accounts, create profiles and customize their information, fostering a sense of community and personalization.

  3. Moderation tools: Provide robust moderation tools for administrators and moderators to manage content, including thread locking, post deletion and user banning, ensuring a safe and respectful environment.

  4. Search functionality: Offer powerful search capabilities to help users quickly find relevant topics and posts within the forum, enhancing usability and user experience.

  5. Notification system: Implement a notification system that alerts users to new replies, mentions or updates to subscribed threads, keeping users engaged and informed about ongoing discussions.

Best forum software FAQ

How much does forum software cost?

The cost of forum software can vary depending on the features and functionality of the software. Some forum programs are free to use, while others require a license fee. There are also many open-source forum programs available, which can be downloaded and used for free.

Is it hard to create a forum website?

Can you make money running a forum?

10 best forum software for online communities (free and paid) (2024)
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