The Best Forum Software To Build A Thriving Online Community


Forum software in some form has been around for almost as long as the internet has. And, to this day – forums are still an incredibly powerful way to build & connect with a thriving community online.

In this article, we'll take a close look at the best forum software available to help you make the right decision for your community:

What Functionality Should Your Forum Have?

Before we dive deeper into taking a look at the individual forum platforms available, let's first outline what features really matter.

What do you really need to run your own thriving forum?

  • Open-source forum software. Using a platform that isn't open-source is like building a house on land that you don't own. Building a forum on a platform that you can't fully control is almost as limiting as simply using social media's built-in functionality like Facebook Groups.
  • Private messaging. As someone running a forum, in most cases, you'd want members to be able to engage privately with each other so they can get to know each other better. When forum software outright lacks private messaging functionality, this is evidently extremely difficult which is why I would argue it's an absolute must.
  • A powerful text editor. If you expect people to post content, the editor they use should be powerful. It should make embedding media from third-party sources such as YouTube and Vimeo easy to that it actually encourages engagement.
  • A great overall user experience. Carrying on from the previous point, the all-round experience has to be great for your forum members otherwise it isn't going to encourage them to keep coming back to the forum and asking questions there.
  • Notifications that encourage engagement. The most difficult part about building a community online – and in particular a forum – is the lack of attention. There are so many places that people go to consume content, which is why it's essential for your forum software to have a powerful notification system that can email users of new replies to their posts encouraging them to come back to the platform and then continue engaging & keep the conversation going.

Forums can be used in a number of ways. Whether it's to bring your audience together and let them connect with each other or provide a way for customers to submit support requests.

Regardless of what you're using your forum for, the end goal is facilitating better relationships. However, the type of functionality and user experience that you're looking for will vary depending on what type of forum you're running – so, without further ado, let's take a look at this handpicked shortlist of the best forum software so you can start growing your online community in the right place...

1. Discourse – Civilized Discussion


Forums have been around for long, but it doesn’t mean they're all dated.

This is especially true for Discourse, which proves that not all forum software has to be clunky, slow, and difficult to use.

You can take the Discourse demo for a spin instantly to get a feel of how it works out of the box but since it's open-source, customizing it further is actually very easy to do.

One way to extend Discourse is with the wide variety of integrations they offer. And beyond this, it was also built to work great on mobile devices so you don't have to worry about specifically optimizing your forum to work on smaller touch-screen devices. Discourse is our personal favorite on this list mainly because it's still under active development and functions so well that it could easily be compared to a modern social network – the ease-of-use really isn't something that's typical with open-source software.

Discourse AdvantagesDiscourse Disadvantages
Excellent user experienceNeeds to be hosted on a subdomain (rather than in a subfolder which may make it unsuitable if you are looking to add a forum to an existing website.
Easy setup
Built-in moderation options w/user trust system.
Open-source & completely free to download and host with your preferred VPS hosting provider.

Depending on the type of forum you're running and how advanced you want it to be – Discourse is definitely worth looking into to see if it meets your specific requirements. If you have any specific questions about it, they conveniently have a thriving community of their own (obviously also powered by Discourse) that you can join to get help from their support team along with other Discourse users – The Official Discourse Support Forum.

How does the Discourse user trust system work?

The Discourse User Trust System basically ranks your forum’s users, classifying them into five levels: visitor, novice, regular, leader, and elder. More experienced members of the forum will be awarded more rights and even moderation permissions, to an extent. This system rewards users for their contribution, and effectively creates internal moderation within the community that uses the forum.

Discourse is open-source and completely free to install and download – and thanks to SSD Nodes' affordable VPS hosting that means you can get started for just $59 USD per year...

Learn how to get started & install Discourse in this guide.

2. Invision Community 


Invision Community is trusted by brands most of you will likely have heard of before. So it goes without saying it's definitely an option worth considering and ranks high on any list of forum software.

It originally started as IP Board and grew very quickly in popularity before they rebranded into what Invision Community is today.

Some popular brands using Invision Community to run their forums

It's easy to see those logos and be impressed, but I may be speaking for myself when I say I've never been on any of the above forums – though it wouldn't surprise me if you reading this hasn't either.

So, let's take a look at a real-world example – MyThemeShop. A company in the WordPress industry known for its themes & plugins.

How do they use Invision Community? They use it to power their entire support system for customers and their forum is still active to this day.

MyThemeShop's Support Forums

We love referring to real-world examples like the one above because it's easy to look at demos which are made to look good but not know how things look when it gets messy such as how the forum software stacks up when someone posts too many consecutive replies...

Invision Community isn't as easy to customize as other open-source alternatives like Discourse, but for businesses that don't really want (nor need) the additional customization and are looking for a way to add a forum to their site quickly, we still recommend giving it a chance.

Invision Community AdvantagesInvision Community Disadvantages
Minimal setup (basically works out of the box) .Lacks customization options that other forum software has.
Great for simple forums – such as support forums.Isn't really built to encourage engagement which makes running a community more difficult.
Far more expensive when compared to alternative options available.

Invision Community's pricing varies depending on the functionality that you're interested in but it is without a doubt more expensive than the other options available.

3. BuddyBoss (WordPress)


Similar to Discourse, this option – BuddyBoss – is powered by open-source software. The fact that BuddyBoss can run on your existing WordPress environment which most of you will be familiar with is definitely an added benefit.

BuddyBoss was built to make it extremely simple for people familiar with WordPress to build and grow their community with minimal setup. Their suite of software is also perfect for you if you want to run your membership and learning management system on the same installation...

BuddyBoss AdvantagesBuddyBoss Disadvantages
Open-source & powered by the WordPress content management system (easily add forums or communities to existing websites)Requires more customization than the other platforms to work as intended.
WordPress is really easy to work with and familiar to most website owners. Starting at $228 USD per year, BuddyBoss is fairly expensive when compared to other options available.

BuddyBoss makes it really easy to get WordPress functioning as an online community/forum software without having to spend ages tweaking your theme and PHP files. Pricing starts at $228 USD per year and with the cost of VPS hosting that you'd need to keep your community loading fast at scale, that would only cost an additional $99 USD per year.

So in total running a community with BuddyBoss would equate to approximately $327 USD per year.

Other forum alternatives that are powered by WordPress:

4. Flarum


Unlike all of the other options in this article, Flarum is actually still in beta (and has been for a while) which may be a deal-breaker for some of you.

That being said, its modern and unique approach to the appearance and functionality of a forum has definitely attracted attention. This is in part due to their focus on one main goal from the very beginning which is to make online discussion fun, simple, fast, and free.

One of Flarum's most notable features is the two-pane interface that makes it easy to read through unread discussions without leaving the thread that you're currently on. This makes opening other discussions while writing a post possible, which is something that most other software lacks.

It allows makes use of infinite scrolling that remembers where you left off even if you leave the page and then come back to it later.

Flarum AdvantagesFlarum Disadvantages
Open-source and completely free to download & run on your preferred VPS hosting provider.Still in beta – although slim, this does mean there is a chance you will run into unfinished features or issues with the software.
Works great on mobile.
Extremely fast and user-friendly.

You can learn more about Flarum here and since it is open-source and free to download, to get up & running all you'd need is a VPS server. Once you have your VPS ready to go, you can simply reference this Flarum installation guide here to configure everything...

5. phpBB


phpBB been around for an incredibly long time – since the year 2000.

Although it definitely says something that it has been around for a while, and the phpBB team continues to work to improve their solution – it definitely does have the 20-year-old forum aura about itself which most new forum owners won't really be keen to have.

Keeping that in mind, phpBB is very easy to use and actually also has extensions to customize your forum.

Some of phpBB’s notable features include creating sub-forums, password-protected forums, notifications, a variety of hierarchy systems, moderation options, a theme system that lets you change your forum’s look, and support for multiple languages...

phpBB AdvantagesphpBB Disadvantages
Open-source and completely free to download & run on your preferred VPS hosting provider.Fairly old-fashioned when compared to more modern solutions like Discourse and BuddyBoss.
Very simple user interface.Limited ways to customize phpBB forums.

phpBB is completely free and has no paid business plan. So as with the other open-source options, we've looked at so far, including Discourse, Flarum, and BuddyBoss, all you need to pay for is hosting.

6. Vanilla Forums


Vanilla has an abundance of features with one of the most notable ones being the intuitive dashboard that lets you manage every aspect of your community forum. This forum software is known for its gamification possibilities, forum permission adjustments for members, automatic content curation, onboarding process, and advanced marketing integrations.

All of the features that Vanilla offers to help enhance the user experience and improve engagement really take the business forum experience to the next level.

What’s really special about Vanilla is just how meticulously well thought out it is. Setting up your forum to work as intended is as easy as it should be with a number of themes & plugins at your disposal to make the experience your own.

Vanilla Forums AdvantagesVanilla Forums Disadvantages
Open-source and completely free to download & run on your preferred VPS hosting provider.Vanilla's appearance and experience out of the box is still not as modern and seamless as with Discourse.
Still under active development with big plans for 2020.Support for users self-hosting their forums is.
Migrating from other forum software such as phpBB to Vanilla is straightforward.

You can also use Vanilla Forums as a customer support tool, as it allows you to make use of a ticketing system. In addition to this, it also includes a knowledge base system that allows businesses that want to use Vanilla to support their customers to let customers search through knowledgebase articles to avoid the creation of unnecessary tickets.

Since Vanilla if open-source, you can download it right from GitHub, host it on your own server, and stay in complete control of your data...

7. vBulletin 

Now let's take a look at another older and more popular forum software – vBulletin.

Just like phpBB, vBulletin launched in 2000, and to date is used by over 100,000 customers, including big names such as EA, Sony, and even NASA.

Its wide range of features includes built-in SEO tools, security, a strong administration system, interactive web design, and an AI-based feature that encourages community engagement. vBulletin is best-suited for larger communities,

VBulletin AdvantagesVBulletin Disadvantages
Offers the most "traditional forum-style" experience out there which may be what you're looking for. Old-fashioned when compared to options like Discourse and Vanilla Forums.
Requires a paid license.

The cost of hosting vBulletin on your own server is a single one-time payment of $249. This is definitely better than some of the alternatives which require yearly renewals but we personally don't believe the experience comes close to the (free) open-source options that are available...

What forum software should you use to build a community?

Most forum software is built to function as traditional forums did years ago, but this doesn't cut it because people compare your community to other groups on social networks like Facebook.

Our personal favorite is Discourse. It's the perfect blend of modern functionality and appearance matched with the great part about forums which is that keeping track isn't as difficult as it is in crowded groups on social networks. Beyond that, it's open-source which is always something we like.

All of the other options included in this article are still well worth considering since the logical platform of choice will vary depending on your use case.

For example, if you'd like to reap the benefits of being powered by the world's best content management system – an option like BuddyBoss – is also a brilliant choice.

And if you're a fan of the good old fashioned reliable forum style of communication, phpBB is likely the right choice for you.

The three solutions featured at the end here are all self-hosted which we prefer because it gives you complete ownership and control of your data.

With open-source software, the only cost you incur is hosting. Obviously, we're a bit biased but if you have any questions about hosting your forum software of choice and doing so on a high-performance VPS (virtual private server) that doesn't compromise the speed of your forum, we're confident that you'll really like SSD Nodes.