11 Best Forum Software to Build an Online Community in 2021
Creating a forum website is a great way to engage with your target audience and nurture communication with different communities.
An online forum usually focuses on a specific subject, from technology and politics to hobbies and recent trends. Many business owners use forum platforms for marketing their products and services to a broader audience.
In this article, we will review the 11 best forum software solutions along with a list of pros and cons from each forum builder.
However, before discussing each entry on the list, we need to learn what you should be looking for in online forum software.
What Makes a Great Forum Software?
Most online forums enable you to register an account, create threads, and post in response to other users’ messages.
In many cases, forums include user-role systems, so you can have admins and moderators managing the site while regular users retain minimal permissions.
Aside from the basic functionality, here are some additional features to look out for when you are choosing an online forum software:
- Profile customization. Enable users to customize their profiles and help increase engagement by giving them more flexibility and control.
- Powerful text editor. Forums are almost 100% text-based. That is why a user-friendly text editor is essential for users to create and customize their posts.
- Private messaging. Many forums are all about community discussion, but enabling private messaging is an excellent way to advance interpersonal relationships.
- Comment signatures. Like profile customization, this option can help you increase engagement and give users the chance to have more fun.
- Achievement systems. Some online forums set up “user levels” that can be unlocked after a certain level of activity or amount of time. It rewards users for frequently participating in your forum.
Whichever forum building software you choose doesn’t need to offer all of these features. What you need the most depends on the kind of experience you want to provide.
For example, if your goal is to set up a forum that lets users submit customer support queries, it might be unnecessary to enable signatures or achievements.
However, most forums can benefit from as many modern features as possible. Providing an experience as close as possible to a social media platform can entice users to keep coming back.
For that reason, you want to look for the forum software that offers as many of these features as possible, even if you don’t intend to use them right away.
Top 11 Forum Software Compared
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to explore some of the best community forum software options.
The list below is a curated collection of the 11 best forum software tools we recommend for those who want to create their own forums.
phpBB is flexible free forum software that enables you to create boards where registered users can post messages. Once you have a forum set up, you can make as many internal message boards as you want.
Along with some basic functionality, phpBB enables you to use extensions to add new functions to the forum. There are hundreds of free extensions you can use to add almost any forum-related feature you might want.
Its design is responsive-ready, allowing you to provide the best experience across devices.
Moreover, phpBB includes a theme system, which you can use to change your forum’s overall look. Users also get plenty of options for customizing their profiles and posts.
Finally, phpBB is open-source and benefits from having an active community.
- Provides powerful forum software with multiple hierarchy options
- Enables users to customize their posts and profiles
- Offers access to plenty of moderation options
- Most phpBB themes look a bit outdated
Overall, phpBB is an easy recommendation if you’re looking for the most customizable forum software you can find. With extensions, you get access to all the features you might need to start an online forum.
There is some functionality that you can expect to find among all of the best forum software options. That includes the ability to set up message boards, enable user registration, and perform moderation.
MyBB shares a lot of features with phpBB. This free and open-source software offers robust plugin and theme systems, has an active community, and is easy to use.
It comes with a feature-rich control panel that lets you view and moderate various aspects of your online forum, such as statistics, posts, users, and groups.
The main difference is that MyBB doesn’t offer as many extensions.
However, it has an advantage over phpBB when it comes to customization. With a broader selection of themes, MyBB forums tend to look a lot more modern.
- Offers gamification and communication plugins for better user engagement
- Includes user-reputation systems out of the box
- It makes it easy to use calendars to schedule events
- It’s not as feature-rich as phpBB or other entries on this list
MyBB offers an excellent alternative to phpBB if you want something that looks more modern and stylish. Although phpBB offers more advanced features, MyBB is still robust enough to handle popular forums.
You’ve probably heard of WordPress before since it’s the most popular content management system (CMS) today. What you may not know is that this platform enables you to create almost any type of website, from a simple blog to an online store, thanks to its massive collection of plugins.
It might seem counterproductive to use a multi-purpose platform to power your online community. However, a CMS such as WordPress is one of the best choices if you want to set up a regular website and a forum side-by-side.
- Provides access to the largest collection of themes and plugins on the web
- Allows you to set up both regular websites and online discussion sites
- Provides a wide variety of forum plugins for a highly personalized experience
- WordPress is not a regular forum building software, so it requires some technical knowledge to get one up and running
As a CMS, the platform is designed to be beginner-friendly and easy to use.
If you’re a WordPress user, it makes sense to use the platform to set up your new forum. What’s more, knowing how to use WordPress can open a lot of opportunities in the future.
Joomla! is another excellent CMS that enables you to build almost any type of website you can imagine, including online forums. Just like WordPress, it features a powerful plugin and theme collection, so the platform is incredibly customizable.
The difference between WordPress and Joomla! is that the latter provides you with more control over your projects out-of-the-box. However, it’s aimed at users with more web development experience, so it’s not as hands-off as WordPress.
- Offers more control over your website out of the box
- Enables you to choose from multiple plugins to set up your online forum
- Provides powerful built-in security and SEO features
- Getting started with Joomla! is a bit more complicated than using other platforms on this list
- Your choices for forum plugins are more limited compared to WordPress
In comparison, WordPress is much easier for beginners to get started with, whereas Joomla! requires a bit of web development experience to get the most out of it.
However, it’s still an excellent solution for building a feature-rich online forum.
Drupal is another popular CMS, but it sits a step above WordPress and Joomla! in terms of default features.
When it comes to functionality, Drupal is one of the most powerful CMS platforms available. However, those added features also mean there’s a steep learning curve. Trying to use Drupal without any development experience can be a bit overwhelming.
That said, the platform offers a solid collection of modules and themes to customize your experience further. However, you don’t need to use any extensions to set up a forum with Drupal – the platform includes that functionality among its core features.
Moreover, some modules enable you to extend the default options, such as Advanced Forum.
- Provides tons of customization options
- Offers built-in forum functionality, no need for additional plugins
- Provides access to modules and theme selections to improve the online forum
- It can be difficult to get started with Drupal if you don’t have prior experience in web development
Overall, Drupal is a strong choice if you’re looking for enterprise-level features and scalability.
If you’re a web developer yourself, you shouldn’t have any problem launching your first forum using this platform.
Vanilla Forums offers both open-source and premium versions. The price of the premium version starts at $689/month and is primarily intended for enterprise-level customers.
However, Vanilla’s free version offers more than enough features to build a regular community forum.
The platform has a built-in knowledge base feature where businesses can create centralized content surrounding their products and services. This allows customers to find the resources and tools they need in an instant.
Overall, Vanilla Forums stands out from other software due to its high level of polish. The message boards you can create right out of the gate look fantastic. You also get access to theme and add-on systems.
These features include everything you need to set up a modern forum. Along with basic forum functionality, you also get access to “Best Of” sections, gamification features, and post autosaving.
- Allows you to set up stunning online forums using themes and add-ons
- Enables your users to use an advanced text editor with plenty of helpful features
- Includes the option to create private groups for your users
- Allows you to create a knowledge base system with customer service articles and community posts
- The overall collection of free add-ons and themes is not as extensive as you might expect
Even though Vanilla highlights the premium software on its homepage, its free version is one of the best forum software options you can get.
If you’re looking for a quick comparison, Simple Machines Forum is most similar to phpBB. What sets this forum building software apart is the sheer flexibility of its module and theme systems.
Simple Machines Forum uses a package manager that makes installing and updating modules a straightforward process. Plus, it offers the most extensive collection of plugins and themes you can find for open-source forum software.
What’s more, Simple Machines Forum supports paid subscriptions for your forum members, as well as all the other features you’d expect to see from any premium forum tool.
- Provides access to a broad collection of modules and themes
- It lets you switch between multiple languages with a single click
- Simplifies setting up premium subscription options for users
- Most of its themes look quite outdated
- It doesn’t offer a lot of profile customization options
In summary, this forum software is an excellent option if you want to have access to as many modules and themes as possible. These various options enable you to implement nearly any feature you want on your online forum.
However, if you want something that looks more stylish, Simple Machines Forum might not be for you.
Sometimes you don’t need to use a platform that overwhelms you with hundreds of features. FluxBB, for example, focuses on providing a performance-oriented lightweight alternative to other forum software.
That doesn’t mean that FluxBB lacks features. It offers all the essential tools you need to set up a community forum, such as message boards, along with plenty of moderation options.
There are theme and plugin systems included, although it somewhat lacks different options available for either.
Overall, FluxBB offers a fantastic experience if you want a simple and effective platform.
- Offers top-notch performance out of the box
- Includes advanced profile customization options and a user-ranking system
- Its plugin and theme options are limited
FluxBB manages to offer the essential functions you need to set up a robust forum. It’s a perfect alternative if you don’t want to deal with complicated software and you’d like to get something up and running fast.
Codoforum is essentially a freemium forum software built with PHP and MySQL. The creators state that the user experience is one of the main focuses of the software. Hence, it offers a clean, simple interface and fundamental features to create a thriving online community.
One of the biggest perks of this software is that you can install it on any server that supports PHP and MySQL. Simultaneously, everything you need from the ground up is located on its clean and user-friendly documentation page.
Codoforum has a responsive layout design that automatically adapts to various screen sizes. With its Single Sign-on (SSO) plugin, users can also integrate their websites and forums, allowing visitors to use one credential to log in.
Additionally, Codoforum offers a daily and weekly digest feature so you can send visitors recent updates, events, or content through a beautifully designed email.
- Provides in-depth official documentation
- Its tagging system allows users to separate topics into multiple categories
- Enables users to set notification levels from replies to mentions
- You need to get a paid plan to access security patches and upgrades
- The free version includes a “Powered by” watermark
Over time, Codoforum received several major updates and stands as an excellent choice to launch a successful online board.
The software was built with developers in mind but offers a simple and easy-to-use interface that works great for beginners.
Discourse is another free, open-source forum software that offers a modern yet straightforward user interface for community discussions.
Instead of breaking threads into pages, it incorporates a scroll navigation bar to improve readability and help conversations flow better. Thanks to its mobile optimization, the layout design automatically adjusts to fit various screen sizes.
Discourse provides seamless login integration with third-party applications such as Slack and GitHub and social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
It offers plenty of features to help you acknowledge experienced members and assign them for user moderation and community management. Other features like custom badges and emojis help create a more positive atmosphere.
Besides the free and self-hosted version, Discourse offers a managed hosting service starting at $100/month. This includes 20 GB storage, unlimited members, and up to 100,000 monthly page views. For more resources, the platform also offers add-ons for an extra $50/month.
- Its dynamic notifications alert you about every mention and reply
- Members can choose to follow threads from emails with the mailing list mode
- There are a variety of plugins in every hosting plan, allowing you to extend its functionality
- Monitor your community statistics through an interactive admin panel
- It might take some time and learning to get used to all the features
- Discussions can quickly get disorganized due to the members’ numerous replies
Overall, this forum software provides a modern way to build a place of discussion for communities.
It combines email notifications with social media integration, making it easier for members to log in. Moreover, spam blocking and two-factor authentication strengthen your account’s security.
This open-source forum builder also provides an easy setup process. Simply access the installation page (e.g., yourdomain.com/flarum), then fill in your details and wait for the installation to complete.
Built with user experience in mind, Flarum’s interface incorporates animations and other helpful features to improve user engagement. It also allows users to draft a message and scroll through discussions at the same time.
In addition, Flarum allows you to connect to an international audience. Download, install and add any from the 32 localization packs available. The system will automatically translate the original interface and help users from all over the world to be part of your community.
That said, Flarum is still in early development, and the program is undergoing testing phases. Thus, it’s best to give it a quick test before installing Flarum on your server.
- Provides integration with Pusher, allowing users to enable an interactive live chat feature
- Since most of the features are available via extensions, users can easily enable or disable them based on their needs
- The software requires Apache or Nginx web server, PHP 7.3+, MySQL 5.6+, as well as SSH access to run Composer
Although Flarum is still in beta testing, it already offers essential features found in other established forum software solutions. Its numerous extensions work with all kinds of communities.
Moreover, the simple and straightforward interface is suitable for beginners.
Setting up an online forum is much like creating any other type of website. You need a reliable forum host and tools that provide all the functionality you’ll need.
Our go-to forum software recommendations are WordPress and phpBB due to their ease of use, flexibility, and a wide variety of features.
WordPress also offers an easy way to turn your website into a forum with its incredible selection of forum plugins. As with phpBB, users can easily install the software using either Hostinger’s auto-installer or the Softaculous app installer.
However, they are hardly the only solid competitors for the title of the best forum software. To choose the right option, determine your goals, list the features you need, and weigh in the pros and cons of each platform.
Do you have any questions about how to choose the best forum software? Let’s discuss this in the comments section below!