Have you been struggling to convert paying customers into raving fans? Then it might be time to create an online community. And forums are an excellent opportunity to build a thriving online community and allow your users to connect, share, and give each other feedback.

Online forums provide more interaction between customers and your brand than social media, resulting in stronger engagement and brand affinity. At the end of the day – you’re launching a community to strengthen the connection between users and your brand – and the forum software you choose to do this has a huge impact as it’s what members of your community are going to interact with. So – let’s dive right in!

What Makes Great Forum Software?

Most forums include basic features like user-role systems – allowing you to separate admins, moderators, and normal users – as well as letting you register an account, create threads and respond to other users’ messages.

Apart from the basic functionality, here are some other features to look out for when you are choosing an online forum software:

Profile customization: Enable users to personalize their profile by giving them more flexibility and control, which increases engagement.

User-friendly text editor: Almost all forums are 100% text-based; this is why a user-friendly text editor is important for users to create and customize their posts.

Private messaging: Most forums are all about community discussion, and enabling private messaging is a great way to advance interpersonal relationships.

Comment signatures: Comment signatures are similar to profile customization, allowing users to add relevant information about themselves, links to their work, or even something like a joke – usually resulting in more engagement.

Achievement systems: Some forums have ‘user levels’ that can be unlocked after completing specific tasks or being active on the platform.

It’s not necessary for your desired forum building software to offer all the features we just mentioned. What’s most important is that the forum provides the best experience for your customers.

For example, if your goal is to set up a forum that lets users submit customer support queries, it might be irrelevant to enable achievements or signature features.

However, having modern features in the forum can be beneficial as it keeps users coming back again and again.

Three Ways to Build Your Community Using Forum Software

People notice when brands pay attention to their customers, listen to their issues, and converse with them; they especially notice when brands grow their own communities.

But, how exactly does that happen? Through word-of-mouth marketing.

Customers who find themselves as valued community members are much more likely to talk about your brand to their friends, family, and co-workers.

Here are a few tips on how you can build a strong community using your forum software.

Spread the word

Spreading the word about your new forum through different marketing strategies, like including CTAs to join your forum in email newsletters or social posts, helps inform people about your new community.

You can even also your customers to help in spreading the word by posting content about the forum on their social media. For example: “Like, follow, and share this post to win our product!”.

Keep engaging with your community regularly

Moderating your forum and engaging with your audience is an important part of community building. Your customers will be less likely to participate if they feel that they are being ignored or unheard.

Answering queries and responding to their feedback shows your users that you value their opinions and experiences with your product.

Create a helpful environment

The ideal forum should be a safe place for your customers, prospects, and audience to interact, ask, and answer questions. By creating a helpful environment or creating community guidelines that focus on patience and kindness, your community will grow without the need to monitor it 24/7 constantly.

The Best Forum Software to Build Your Community in 2021


Note: This is also the open-source platform we use for RunCloud’s Community Forum.

Discourse is an open-source forum software that can be used in tandem with your existing website and CMS platform. It’s mobile-friendly and allows users to get dynamic notifications, badges, emojis, and more. There’s also a built-in moderation system that protects your community from spam and abuse.

Discourse offers a number of features and integrations for every use case, and the platform’s interface is similar to the traditional forum structure that you may be familiar with.

The best thing about Discourse is its unique user ranking system that provides experienced members with certain moderation capabilities. This leads to a self-moderated community where users are rewarded for their meaningful collaborations and engagement.

If you want to use 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

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

bbPress – WordPress

Using a multi-purpose platform CMS like WordPress to power your online community allows you access to many different software options in the form of plugins like bbPress. You can use bbPress to create multisite forums and maintain them from one dashboard within your WordPress site.

WordPress has many more plugins which provide basic forum features with extra benefits.

Key features:

  • 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

Price: Free


PhpBB has an intuitive board set-up where users can post public or private messages, and you can create as many internal messaging boards as you want without spending any extra bucks. You can also use different extensions to add new options to your forum community. This makes phpBB very customizable and allows you to personalize the forum software according to your needs.

PhpBB lets you create password-protected forums for extra security, sub-forums, and gives the option to display active topics and community guidelines at the top of your forum.

Key features:

  • Detailed documentation and video tutorials
  • Robust messaging capabilities
  • Built-in SEO tools
  • Extensive management panel
  • Responsive design and cross-browser support

Price: Free

Invision Community

Invision Community is a very popular forum software for large businesses and enterprises. It includes a forum module that can power thousands of message boards around the web and offers a large number of community management apps to help you engage with your audience.

It has a fully customizable interface with rich content creation tools and a comprehensive admin panel that makes it easy to set up and manage. It enables users to customize every part of their forums, right down to the activity feed on a user-by-user basis. Invision Community also lets users create and manage their own communities, known as clubs, that seamlessly integrate with your forum. These clubs have designated club leaders who can add new forums, calendars, or galleries to the community.

Key features:

  • Achievement rewards
  • Premium clubs memberships
  • Powerful business tools
  • Advanced security settings
  • Comprehensive content apps

Price: Plans start at $45/month

Vanilla Forums

Vanilla offers both open-source and premium versions of its forum software. The open-source version provides users with a self-hosting platform with essential features and community-built plugins, and the premium version offers a powerful cloud-based solution for enterprise customers.

Some of its features include a wide array of marketing integrations, automatic content curation, and gamification practices. These features aim not just to support and increase user engagement, but also to improve business effectiveness.

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

Another great feature is its intuitive dashboard that lets you manage every aspect of your community. You can view stats, manage users, and use an advanced editor that recognizes HTML, BBCode and Markdown using this software.

Vanilla also allows you to adjust permissions of forums or members if you’re looking to control access. It enables your users to submit, view, and vote on ideas to drive innovation for your business; use the Q&A option to connect and help each other with your products or services. The best part of Vanilla is that it offers an on-boarding process with useful checklists, training materials and provides access to their support reps.

Key features:

  • User-friendly setup process
  • Mobile-friendly interface
  • Social and data sharing integration
  • Wide range of themes and plugins
  • Auto-saving feature

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


VBulletin is a popular option for hosting your forum, with over 100,000 websites trusting vBulletin to manage their community – including NASA, EA, and Sony Pictures. The software includes many great features like advanced security, built-in SEO, and responsive web design. With VBulletin, you can create an unlimited number of open forums as well as private forums.

VBulletin provides a fun and unique features for your community members, including friends lists, member birthdays, and the ability to see who’s online. The software forum offers quality support for its users, has a clean design, and is also known as one the fastest forums available.

Key features:

  • Simplified site set up and customization
  • Dynamic tools for content discovery
  • Sleek UI features like activity streams
  • Increased social engagement

Price: vBulletin 5 Connect $249, $15/month


Flarum, despite still being in the beta phase, has already secured a place for itself as one of the best software forums available. The main reason for this lies in the core ethos upon which the solution has been built: simple, modern, and fast.

And, beyond that – it’s also easy to install and loads fast because of its lightweight JavaScript framework. The software emphasizes user experience, with the platform’s user interface being modern and sleek. The elegant, simple design is complemented by smooth animations and large buttons, which provide a professional look.

One of Flarum’s most unique features is its two-pane interface. This feature provides users with a flexible environment to participate in numerous discussions without opening several tabs. Other engagement-focused features include a floating message composer, discussion-organized notifications, live chat, and user mentions.

Of course, as we all know is incredibly important – Flarum is also optimized to work incredibly well on mobile devices that make it easy to navigate online communities on any device.

Key features:

  • Easy forum set up
  • User-friendly design tools
  • Two-pane interface
  • Advanced permission settings
  • Comprehensive APIs

Price: Free

Summary – Building An Online Forum Shouldn’t Be Complicated

We explored some of the best community solutions based on ease of use, growth potential, and features.

However, the question remains which forum software is best for your community? To choose the right option, you will have to determine your goals, list the features you need, and settle on what budget you’re working with. Then, all you need to do is match your requirements with one of the forum-building tools we’ve mentioned.

But, if you’re overwhelmed with choices and can’t decide, here’s what we would recommend:

The best forum software for small communities – WordPress

With WordPress, you can easily create a forum or discussion board. Many WordPress forum plugins can help you to build a forum with basic functionalities and more advanced functionalities like a question & answer board, custom social network feature, and more according to your requirement. And for something even simpler that requires almost no setup, an even easier place to start is with a Facebook Group which is also where we initially launched RunCloud’s Community.

The best forum software for large, purpose-driven communities – Discourse

From expanding small communities to managing large, complex communities, Discourse really has everything you need to manage and run a thriving forum. It’s open-source, incredibly flexible, and even encourages longer, sustained conversations that people can add to over time.

As a community participant or owner – what’s your favorite forum software? Let us know & join the conversation by leaving a comment below! 💬