Jul 06, 2020

20 min read

The Best Forum Software To Build A Thriving Online Community

Written by

Vippy The VPS

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.
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