10 Best Forum Software for Online Communities (Free and Paid)
This post was last updated on September 13, 2021.
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 creating a website forum is becoming increasingly popular among businesses, as online communities have proven to be an incredibly valuable asset. 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.
Best forum software
01. Wix Forum
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 build a site 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.
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.
Built-in advanced SEO tools
Members and profile pages
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.
Detailed documentation and video tutorials
Robust messaging capabilities
Built-in SEO tools
Extensive management panel
Responsive design and cross-browser support
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.
Mobile device optimization
Highly customizable themes
Powerful media capabilities
Built-in SEO tools
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.
Database management integration
Complete design customization
Broad range of plugins
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.
User-friendly set up process
Social and data sharing integration
Wide range of themes and plugins
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.
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.
Easy forum set up
User-friendly design tools
Advanced permission settings
07. Simple Machines Forum
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.
Advanced security features
Highly customizable extensions
Supports 46 languages
Paid user subscriptions
Built-in SEO tools
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.
Mobile device optimization
Advanced moderation settings
Business plugins and social media integrations
Rich messaging tools
Performance analytic tools
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.
User engagement rewards
Robust content tools
Wide range of add-ons
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.
Premium clubs memberships
Powerful business tools
Comprehensive content apps
By Judit Ruiz Ricart
Blog Content Expert