How to Create an Online Forum with WordPress
Are you interested in starting your personal online community? These are most commonly known as online forums. A specific website that is dedicated to discussions to a setlist of topics. The great part about online forums is that they foster a strong sense of community, but also a lot of engagement that otherwise couldn’t be cultivated.
Take sites like IGN and Gamespot for example. Both platforms operate a digital forum that is built upon the foundation of a massive digital community. People engage in discussions not only about games, but also technology and other interesting topics.
And such forums can be found everywhere on the web. Most software companies run a discussion board, many YouTuber’s also operate their own online forums. It’s an easy method for bringing together like-minded people into a single unified discussion interface.
Why create an online community?
Truth to be told, online communities used to be much more prevalent in the early to mid-2000’s era. Almost all discussions happened exclusively on some kind of a forum, as blogging hadn’t yet evolved to the point it has today. That said, when social media exploded with popularity, most online forum communities eventually had to shut down.
And I think it’s evident that forums are making a comeback. Discussions on sites like Twitter are becoming stale, unengaging, and don’t provide any depth. Whereas an online forum doesn’t impose a limit on response length, and people can generally pool together many great answers in one place.
Furthermore, an online community is a great way to leverage your own brand. An example of this would be LinusTechTips. Linus runs a very successful YouTube channel about technology. And all the while, he also operates a digital forum that has millions of members.
His forums are dedicated to ALL kinds of technology talk. And whenever you look up specific topics on Google, it’s his forum that comes up as the first result. So, as you can see, there’s also a lot of great SEO benefits to reap from starting an online forum.
Things you should know.
For this post, we’re focusing on using WordPress to create an online forum. At the end of the article, I’ll share two other forum software solutions which are alternatives to WordPress and might be more suitable for those of you with a greater vision.
Now, there are things to know and remember. After all, a discussion board involves a lot of user activity, and things like good management are essential for your success.
Maintaining a forum.
At first, you might be able to maintain things on your own. E.g. Moderate topics, manage spam and approve suggestions. But, as time goes by and your forum grows, you’re going to need help. Namely, you’ll need to look into hiring forum moderators.
I’m sure some people will be happy to do it for free. But, if your forum grows to 1,000-5,000 active users at a time, it’s probably wise to put real people on a salaried job. It’s not something to concern yourself with initially, but it will become a topic of concern eventually.
Inviting people to participate.
Since you’re going to create a forum using WordPress, we can safely assume that you’re already operating a functional WordPress website. Maybe you’re running a blog or a brand website. The main concern here is to know how to invite people to participate in your forums.
One way would be to move all your comments from your blog posts directly to your forums. There are several plugins that can help you with this, and you can simply put a banner up in place of the comment section, to redirect readers directly to the forums.
Going to other online forums and spamming your site doesn’t leave a good look at you or your brand. Places like Facebook Groups might help you get an initial boost, but don’t rely on it too much. Focus on making sure that you’re creating engaging discussions and stay in touch with people.
Sometimes, word of mouth is the best kind of marketing tactic there is.
Forums Plugins for WordPress
Alright, now that you have some history on online forums, and know a little bit about individual management, I think it’s time we look at the specific plugins to help you get the job done. These plugins have been hand-picked, proven to be not only sturdy but also versatile and highly flexible.
What you go for here depends entirely on your needs, and in some cases, your preference of style. As your community grows and evolves, you might want to consider looking into alternative third-party options. Namely, powerful forum systems such as IPB or vBulletin.
For now, let’s focus on WordPress.
It’s no secret that bbPress has long been considered as the de facto forum choice for WordPress. It integrates well with WordPress itself, and most of the time works out of the box with any WordPress theme. Also, bbPress uses your existing users base for user profiles, so you don’t have to build two separate databases.
That said, there are things to consider when it comes to bbPress.
- You can’t do much styling unless you know some CSS and HTML. bbPress does not provide custom themes, and most of the time you’ll have to style the forums individually.
- bbPress provides a simple discussion environment. It is by no means a super sturdy forum software capable of providing services for millions of users. As an example, most brands use bbPress to host their customer support forums!
All that aside, you can find plenty of plugins that will optimize your bbPress experience. There are almost 500,000 websites using bbPress today, so if you’re looking for inspiration — make sure to check them out!
#2: Asgaros Forum
Asgaros is a fairly new addition to the WordPress forums plugins list. Nonetheless, it has risen to the top quite quickly. Already more than 10,000 users have activated Asgaros on their website. And there’s a ton of interesting features you’re getting in return for using this forums plugin.
As with bbPress, Asgaros Forum simply takes your existing WordPress databases, and creates user profiles this way. Users still have a choice to register either through the forums page or through your homepage.
Here are the top features:
- Custom forums editor dashboard. Create and manage sections in a way that makes sense for your brand.
- Optimized for SEO. Your content will be easily crawled and indexed by search engines.
- Custom reactions which users can use to react to individual forum posts and replies.
- Custom Ads integration. Easily add advertisement widgets to your content areas and generate revenue from your forum.
- Add custom user groups, in particular, groups for moderators and power users.
- All users get their own unique profile page, and you can preview all user profiles on the member’s list page.
As far as my personal opinion goes, Asgaros seems to be slightly more organized than bbPress. The default design is really nice and feels more like an individual entity. And it’s super-easy to add pages to your other site areas, such as your blog and online store.
wpForo is a complete forums solution for WordPress which adds some really interesting and nifty features. It’s safe to say, there’s a reason more than 20,000 people have chosen this plugin as their forum software.
So, to begin with, wpForo implements a full-on multi-layout user interface. You get a general forum area, sidebars, and unique content areas that can be modified by you individually. Also, wpForo implements Questions and Answers system so that users can ask questions and cast votes on answers.
All the other features such as thread views, replies count, and user profiles are also included. In fact, wpForo comes with an ample amount of features, many of which you won’t in any other forums plugin in this list.
- You can use this plugin to create a small community amongst your loyal readers, or you can use it to create a massive digital community with millions of members. It scales effortlessly!
- A custom migration tool that you can use to migrate your existing bbPress (or others!) forums directly to wpForo.
- Custom high-resolution responsive design so that your forum works across mobile and tablet devices.
- Spam protection both through CAPTCHA and also WordPress’s very own Akismet plugin. Keep those spammers away! Alternatively, you can use any other CAPTCHA solution on the market.
- Custom SEO management from the wpForo dashboard. Apply custom settings like permalinks and much more.
Last but not least, wpForo works great with plugins such as BuddyPress which add yet another layer of community elements to your site. I’d recommend checking this specific system out if you plan to go big with your online forums. And, of course, if you love to use WordPress on a daily basis.
#4: Discussion Board
Looking for something simple and eloquent? Then look into Discussion Board. A fairly new plugin, but with plenty attention attached to it already. Discussion Board adds a simplistic forums system to your WordPress site. You get all the necessary features and tools to start a simple forum, to manage discussions, and to let members create their own profiles.
A key feature of Discussion Board is the ability to control separately who can view your WordPress forum and who can actually post to it. You can specify the required role for users to post new topics and, separately, you can specify the required role for users to view topics. So, for instance, you could allow anyone to view the content but only permit specific user roles to post content.
In terms of managing spam, this plugin provides some tools to combat spam specifically. E.g. You can put time restrictions on how many posts a single member can make per minute or per hour. You can also block out a specific subset of email addresses that you know are associated with spammers.
Lastly, if you wish to manage the look of your Discussion Board, you can do so using Customizer. Granted, this will not provide enormous changes, but enough to add some personality to your forums. Any further modifications will need to be done using custom CSS styling.
So, this last plugin is a little different compared to our other listings. It is so because AnsPress provides an interface for creating a Q&A community. Very similar to the likes of sites like Quora, which is the world’s most visited questions and answers website. AnsPress was created to provide similar functionality to WordPress sites.
The plugin integrates with your WordPress site seamlessly. User profiles include elements such as reputation, answers, questions, and followers. Furthermore, anyone can view a user profile and see that person’s specific replies to questions. All in all, this creates a much deeper sense of community.
Being able to follow people means that any one individual can create a self-built community around his expertise. Also, the design structure of AnsPress is top-notch! You’ll get a solid Q&A user interface, which includes views for questions, reply counts, and also upvotes. Upvotes can be applied both to individual questions and also specific user answers.
Alternative Forum Software (Not WordPress!)
For this segment, I want to bring your attention to two alternative forum software solutions. These are not WordPress-specific, so you’ll have to host them outside of your WordPress installation. As far as I know, hosting providers such as DigitalOcean provides Discourse installations in specific!
The reasoning for using something outside of WordPress is simple. You get access to more functionality, unique design styles (themes), and a lot of flavor in terms of a support community. These are by no means the most popular solutions, but they are the ones that have been garnering a lot of attention in recent years.
So, what makes Discourse so special? For one, the interface is based on a simple “latest threads” approach. The index page for content shows you the latest posts that have the most recent replies. This helps to keep active discussions fresh, and users don’t need to search long for interesting topics.
That said, you can create custom forum directories. These can be displayed anywhere on the site, and users can sort topics based on specific categories. The replies interface is extremely pleasant to work with, both on desktop and mobile. In fact, Discourse will even remember where you left off on your last visit and bring you there once you page the page again.
This and many other things can be configured to your own liking. As for themes, there are quite a few community themes available. But for the best result, we recommend doing all the styling yourself. If you’re unsure, look at the earlier mentioned sites and yield some inspiration.
- Beautiful and responsive. This is forum software for humans. Flarum is carefully designed to be consistent and intuitive across platforms, out-of-the-box.
- Powerful and extensible. Customize, extend, and integrate Flarum to suit your community. Flarum’s architecture is amazingly flexible, with a powerful Extension API.
- Free and open. Flarum is released under the MIT license.
I’d go as far as to say that Discourse and Flarum share quite a few similarities between them. The only difference being that Flarum is oriented around PHP. See it for yourself on the Flarum’s official community board. It’s a pleasant sight to look at.
As you can tell, it’s not all that hard to start your first online forums with WordPress. All you need is a reliable plugin and a little bit of patience to work on building your community. The solutions shown in this roundup have been time-tested over the course of more than 10 years.
My best recommendation is to explore each solution in-depth. Don’t just base your judgment on style (design-wise). Dig deep into the features of each plugin and make sure you feel comfortable using that for the foreseeable future.