10 Forum Software to Create an Online Community (Traditional vs. Modern)

Best Forum Software: Top 10 Apps

Evaluating forum software is time-consuming and laborious. There are dozens of options to choose from. And figuring out which solution is best for your business and online community requires days, if not weeks, of research.

Well, we’ve done the hard work for you. We know forums inside out. And we’ve rounded up ten apps that we think currently represent the best of what the market has to offer.

It doesn’t matter if you’re building a forum from the ground up, toying with the idea of launching an online discussion space for the first time, or migrating your existing community. By the end of this guide, you’ll have all the information you need to pick the app best suited to your needs.

  1. PeerBoard
  2. phpBB
  3. MyBB
  4. Vanilla Forums
  5. Flarum
  6. FluxBB
  7. XenForo
  8. vBulletin
  9. Beehive Forum
  10. Simple Machines Forum

What Features Should You Look for in Forum Software?

Forums are as old as the web itself. And forum features have evolved and changed significantly since the days of the first online bulletin boards.  

As such, navigating the large feature sets of modern apps is challenging. And it’s usually a good idea to figure out what you need as an absolute requirement and work from there. 

Here are the main features to look for when evaluating forum software: 

  • Basic functionality – Basic functionality encompasses user profiles, flexible hierarchy controls (categories, sub-forums, threads, etc.), admin permissions, WYSIWYG post editor that supports rich media, and so on.  
  • Engagement tools – Common engagement tools include personalized homepages, intelligent feeds, and member emails.
  • Integrations – Integrations allow you to sync your forum with your tech stack. A Zapier integration is a big plus. 
  • White-label branding – The best apps fit seamlessly with the existing look and feel of your site. 
  • Developer tools – Forums that provide access to APIs and a software developer kit (SDK) give you complete control over your forum’s functionality. 

What’s the Difference Between Modern and New Forum Software?

The line between “modern” and “old” forum software isn’t a clear one. Most traditional platforms have released new versions to cater to changing user habits. 

Generally speaking, you have to run traditional forum software on your own servers. Ongoing maintenance, updates, database management, and so on are entirely your responsibility. SEO and user engagement features, like regular “best of” emails that tell members about new content, are also often lacking in older apps.

Modern forum software requires little if any technical expertise. It is usually sold as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) package, meaning it is hosted and maintained by the provider. Modern features, like mobile responsiveness, smart feeds, and third-party integrations, are usually a given. 

Top 10 Forum Apps: Reviews and Features

Here’s our selection of the ten best forum apps, including features, reviews, and pricing information.

1. PeerBoard

PeerBoard community management software

PeerBoard is a fully-hosted, software-as-a-service app that is suitable for communities of all sizes.

It has a wide range of features and user engagement tools (such as personalized user emails). It’s also suitable for online community-builders without any technical knowledge, although developer tools are available.

Top features include:

  • Flexible forum hierarchy options
  • Admin permissions
  • A large integrations library
  • Smart feeds
  • Algorithmic sorting
  • Rich user profiles
  • Public and private settings
  • Developer tools
  • Responsiveness on mobile devices 
  • Dedicated customer support

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: Numerous built-in SEO features, including options for meta titles and descriptions, XML sitemaps, and schema markup.

Pros: Suitable for community-builders with limited technical experience, competitively-priced monthly plans, wide selection of modern features.

Cons: User community is not as large as more established brands, limited features on the free plan.

WordPress plugin: The PeerBoard WordPress forum plugin is included in all plans.

Shopify plugin: PeerBoard Shopify eCommerce plugin is included in all plans.

Free version: PeerBoard offers a “forever free” plan.

You can check out a full PeerBoard review on Medium if you’re interested in learning more about our community forum platform.

READ ALSO: Top 10 Alternatives to Facebook Groups in 2021

2. phpBB

phpBB open-source solution

phpBB is one of the oldest names in the forum world. And many of the web’s biggest forums are built on phpBB.

It’s a powerful, open-source solution with a comprehensive feature set, which is further supplemented by developer add-ons. You’ll need technical expertise to run a phpBB forum successfully, and support is only available through third-party experts or the phpBB community software forum.

Top features include:

  • Flexible category and sub-topic options
  • Extensive moderator controls
  • A large library of extensions
  • Rich user profiles
  • Private messaging

Oh, and if you’re wondering, “BB” stands for “bulletin board.”

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: phpBB has several built-in SEO features.

Pros: Powerful solution with a huge feature-set, large community of users, free.

Cons: Requires development knowledge to customize and run successfully, cost of hosting and maintenance can be high, limited support.

WordPress plugin: No WordPress plugin is available but there are workarounds for integrating with WordPress.

Shopify plugin: There are no Shopify plugins for phpBB.

Free version: phpBB is completely free.

3. MyBB

MyBB forum solution

MyBB is another granddaddy of the forum world. Like phpBB, myBB is a free and open-source solution, written in PHP, that’s available for anybody to download.

While it is a little easier to use than phpBB, and many users appreciate the built-in template editor, you’ll still require development knowledge if you want to build your forum with MyBB. If you’re thinking about both solutions, it’s a good idea to give them a test drive.

Top features include:

  • Topic hierarchy controls
  • Rich user profiles
  • User-friendly moderation tools
  • Email broadcasting

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: MyBB has limited native SEO features. You will need to use plugins for SEO tasks.

Pros: Free and open-source, extensive feature-set, reasonably easy to install and manage (but some technical expertise is still required).

Cons: Requires development knowledge, hosting and maintenance is your responsibility, limited support.

WordPress plugin: There is no WordPress plugin for MyBB.

Shopify plugin: There is no Shopify plugin for MyBB.

Free version: MyBB is completely free.

4. Vanilla Forums

Vanilla Forums online forum solution

Vanilla Forums is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) online forum solution. As such, it’s fully hosted and is offered on a monthly subscription basis.

Top features include:

  • Multiple forum templates (such as a question-and-answer format)
  • Private messaging
  • Advanced analytics
  • Rich content editor
  • Social media integrations

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: Vanilla offers an SEO plugin, which can be used to take care of most SEO tasks.

Pros: Wide range of modern features, good number of integrations, suitable for large forums.

Cons: Lack of transparent pricing, pageview caps (250,000 pageviews on the entry-level plan), limits on the amount of sub-communities.

WordPress plugin: Vanilla Forums offers a WordPress plugin.

Shopify plugin: No Shopify plugin is available.

Free version: No free version (a demo is available).

5. Flarum

Flarum free discussion platform

Flarum is a free discussion platform that focuses on simplicity. It lacks some of the more advanced functionality of other entries on this list, but it’s a good option for community-builders that prioritize ease-of-use and a minimal design. If you want to build a basic forum, it’s worth looking into.

It’s not a hosted solution, so you’ll be responsible for installing, managing, and maintaining it.

Top features include:

  • Responsive design
  • A straightforward forum organizational structure
  • Support for multiple languages

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: Flarum has a handful of native SEO features.

Pros: Simple, accessible, and easy to run.

Cons: Limited core feature set, lack of support options, better-suited to community-builders with development knowledge.

WordPress plugin: A premium WordPress plugin is available.

Shopify plugin: There is no Shopify integration for Flarum.

Free version: Flarum is a free and open-source app.

6. FluxBB

FluxBB open-source software application

FluxBB is an open-source software application that is highly regarded for its speed and relatively light codebase.

It’s a streamlined solution without the “heavy” feature sets of some other solutions on this list, which is exactly what it’s meant to be. If you’re looking for a straightforward solution with basic features, then FluxBB could be for you.

As with practically all open-source solutions, a lack of development knowledge could be problematic.

Top features include:

  • User groups
  • Rich user profiles
  • Easy-to-use admin interface
  • Streamlined code base
  • Topic subscriptions

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: No built-in SEO features.

Pros: Light solution that is easier to manage than more traditional, feature-rich alternatives.

Cons: Comparatively small feature-set, limited support, self-hosted solution.

WordPress plugin: No WordPress plugin.

Shopify plugin: No Shopify plugin. 

Free version: FluxBB is completely free.

7. XenForo

XenForo community builder

XenForo is a paid solution that’s aimed at community-builders that want to manage their own hosting. Ongoing support is available for an additional 12-month fee (after the first year).

It’s a viable and cost-effective option for larger businesses and enterprises, and sits in the middle-ground between a self-hosted open-source solution and a fully-managed SaaS one.

Top features include:

  • Flexible architecture
  • Advanced admin permissions
  • Engagement features
  • WYSIWYG editor
  • Detailed tutorials and knowledge base
  • Anti-spam features

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: Numerous SEO features, including search-friendly URLs, schema markup, and site speed optimization.

Pros: Scalable solution, large set of features, one-off payment for software license.

Cons: Site-owner is responsible for hosting, high additional fee ($300) for removing XenForo branding, may be difficult to run without development knowledge.

WordPress plugin: A WordPress plugin, XPress, is available.

Shopify plugin: No Shopify plugin is currently available.

Free version: No free version. Prospective buyers can try a demo.

8. vBulletin

vBulletin forum

vBulletin is a well-known forum brand and powers some of the web’s most popular forums, like BodyBuilding.com. It’s a highly scalable, feature-rich forum platform that’s suitable for large businesses. Smaller and independent community-builders may find the app difficult to manage but a cloud solution is also offered. The latest release is called “vBulletin Connect.”

Top features include:

  • Traditional forum architecture
  • Private and public settings
  • Member profile pages
  • WYSIWYG post editor
  • Private real-time messages

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: vBulletin comes with several SEO features, including search-friendly URLs, meta data, and XML sitemaps.

Pros: Self-hosted and managed solutions available, solid set of features, large online community of users.

Cons: Prices for version updates are high, add-ons may need to be purchased, lacks some modern features.

WordPress plugin: No WordPress plugin is available.

Shopify plugin: No Shopify plugin is available.

Free version: There is no free version.

9. Beehive Forum

Beehive forum open-source application

Beehive Forum is an open-source application, written in PHP, that’s known for its frame-based layout, which provides a unique user experience. The member interface is relatively straightforward and traditional and the platform comes with a solid set of core features.

Top features include:

  • A frame-based layout
  • Straightforward admin tools
  • Private messages
  • HTML posting with security safeguards. 

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: No built-in SEO features.

Pros: Free, easy to use, unique layout.

Cons: Self-hosted solution, lacks advanced functionality, layout design may not be to everybody’s taste.

WordPress plugin: No WordPress plugin.

Shopify plugin: No Shopify plugin.

Free version: Beehive Forum is entirely free.

10. Simple Machines Forum

Simple Machines Forum

Simple Machines is a lightweight, open-source forum platform. You’ll need at least some technical expertise to run it effectively (it’s written in PHP and uses a MySQL database) but is relatively easy to use from an admin standpoint.

Top features include:

  • Comprehensive user and mod permissions
  • Support for multiple languages
  • Numerous design customization options

Search engine optimization (SEO) features: Various add-on “mods” available to boost SEO performance.

Pros: Free, straightforward admin dashboard, extensive add-on library, customizable.

Cons: Self-managed platform, somewhat limited features, support is through user forums.

WordPress plugin: No native plugin available, although there may be some workarounds.

Shopify plugin: No Shopify plugin available.

Free version: Simple Machines Forum is open-source and free.

Conclusion

We believe that the forum apps described in this post represent the best of what the market has to offer. All share the same core set of features and many are free, although costs can be significant if you’re planning on taking care of hosting yourself.

The first step to finding an optimal solution is to identify your needs clearly. Do you want to have private groups, for example? Do you prefer question-and-answer-style message boards? Are user groups and segments important? Do you need to integrate with a content management system (CMS) like WordPress?

Once you have answered questions like these, you’ll be much better placed to find a solution that delivers for your community and business.

Finally, if you’re looking for a hosted, modern solution, PeerBoard offers a “forever free” fully-hosted plan with an array of modern features. You can try the platform with no strings attached and you’ll never be forced to upgrade.

DISCLAIMER

Parties other than PeerBoard may provide products, services, recommendations, or views on PeerBoard’s site (“Third Party Materials”). PeerBoard is not responsible for examining or evaluating such Third Party Materials, and does not provide any warranties relating to the Third Party Materials. Links to such Third Party Materials are for your convenience and does not constitute an endorsement of such Third Party Materials.