The best forum software for membership websites

How to use a forum

This post explains how to make a forum website using existing forum software. 

It covers technical aspects like creating a web forum interface and strategic questions about how to attract users and create vibrant online discussion.

Most organisations running an online forum are membership organisation that need to integrate the forum into their membership website so that paying members can access the forum without having to create another account. 

Key considerations for membership website forums include:

  • Single sign-on across membership website and forum
  • Consistent branding across membership website and forum
  • Restricting access to members
  • Usage information fed into membership management software

The best forum software for membership websites

Hosted forums

These options are hosted which means you don't need a developer and you don't need to arrange your own website hosting. Instead you pay a monthly fee and that covers the costs of ongoing development, maintenance and hosting. For most membership organisations these will be the hassle-free option. 

Website Toolbox

Website Toolbox is a totally standalone and hosted product which means it is very easy to set-up and always improving. These factors justify the monthly fee, which starts to £7 per month. 

For a one-off fee of £199 Website Toolbox can be set up to use the same log in system as your membership website. So if you are using membership software like White Fuse to manage your membership website then Website Toolbox will work neatly alongside and your members won't have to create a separate account to use it. 

PlushForums

PlushForums is another standalone hosted option. It has a modern and refined interface and is, therefore, a more premium option, starting at £39 per month. 

ProBoards

ProBoards offers a free forum option that is sustained by placing advertising on your forum pages. The costs to remove advertising and unlock a range of premium features are quite low, starting at $6 per month. 

Vanilla Forums

Vanilla is a more premium product aimed at large organisations. Pricing for their hosted product starts at $689 per month. They also offer an open source option but the focus of the product is on its corporate-facing supported hosting product. 

Invision Community

Invision offers a range of tools for starting a forum community. Prices start from $45 per month. 

Open source forums

Open source forums are free to download, use and customise. This is a great option if you have access to a good website developer, you are happy to arrange hosting, and you have the resources to cover setup, customisation and maintenance of the forum. If you choose this option it's worth noting that a number of providers offer free website hosting for charities.

Flarum

Flarum is a modern and well designed forum tool that is open source. Flarum's distinctive is its attempt to remove the clutter and keep things simple. Flarum is a new product that came from two older products called esoTalk and FluxBB. This means there is a wealth of experience in the team behind the product and you can be confident that all of the key features required in a good forum are covered. 

phpBB

phpBB is a very long standing open-source option so you'll need to arrange website hosting and a developer to help you with setup and hosting. Because of its age phpBB is very competent and widely used but its interface is more dated than newed options like Flarum. Another challenge to consider with an open-source option like phpBB is integrating it with your membership website. If this is necessary one of the other options on this list may be better. 

bbPress 

bbPress is another open-source option but works alongside Wordpress. It is the best option if you already run your membership website through Wordpress and want to add a forum. Building a membership website with Wordpress requires a range of different plugins and is a job for a professional website developer. Adding a forum is an additional layer of complexity and you will need to ensure that bbPress permissions are matched up with your membership plans.  


Increasing usage of your membership forum

When does a members forums work well?

For a forum to work well there is a simple formula:

People With Questions + People With Answers = Useful Content

If you get those two types of people engaged then you will start to build an audience who find their question has already been answered and this audience drives a virtuous cycle because it establishes the forum as the place to ask questions and it rewards those who answer with attention.

When either side of the equation is lacking, the forum will fail. And when forums fail, they fail hard.

How do I know whether I need a members forum?

It will come down to demand, so the better question is: 'how can I measure demand?' You can measure demand for either questions, answers or the resulting content. The best way to gauge demand for a forum is to explore alternatives to a forum first (see below) and graduate to a full dedicated forum only when demand has been proven. 

How to get more people to use your forum?

So if your membership organisation already has a forum you may be asking ‘how do I get more people to use my forum?’. The first step is to understand which side of the equation is lacking. 

  • Are questions going unanswered?
  • Are questions lacking in the first place? 

If the answer to both is ‘yes’ and you have made a bit of effort to publicise the forum to your audience, then you probably didn’t need a forum in the first place. Consider pausing and trying an alternative instead. If the answer to only one question is ‘yes’ then there may be some action you can take to kickstart your forum into action.

You can test if there are people willing to answer questions by asking them yourself. Your staff team can invent questions to see if there are people willing and able to respond.

What to do with a lack of answers?

If there are questions going unanswered this is a promising start because it demonstrates a felt need among your audience. To respond you need to find people, ideally volunteers, who are willing to start taking ownership for (a) answering questions and (b) generating an online community of ‘power users’ who take responsibility for ensuring all reasonable questions are answered. Forums live or die based on this group of users and all good forum software will have tools to reward these users through public status (different membership levels, star rating, etc). 

What to do with a lack of questions?

If you can prove there are people willing to engage with answering questions but no-one is actually asking them in the first place this can be harder to solve. Your subject matter could be sensitive, the privacy level of the forum could be hard to determine or it could just be a lack of momentum. You can try offering the option to remain anonymous when asking a question or breaking some taboos by asking difficult questions to get people started.

Alternatives to a forum

FAQ page

As mentioned above most forums follow a rough discussion format where a question is posed and then others respond. A simple way to gauge initial interest in a forum would be to work with your membership to formulate a list of sample questions and answers that cover the kinds of things people may go to within a forum. You can then monitor the traffic to these pages to measure interest. If you place each question on a separate page you may also be able to glean insights into the topics that would be of most interest. 

Blog comments

If your staff are already investing time to write updates or thought pieces on your blog then one way to open up discussion without a forum is to enable comments on your posts. This can be done easily with a third party plugin like Disqus.

Groups

Facebook, Google and Yahoo all offer online groups that can be open or invitation-only. Members can post to the group and others can respond. Members can set their own preferences on when they are notified about group posts, e.g. receiving an email alert for every post, only those in which they have taken part, or no email alerts at all. One additional benefit of this is that most people already have accounts on these sites which lowers the barrier to engagement.

Date: 
10 June 2019
Andy Pearson