If you haven’t already checked out my podcast episode about whether you should start a Facebook Group or a Forum on your own website, you definitely want to listen to that before reading this post, as it will add a lot of context.
So when it comes to creating your own Forum on your own site, what are your options?
These are your 3 primary options for forum software, in order of increasing complexity, but also increasing quality, features and benefits.
Simple:Press: Simplest solution of them all - but also a good one - for WordPress sites. It is a native WordPress plugin, so it plugins right into your WordPress site and will work off of the WordPress user tables. And if you turn on the “Sync” feature in DigitalAccessPass.com (DAP), DAP will sync all of your DAP users into WordPress, and Simple:Press will work off of that. So this has the best integration with DAP and WordPress, because of it being a WordPress plugin. You won’t have some advanced features like adding certain membership levels (or buyers of a certain product in DAP) to a specific sub-forum or topic, but that’s not a limitation of DAP, but a limitation of the forum plugins. And I don’t think you should worry too much about that.
XenForo: An independent forum software - similar to vBulletin. Apparently, some disgruntled vB developers are supposed to have launched XenForo. So it’s better to vB, which we used for a long time at DigitalAccessPass.com, and still do, but kinda hidden (deliberately), as we had too many bugs and issues with vB, and that’s when we discovered XenForo. And DAP integrates with XenForo. So even though XF is not a WordPress plugin, you can automatically add your DAP users into your XenForo forums.
DAP has “Single Sign-on” (SSO) with all of the above options. SSO means that they just log in at one location - your main membership site - and they get logged into the member’s area as well as the forum. So SSO is a convenient option for your members so they don’t have to log in twice.
- Discourse: Now, this option is not for most people, because of some advanced requirements. But this is by far the best forum software I’ve found, and this very forum you’re reading this post on, is built on Discourse. And I did a LOT of research before I chose Discourse, and your requirements may not be as extensive as mine. But let me explain my thinking behind choosing this.
I wanted a forum platform that would work today, and for the next 5-, 15- or even 50 years.
All of the bells-and-whistles that I cared about: Super light-weight, super-fast, Facebook-like social features like tagging and liking, Single Sign-on and open-source software - not because I wanted it for free, but because forum software is super-complicated and needs an insane amount of support and development.
And I did not wish to rely on a team of a handful of developers who may lose their way, or stop supporting it, or developing it. Not every commercial-software company cares for their software like we do at DAP (all credit to Veena Prashanth for that, of course - Co-Founder & Co-Developer and the face of DAP).
Something that is battle-tested: Discourse is used by some of the biggest communities in the world. Seth Godin, Mozilla (Firefox), Twitter, Boing-Boing, Imgur, HubSpot and hundreds of thousands of others, all use Discourse. And a lot of them are paying $100 a month for the fully-hosted version of Discourse. So yeah, it’s that good. I’m using the self-hosted, free version of Discourse at this time, but at some point in the future, as my community gets big, I can see myself happily paying a monthly fee to move to their hosted version. And they’ll migrate it all for me.
Easy to upgrade: Discourse has a simple 1-click upgrade process - very similar to updating WordPress plugins.
Should look like it’s from today - and not like from the 90’s. Even XenForo has an “very-old-school”, “forumy” look and feel, and not “startupy” and “young” like Discourse.
It’s written in Ruby (not PHP) - which can be good or bad, depending on the perspective. But I had no issues with it, as my goals were different. But still, not being in PHP means I cannot hack in and do stuff, and write my own plugins for it. Maybe that can be a good thing for me, because I tend to get too distracted developing stuff, rather than just using it
It needs special hosting. Can’t use any of the high-powered, expensive servers that we already use in our business. But not a big deal because of my grand vision for my forum, that this is something I’m creating to last for many years. I recommend (and so does Discourse) and use hosting from Digital Ocean - a referral link that gets you a $10 credit. Which you could possibly use for 2 months of free hosting, as you could launch on the $5/month hosting plan, which should be more than enough to get you going. I’m using the $10/month plan right now for hosting.
Installation is tricky - it was, even for me. And it can be super-hard if you’re a non-techie. There are people who can install it for a fee. I think it costs about $100 or so for the installation. The software itself is free, though.
Support might be expensive: If something breaks in a WordPress plugin, you have a really large community of developers, and you can hire support relatively inexpensively. But because it’s not PHP, and written in Ruby, you might have to pay a little to get support, just in case something breaks. I don’t see the need to, as the software is super-robust and powerful and stable, and is used by hundreds of thousands of forums worldwide. And it is the same software that is used on their hosted versions too, where people are paying $100/month (starting tier). So I doubt if there will be a bug that’s not already fixed by the time I upgrade to it. But still, had to put this under the “Con” section.
No Single Sign-on with DAP yet. And that’s OK with me - for now, because I want my community to be bigger than all memberships and subscriptions anyway. But we will add that sooner than later, and they already have all the API’s needed to make it seamless - so it’s just a matter of this feature becoming a priority for us at DAP.
And The Winner Is…
Winner: Discourse, Of Course! (love the way that rhymed!)
I’m at a stage in my business, where I will not compromise on certain things. And that includes not caring about an additional $10/mo. hosting for my forum, or having to possibly pay a few $xxx occasionally for some support help.
Runner-Up: But if that is not where you are right now, then your 2nd best choice would be a XenForo forum (which is commercial software, btw). And even there, if something breaks, or you need installation, you have to pay for it. So it’s not exactly going to be free.
3rd Place: And if you want it to keep it simple and easy - not to mention free - then go with Simple:Press (or next option, bbPress). And BuddyPress (for Social features) will work with both.