The 12 Best Forum Software Platforms for Building Online Community in 2024

Want to build a passionate community of users or customers? Online forums are one of the most powerful tools for sparking discussions and nurturing relationships. With the right platform and strategy, you can turn a simple forum into a thriving community hub that boosts loyalty, engagement, and insight.

According to a recent survey by Higher Logic, 81% of organizations believe community is critical to their mission. Over half of respondents said their community has improved customer retention and satisfaction. An active forum can yield benefits like:

  • Reducing support costs by 10-25% via peer-to-peer help
  • Generating new leads and customers
  • Collecting valuable product feedback and ideas
  • Increasing brand visibility and loyalty

But not all forum software is created equal. You need a platform with the right features, flexibility, and usability to fit your needs. We‘ve analyzed dozens of forum solutions to compile the definitive list of the top 12 forum software platforms for 2024.

Whether you‘re a startup looking to engage users, a non-profit connecting volunteers, or an enterprise seeking customer insights, there‘s a forum solution for you. Let‘s dive into the top forum software to consider.

1. Discourse

Discourse forum example

  • Best for: Modern, embeddable forums
  • Pricing: Starts at $100/month

Discourse is a popular open-source platform built for the modern age of online discussions. It focuses on delivering a sleek, fast, and mobile-friendly user experience.

One key differentiator is Discourse‘s universal embed feature. This allows you to seamlessly integrate a full-featured forum into your existing website. The result is a more unified community experience and improved SEO.

Discourse also stands out for its user-friendly, clutter-free interface. Flat discussion threads and infinite scrolling make it easy to browse and engage with content. Users can enjoy real-time notifications, easy file sharing, and a WYSIWYG editor.

On the admin side, Discourse provides robust moderation tools to keep your community productive and spam-free. An extensible API and plugin system also allows you to customize functionality as needed.

While Discourse hosting starts at a relatively high $100/month, it‘s an excellent all-around choice if you want a contemporary, user-friendly forum that fits seamlessly into your site.

Pros

  • Modern, mobile-optimized experience
  • Universal embed for adding forums to any site
  • Real-time notifications and live updates
  • Strong moderation and anti-spam features
  • Highly extensible via API and plugins

Cons

  • Fewer out-of-the-box features than some platforms
  • Higher starting price than alternatives
  • Some learning curve for admins

2. Flarum

Flarum forum homepage

  • Best for: Simple, lightweight forums
  • Pricing: Free

Flarum is a newer open-source forum solution aiming to make online discussion "fast and simple." It offers a clean, minimal interface that‘s optimized for speed.

Flarum‘s lightweight approach is ideal if you want to embed a basic forum into your site with minimal overhead. The streamlined feature set covers all the essentials:

  • Threaded discussions with nested replies
  • Real-time notifications
  • User mentions and tagging
  • Instant search
  • Extensible via plugins

Flarum is built on PHP and uses Symphony components and Mithril.js. The modern architecture allows it to be fast, secure, and flexible.

One potential downside is that Flarum‘s barebones approach means it lacks some of the advanced functionality in other platforms. The young project is also still in beta.

However, if you value simplicity and just need core forum features, Flarum is a slick solution. The free, open-source code also makes it developer-friendly.

Pros

  • Clean, minimal, and fast interface
  • Free and open-source
  • Real-time forum experience
  • Easy to embed into any site

Cons

  • Lacks advanced features of larger platforms
  • Smaller extension and theme ecosystem
  • Still in beta phase

3. phpBB

phpBB homepage

  • Best for: Basic, free forums
  • Pricing: Free

Since launching in 2000, phpBB has remained one of the most popular free forum solutions. It powers over 1.8 million forums worldwide.

phpBB provides all the core features you‘d expect in a forum platform:

  • Subforums and categories
  • User groups and permissions
  • Private messaging
  • Polls and attachments
  • Moderation tools
  • Themes and extensions

The interface is straightforward but somewhat dated compared to more modern solutions. However, phpBB still offers a solid set of capabilities for basic forums.

For new forums on a budget, phpBB is an attractive option, with no upfront costs. You‘ll just need a standard web host that supports PHP/MySQL.

The phpBB ecosystem also includes a large collection of free extensions and themes to enhance your forum. Active support forums let you get help from other users.

While phpBB works well for traditional forums, it lacks real-time features and slick embeddable options offered by newer platforms. But if you just need reliable, classic forum functionality, phpBB delivers the goods for free.

Pros

  • 100% free and open-source
  • Extensive customization via extensions
  • Large and helpful support community
  • Easy to self-host and manage

Cons

  • Lacks modern real-time features
  • Interface feels somewhat dated
  • May require more technical setup

4. NodeBB

NodeBB example forum

  • Best for: Real-time forums
  • Pricing: Free self-hosted or starts at $100/month hosted

NodeBB is a more recent forum solution that leverages Node.js to enable real-time discussions and interactions.

The power of Node.js allows NodeBB to deliver dynamic experiences like:

  • Live streaming of posts and replies
  • Infinite scrolling topics
  • Real-time chat and messaging
  • Notifications, mentions, and replies as they happen

This real-time foundation helps drive faster, more engaging discussions that feel closer to live chat.

NodeBB is built with mobile in mind, focusing on fast performance and responsive layouts that adapt to any screen size. A plugin system and widgets allow you to extend core functionality.

For developers, NodeBB offers extensive customization via a RESTful API, CLI, and web hooks. The modern architecture and real-time features also make it easier to integrate with other tools.

One consideration is that a Node.js environment is required to run NodeBB. This may be trickier than traditional PHP hosting. NodeBB does offer its own managed hosting starting at $100/month to simplify setup.

Pros

  • Live, real-time forum experiences
  • Fast and mobile-optimized performance
  • Extensibility via plugins and API
  • Modern design and architecture

Cons

  • Self-hosting requires Node.js environment
  • Higher starting price for hosted option
  • Some advanced features only in hosted version

5. Invision Community

Invision Community example site

  • Best for: All-in-one community platforms
  • Pricing: Starts at $55/month for up to 100K monthly pageviews

Invision Community goes beyond basic forums to offer an integrated platform for building multi-faceted communities. The suite includes tools for discussions, questions & answers, blogs, file-sharing, and e-commerce.

This centralized approach allows you to manage your entire community in one interface while providing multiple ways for members to participate. Key Invision features include:

  • Activity feed aggregating all community content
  • Clubs for sub-communities
  • Searchable member directory
  • Customizable widgets and branding
  • Built-in mod tools and spam prevention
  • REST API for integration and extension

Invision also offers a variety of pre-built apps and plugins to enhance your community. The drag-and-drop page builder makes it easy to customize your forum layout and content blocks.

For larger communities that want to offer a full suite of engagement tools, Invision is a compelling option. The ability to mix discussions, content, commerce, and more allows you to build a branded community hub.

Invision‘s pricing starts a bit higher at $55/month. But this includes comprehensive features and support. It‘s best for communities that want ample room to grow.

Pros

  • Integrated platform for forums, content, commerce
  • Drag-and-drop customization
  • Built-in mod and anti-spam tools
  • Extensive apps and integrations
  • Scalable for larger communities

Cons

  • Higher starting price than some alternatives
  • Steeper learning curve for admins
  • May be overkill for simple forums

Forum Software Comparison Table

Software Best For Pricing Key Features
Discourse Modern forums $100+/mo hosted Embeddable, real-time, API
Flarum Lightweight forums Free self-hosted Fast, minimal, extensible
phpBB Basic forums Free self-hosted Subforums, moderation, themes
NodeBB Real-time forums Free self-hosted / $100+/mo hosted Live chat, infinite scroll, widgets
Invision Community platforms $55+/mo hosted Blogs, files, e-commerce, moderation

How to Choose the Right Forum Software in 2024

The ideal forum solution depends on your specific needs and goals. Here are some key factors to consider:

  • Community size and growth – Will you have dozens, hundreds, or thousands of members? Pick a platform that can scale smoothly as your community grows. Solutions like Discourse and Invision are built to handle large volumes.

  • Desired features – Consider what‘s essential for your community. Do you want real-time chat, blogs, and e-commerce? Or just simple discussions? Prioritize platforms that deliver your must-have features.

  • Budget – Explore free vs. paid options based on your resources. Platforms like phpBB work well for no-cost forums. For more advanced features and support, expect to pay at least $50-100/month.

  • Ease of use – Look for an intuitive interface that makes it simple for members to post and interact. Avoid clunky, dated designs. On the admin side, consider how much time and expertise you have for setup and moderation.

  • Integration – Think about how your forum will fit with your existing website and tech stack. Solutions with embedding and flexible APIs will be easier to integrate.

  • Support and resources – Check the documentation, guides, and support channels for each platform. An active user community and/or paid support can be crucial for troubleshooting issues.

Tips for Building a Thriving Forum Community

Creating an active forum takes more than just picking the right software. You‘ll need a strategy to attract members, encourage participation, and maintain a positive environment. Some best practices:

Define a clear purpose

Know the goal of your forum, whether it‘s to support customers, connect enthusiasts, or crowdsource ideas. A focused purpose keeps discussions on track.

Seed discussions

Don‘t expect new members to drive all the conversation. Have your team posts interesting prompts, questions, and content to spark activity. Aim for 10-20 solid discussions to start.

Develop community guidelines

Set clear rules around behavior, content, and etiquette. Post them prominently. Guidelines help prevent spam, fights, and abuse.

Recognize top users

Use gamification and special perks to reward your most active, helpful members. Create a "Top Contributors" badge. Offer perks like beta access or exclusive content.

Promote across channels

Spread the word about your forum on your website, social media, and newsletters. Reach out to influencers and partners for promotion. Set up an automated email to invite users after key actions.

Analyze and adapt

Use your forum data to identify trends around popular topics, posts, and members. Notice patterns in the most engaging content formats and styles. Adapt your strategy based on these insights.

The Future of Forums in 2024 and Beyond

Forums have come a long way since the days of clunky PHP scripts. Today‘s platforms offer dynamic real-time experiences, seamless embedding, and integrated community tools.

As we look ahead, forum software will continue evolving to keep pace with user expectations and behaviors. Some key trends to watch:

  • Deeper personalization – Customized forum experiences and recommendations based on a user‘s history and interests.

  • Tighter integration – Forums meshing seamlessly with websites, support platforms, and customer data.

  • Multi-format content – Posting via video, audio, and other rich media beyond text.

  • AI-powered moderation – Automated tools to detect and remove low-quality and abusive content.

  • Decentralized communities – Blockchain-based forums that are owned and governed by members rather than a central authority.

At the same time, the core purpose of forums remains connecting people around common interests and goals. By combining the latest tech with proven engagement strategies, you can build a vibrant community that makes an impact for your brand and members.

Go Forth and Forum

There‘s never been a better time to harness the power of online forums and communities. With the right platform and approach, you can transform a simple forum into a thriving hub of discussion, support, and collaboration.

Use this guide as your roadmap to understand the forum software landscape and find your best fit. From the all-in-one power of Invision to the real-time speed of NodeBB to the lightweight simplicity of Flarum, there‘s an option for every need and budget.

Still have questions about choosing or launching a forum? Let‘s continue the conversation. Drop a comment below or join the discussion in our own online community.

Here‘s to building something great together!