The Internet is a social place and now that social media dominates, more businesses have realized that communicating with their readers is essential.
That being said, there is still value in the traditional ways of connecting online. No, I’m not talking about email. I’m talking about forums. Forums give site visitors a chance to connect and discuss; share ideas and collaborate; analyze and contribute. They give your site visitors a way to participate in a community and feel like they’re actually part of something.
WordPress is the perfect CMS for adding a forum. Often, all you need to do is install a plugin. But before we get to those specifics, let’s first talk about what forums can be used for and how you can benefit from installing one on your site.
What Are Forums Used For, Anyway?
The real question should be, what aren’t they used for? Still, if you’re having trouble figuring out appropriate uses for forums, let’s spend some time talking about it. Here’s a totally not comprehensive list of the ways forums can be used as well as particular industries that can benefit.
K-12 and Higher-Ed
Any education site can benefit from having a forum. Many K-12 schools are now use forums on their (or their district’s) websites to answer questions and to encourage parents to get involved in the school community.
This is even more the case with the higher education set. Colleges and universities have long made use of forums to engage its student body.
Online and Business Educators
Whether you instruct people in the ways of SEO or offer online videos demonstrating how to play the guitar, teachers outside of any formal education system can benefit from forums, too. You can often use them as a part of the virtual classroom. This is the place where students can ask questions, post assignments, and participate in discussion. A forum can give an online class the same level of interactivity present in physical classes.
If you’re really into scrapbooking, it’s likely you visit websites on the subject and even visit forums to talk about it, which points us to yet another great use of forum software. You can use a forum to build a community around a niche topic like recipes, crafts, dirt biking, roller derby, books, or even Lady Gaga.
You can make a forum about any subject and if there are other people in the world with the same interest, they’ll sign up and you can all share your enthusiasm over fountain pens—and maybe you can pull in a little ad revenue while you’re at it.
If you offer a product or several products for sale, having a forum on your site is a no-brainer. It gives your customers a place to discuss your products and it gives you a convenient location to offer support. You can create sub-forums for each of your products and even initiate a support sub-forum where customers can post their questions as a new thread. Or, if yours is a kind of product that can be repurposed (think Duct Tape) you can give your visitors an outlet for sharing their most creative uses of your product.
Sites that cover highly technical subject matter can definitely benefit from having a forum on them because it helps to add a layperson’s perspective to what can be an academic or jargon-filled echo chamber. By giving people a place to ask questions, get clarification, and collaborate on complex topics, you give yourself a chance to view the subject from a different perspective.
Artists and Creatives
Creative people thrive in a community setting. Why else do you think artist communes exist? So forums are a natural fit for creatives who need a place to share their latest works, get feedback from fellow creatives, and contribute to a community. A good example is a site like DeviantArt , which is a cross between social media and forum specifically for artists.
Yet another way forums can be used is to build an RPG, that’s role playing game for the uninitiated. There are many different kinds of RPGs out there that involve varying degrees of involvement. For instance, the insanely popular World of Warcraft is one example of a MMORPG (Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game).
But for those who can skip the visuals and want to keep their imaginings in the realm of text, forums offer a great way to tell and participate in collaborative stories. Several sites like this already exist but there’s always room for more if you have a passion for it.
Search Engine Optimization
Beyond the obvious community-building aspects of hosting a forum on your site, adding one also has some great benefits for search engine optimization. Each time a user creates a new post, a new page of content is generated on your site. It’s probably not going to be the most optimized page ever but those specific queries like “How do I make quiche in a CrockPot?” give you a chance to rank for long tail keywords, which is nothing to sneeze at.
In fact, according to a Google report cited by Interact , 50-70% of all searches have no exact keyword match and 15-20% are brand new, which means the more pages of user generated content you have on your site, the more likely it is you’ll capture some of those long tail, off-the-wall, once in a blue moon searches. SEO shouldn’t be your only reason for creating a forum, of course, but it’s worth mentioning, nonetheless.
Why Forums Are Pretty Awesome
Part of what makes forums so great was already covered above. Their versatility and ability to act as a platform for community are the obvious standouts. But the benefits go beyond those surface attributes, especially with regard to forum use on WordPress.
1. Setup is Simple
Many forum services for WordPress are plugin-based. And if they’re not, they can be setup with the insertion of a bit of code. There’s no real “coding” to be done here—just copy and paste. And you can configure all the attributes of the forum via a visual editor. This is overwhelmingly the case across the multitude of tools currently available, so I feel like this generalization is valid.
Ease of setup means you can install your new forum quickly and begin engaging with your site visitors faster. Other than deciding on the color scheme, header, and forum names and descriptions, there isn’t a whole lot to do before launch.
2. You Have Lots of Options
Like I mentioned above, there are a ton of options for forum software out there and plenty still that are targeted to WordPress users, specifically. This is really great news because you won’t have to spend very much time on setup (see above) and there are plenty of services to compare pros and cons. This way, you’ll be certain to select a service that meets or exceeds your expectations of what a forum should do in terms of form and function.
3. You Can Be As Involved As You Want
You can be in charge of moderating every single post or you can stand back and let people post whatever they want. You can require each post to be reviewed before they’re published or you can just post some guidelines and hope people stick to them. Basically, you can be all in, all out, or somewhere in between.
If you still want to have some control over the forum but don’t have the time, resources, or the want-to to be moderator, you can even hire someone to take on this role for you or solicit a volunteer from your most active forum members. The great thing about building a community is that it also creates loyalty to your site with members who will want to help maintain your rep.
4. You Can Offer Users a Higher Tier of Support (and Save Time)
While FAQs and email support are nice, a forum offers a nice, next-to-realtime solution for customer service. With it, you can ensure your visitors can post questions and have them answered by you, by your staff, or even by other community members in a timely fashion.
It also means that there’s a running log of all the questions that have been asked. So instead of having to manually add these to an FAQ, they’re automatically available for viewing by anyone who happens across your site (or signs up for membership, as it were). This is obviously a much better solution than email support alone, because while you might offer great support in this way, your answers only extend to one user at a time.
5. They’re Easy to Customize
I already touched on this above, but it’s worth mentioning again. Forums, especially WordPress forums, are so ridiculously easy to customize, it’s hard to understand why every site doesn’t have one. Even if you’re not all that savvy in terms of site customization, the majority of forum plugins offer seamless site integration. That means whatever theme you currently use on your site, your forum will appear much the same way.
Often, all you need to do is click through a few settings to create a basic forum.
6. They Can Be Monetized
Since forums are a dedicated place for discussion, it’s a bit easier to get away with some blatant advertising. That is, your users are going to be more understanding when they see a banner ad and a sidebar ad, and maybe even some footer ads, because they know you need to get at least a little revenue to keep the forum up and running.
Monetizing your forum’s traffic isn’t all that difficult. Just input the code for Google Adsense on your forum’s main page and you can start to earn money from all of those engaged community member’s clicks.
If your forum really takes off, you can even throw a request for donations in the sidebar.
You’d be surprised by how many community members will donate if they love what you’ve provided. It’s a way for them to say “thanks” and if your community is dedicated, they’re likely to do just that.
7. They Give You a Way to Solicit (and Use) Feedback on the Fly
By having a dedicated forum on your site, you can easily ask questions of your visitors and get feedback, without them having to fill out a separate form with their personal information and without them having to write you an email—both of which are horribly inconvenient. If you’ve already convinced a visitor to signup for your forum, it’s no skin off her back to respond to your query in the forum itself.
Since you’re more likely to get more responses from your visitors this way, you can more readily implement their ideas into your site’s content, design, and products if you offer any. Basically, you can make your visitors an integral part of your site’s mission statement. You can make them feel valued and, as you likely already know, that’s essential for creating an engaged audience and enthusiastic customer advocates. In fact, having a forum on your site increases the likelihood of visitors coming back day after day to read and discuss, which builds visitor (and hopefully customer) loyalty.
Plugins for Adding Forums to WordPress
WordPress being WordPress, you have many plugin options for adding a forum to your site. Both free and premium options exist and they are covered in no particular order below.
bbPress is the staple forum solution for WordPress because of its simplicity and the fact that it’s made by Automattic, who also make WordPress. This plugin is easy to use and integrates seamlessly, so you can manage everything about your forum from within the WordPress dash.
It’s also optimized for speed since it’s incredibly lightweight. But you can add-on features you want with additional plugins. Best of all, bbPress is free, making it the typical go-to forum resource for people just starting to consider adding a forum to their sites. Other features include easy moderation, one-click installation, and multisite forums.
If you’re looking for a step up in terms of functionality from what bbPress offers, there’s BuddyPress, an ultimate forum and social media network creator. It comes with all sorts of features you can use to create your own social network that can be expanded upon using other WordPress plugins. It’s powerful, lightweight, and built by Automattic.
Once installed and configured, BuddyPress allows your registered members to create profiles, connect with friends, create groups, hold private discussions, post status updates, and more. It’s the foundation of the profile system behind the plugin and theme directories on WordPress.org but gives you the flexibility to create something that looks totally different.
Several extensions are available for BuddyPress as well that are installed just like any other plugin from within the WordPress dashboard.
Another plugin you can use to add a forum to your site is called WP Symposium Pro. It offers social media features and a forum so your users can connect and interact in several different ways. With it, you can create unlimited forums that allow for attachments and subscriptions as well as a multitude of layout options.
But you can extend the features beyond the basic forum to add a true community to your site with a friends system, private messages, groups, photo galleries, and a member directory. Users can also set up profiles that show activity, an avatar, a header image, and more. Everything is easy to set up with shortcodes and is totally compatible with every aspect of WordPress for easy integration. Support is also included via their own forums, live chat, Helpdesk, and TeamSpeak.
The core plugin is free but you have to purchase a license to get all of the extensions that round out its feature set. The Ultimate plan is a one-time fee of $99 for unlimited updates and all new extensions as they become available on one site. Multi-site costs $199 and is good for one multi-site. Enterprise is $499 per year and works on unlimited sites with the addition of priority Helpdesk and dedicated support. Finally, the Lifetime plan is a one-time payment of $999 and includes all the features of Enterprise plus regular checkups and early pre-release access to new extensions and updates.
If you’d prefer a more question and answer forum style, CM Answers is a good choice. This plugin, created by CMinds, is mobile responsive and easily integrates into your site’s dashboard, making moderating and monitoring forum activity just another thing you can do on your site’s backend.
With this plugin, you can auto-create Q&A list pages with display settings based on most responses, most views, and most user votes. Be as hands on or off as you’d like to keep conversation on track. There’s a Pro version of this plugin available as well that adds more features like social media login, advanced authorship permissions, shortcodes, multiple attachments allowed per post, comment support, categories, access control, front-end text editor for formatting, BuddyPress integration, Micro-Payments integration, statistics, and more.
While the basic plugin is free, the Pro edition will cost you $29 for a single site license, $59 for up to 3 site licenses, and $79 for up to 5 site licenses. There’s also a Pro Anonymous edition that costs $44 and a Pro MicroPayment edition that costs $59 for one site license.
AnsPress is another way to add a question and answer style forum to your site. It’s very much so in the style of Stack Overflow and offers a highly customizable platform that can be used with any theme and any type of site. Some of this plugin’s features include featured question, notifications, sorting options, an Ajax-based form, the ability to flag and moderate posts, q&a voting, tags, categories, labels, comments, reCaptcha, email notifications, user levels, favorites, user profiles, cover photos, a friends system, and a points-based reputation system.
This plugin is free and there are several free extensions available to round out the feature set here including Categories for AnsPress , Tags for AnsPress , and AnsPress Email Notification . Currently, there’s one paid extension available, too—Question Labels —as well as a free developer’s tool, the AnsPress boilerplate .
Simple:Press is another option for adding a forum to your site that’s definitely worth checking out. It offers seamless integration into WordPress and can easily be adapted for use on small and large forums, alike. It’s lightweight and uses themes and templates to make forum customization super simple.
This forum system is built so that it can be extended in a multitude of ways using other Simple:Press plugins. Plus, it integrates with many other popular services for added convenience, including BuddyPress, Slack, ShareThis, MyCred, SiteMaps, Gravatars, AIOSEO, WP SEO, and TinyMCE.
While the plugin itself is free you will have to pay for support, codex access, plugin and theme discounts, and plugin add-ons. The premium plans start with Copper at $10 and go up to Platinum at $135 with 12 months of forum support, codex access, and all themes and plugins.
DW Question & Answer is another free plugin option for adding a Stackoverflow or Quora-style forum to your WordPress site. It comes with many features including shortcodes, email notifications, filtering, comments, answer voting, reCAPTCHA, multi-language support, private Q&As, sticky questions, keyword searches, and more.
You can also get the add-on for this plugin that allows you to embed questions on different places of your site and share questions and answers on social networks.
Bublaa Forum and Comments is another plugin that allows you to add a forum to your WordPress site with the emphasis here being on real-time discussion. It combines a forum and commenting system to create an active and thriving discussion community. It actually comes with three different tools that all work together seamlessly. These tools include Bublaa Forum, Bublaa Comments, and Bublaa Activity.
Some other features offered here include a responsive design, an easy-to-use forum interface, email notifications, mobile support, a search engine optimized design, moderation tools, social sharing capability, rich text, support for pictures and video, and more.
Still another option is MiwoVoice. This plugin is a premium option that allows you to gather feedback from your site visitors. It’s a forum-style user feedback plugin that allows your site visitors to sound off and provide their ideas and insights. You can present ideas to your visitors as well and solicit their feedback.
Some of the features included are the ability to share unlimited ideas, an intuitive and interactive design, an Ajax-powered interface, support for avatars, Gravatars, social sharing, and shortcodes, as well as migration tools and a profanity filter. It also allows for customization and includes automatic upgrades.
A demo is available so you can see this plugin in action before you buy. A regular license costs $26 while the extended will set you back $130.
Another way to add robust discussions to your WordPress site is through the premium plugin Sabai Discuss. This plugin offers a question and answer format that’s useful for a number of different situations. It’s helpful for building a community, creating a knowledge base, a helpdesk, and more.
Some noteworthy features include a responsive design, keyword and category search, filters, frontend Q&A posting, Q&A commenting, featured questions, the ability to vote questions and answers up and down, flagging, moderation, favorites, user profiles, user reputation, user permissions, access restriction based on user roles, and more. It also includes a PHP Markdown editor and code syntax highlighting for ease of customization and comes with file attachment support, RTL language support, and includes 9 widgets, template files, 10 email notification templates, 5 shortcodes, and a whole lot of flexibility.
The regular license for Sabai Discuss will set you back $23, while the extended costs $115.
If you want an easy to configure forum on your site quickly, then you should consider WP Pro Forum System. This plugin includes numerous features for making a professional forum that can be managed on the front-end of your site. You can manage the forum from the backend, too, if you prefer.
This plugin comes with all the standard forum features like moderation and user profiles but it’s also translation-ready, can be integrated into any theme, and comes with custom filters. A regular license costs $21 at CodeCanyon and an extended license costs $105.
The last plugin I’m going to talk about here is called Groups Forums. This premium plugin adds a very lightweight forum to your site that’s based on the free plugin, Groups . With it, you can maintain an unlimited number of forums with their own rules. For instance, you can create a forum where anyone who signs up can post. Or, you can create a forum where only members of a particular group can post.
Some overarching features here include front end and back end topic submission, moderators and the ability to assign topics to them (making it perfect for use as a support forum), sticky topics, topic subscriptions, shortcodes, and comment notifications. It also comes with widgets for Forums, Topics, Topic Tags, and Topic Search. The regular license for Groups Forums costs $27 while the extended license costs $135.
What? One more thing on the list? Well, that’s because this last item isn’t a plugin. It’s a theme. ForumEngine is a WordPress theme designed for creating dedicated forum sites right out of the box. It has a modern design that requires little customization and is built entirely with discussion in mind. It includes frontend admin features for easy moderating and customizing and supports all screen sizes for easy viewing.
Some other features include sticky threads, the option to choose between infinite scroll or pagination, social media login, quick search previews, threaded replies, title badges, the ability to follow threads and ban users, and so much more.
A regular license for the ForumEngine theme costs $54 and the extended license costs a whopping $2700.
Image credits: Mike Mozart .