TL; DR: As longtime, passionate users of community message boards themselves, the team behind Plush Forums seeks to reinvigorate the legacy communication platform with a clean and complete service. The company prioritizes user experience, strong design, support, and affordability when crafting its award-winning forums software, enabling everyone from individuals and small businesses to large corporations to better engage with their audiences. Founder Adrian Flitcroft spoke with us about his decision to forego flashy fads in favor of delivering a robust, stable, and secure forum experience customers can enjoy for a lifetime.
Starting with the earliest bulletin board websites in the late 1990s, Adrian Flitcroft has been a passionate user of community forums — particularly when it comes to football, computer games, and poker.
As a project manager and product manager at PokerStars, the world’s largest online gaming company, Adrian lead several online initiatives with the company’s digital platforms. Even as the popularity of social media networks and mobile applications grew, he still considered online forums as the best medium for online discussions.
“I made many great friends on these platforms over the years,” he said. “They’re a great way to organize long-form content and keep it discoverable over time.”
As his entrepreneurial ambitions grew, Adrian quickly identified that a modern, reinvented forum service was desperately needed. By 2012, forums had greatly evolved from the HTML table-based designs of two decades earlier — but still had plenty of room to grow. And so, Adrian and a small group of friends began developing and testing.
The result, Plush Forums, debuted to the public two years later. With a clean, polished design and full set of ready-to-go features, the company enables organizations to rapidly launch an online community complete with an integrated blog, private messaging, directory, events, paid subscriptions, and custom user profiles — all without any technical expertise or plugins required.
“We were part of a wave of companies looking to bring a modern user experience to a concept that had become a bit old-fashioned and out of favor with younger internet users,” Adrian said. “It’s a very crowded market, so it was vital that we differentiate ourselves by offering something new.”
Modernizing the Forum Experience and Compressing the Time to Launch
At the forefront of Adrian’s mind was creating a modern forum experience that featured the best elements of design, user experience, service, and value, enabling customers and readers to find nuanced expertise and debate. Key to achieving that vision was providing an all-encompassing solution that streamlined installation and configuration.
“Even to this day, forum platforms can be a patchwork quilt,” Adrian said. “To get to a launchable state, you need to cobble together a multitude of plugins, themes, and tweaks, all created by different developers. It’s a difficult and time-consuming process, which often produces messy or unstable results. I personally love the DIY website ethos but recognize that it’s not for everyone.”
The restrictions may frustrate experienced forum admins who are used to having ultimate fine-grain control, but Adrian said Plush Forums typically gain more acceptance in their customers’ communities.
“Our customer is usually a non-technical manager at a small to medium-sized organization who just wants something that looks and works great, leaving them to focus on content creation and community building,” Adrian said.
Customers can get started with Plush Forums with a 14-day free trial or a hosted Software-as-a-Service plan starting at $49 per month. Although the platform’s affordability is a major advantage, Adrian valued the product’s time-to-launch even more. Instead of devoting internal resources to building an in-house product or earmarking $1,000 or more per month for a high-cost SaaS vendor, companies can get started on Plush Forums within an hour.
“Before you know it, your community project is already a real thing, not just an idea,” he said. “If you can compress time, you can make things happen that otherwise wouldn’t.”
The Core of Plush Forums: Customer Experience and Design Principles
As an all-in-one, “batteries included” solution, as Adrian said, Plush Forums provides a complete experience right out of the box. Admittedly, he said the company had to sacrifice certain flashy features and customization options to achieve that, but the decision resonates strongly with the company’s target audiences and the customer feedback it receives.
“We may not have as many features, and our features may not be the most complex, but everything we offer is simple, bug-free, easy to use, and consistent across the entire user interface,” he said. “It seems people really appreciate this level of polish and professionalism, including a surprising number of highly technical users. Ultimately, it helps forum admins attract and retain end users.”
With a design focused on usability and natural navigation, Plush Forums prioritizes dependability and stability. Although users can’t modify the interface or backend functionality, they can add custom logos, color palettes, and backgrounds, as well as modify options to enable, disable, and change features.
Each page is constructed to directly connect users with the information they’re seeking, enabling Plush customers and their community members to experience seamless integrations with the platform’s tools for a blog, private messaging, and events.
“Our customer experience and design principles are part of everything we do,” Adrian said. “They’re absolutely core to the Plush ethos and our differentiation in the market. But there’s something else that underlies everything we do, and that is to help people create forums that otherwise wouldn’t exist.”
Plush’s Turn-Key Solutions Appeal to Organizations of All Sizes
In Adrian’s former life in the corporate world, he said he has fallen for the allures of several so-called turn-key platforms — often with less-than-positive results.
“I know those claims rarely ring true, to put it politely,” he said. “Less politely, they’re often complete bullshit. I’ve made my fair share of bad purchases and been burned, with poor reliability or escalating costs.”
As a result, Adrian and the Plush Forums team apply that real-world expertise to the company’s scalable product and varying user base. On one end are the hobbyists or developers running forums as a side project, while enterprise organizations often pay consulting firms large sums of money to oversee their vast message board ecosystem. As a SaaS product, Plush represents an affordable and simple option for those with limited expertise and funds, while providing the first-class user experience and computing firepower large organizations require and expect.
Because of those customer segments and his past experiences, Adrian knew Plush Forums had to deliver on every promise. With years of experience, development, and testing put into every component, Plush Forums keeps communities running quickly, safely, and securely.
“I can’t tell you how committed I am to this,” he said. “It’s practically an obsession. But our customers never have to worry about backups, bug fixes, software upgrades, the latest security vulnerability scares, operating system maintenance, or server crashes. We worry about everything so they don’t have to, basically.”
Balancing the Plush Forums Road Map With User Feedback
Given the company’s laser-like focus on design and experience consistency, Adrian said the Plush Forums team tends to control its own product road map, choosing to stay with its vision of modern forum software without falling victim to all the latest trends.
“Change for change’s sake is a problem I have with a number of SaaS products, and I definitely want to avoid that in Plush,” he said. “By the time you’ve gotten used to one Gmail interface, Google is usually ready to change it again. Why, I’m not sure. Has the user experience really improved in the last 10 years?”
However, the company’s close-knit relationship with its customers means user feedback can greatly influence the development and improvement of Plush Forums. The company will even name and thank a customer who inspired or influenced a particular update.
“We’re very lucky to have a very thoughtful group of customers who help us scope out new features to meet their needs and nail down those hard-to-replicate bugs,” Adrian said. “We shipped a vast number of incremental improvements and feature updates in the first half of 2018, and every one of those incorporated customer feedback on some level.”
According to Adrian, the second half of 2018 was spent improving the platform’s architecture; the team alternates between phases of implementing user-facing, visible changes, and time spent on features that aren’t. For example, the company recently released a metadata-driven spam detection engine that works alongside content-driven spam fighter Akismet, which Adrian called “one of the unsung hero features of Plush that we’re most proud of.”
“Users can’t see it, but it really helps people build great communities,” he said.