Whether you’re running an online business, showcasing your professional portfolio, or simply blogging about your life, learning how to start a forum website can be a successful way to attract more readers and boost visitor engagement.
From the earliest days of the World Wide Web and the even earlier days of physically posting your message in a designated area, bulletin boards have offered a popular way to spread information and communicate with others who share your interests. Even better, online communities lead to increased sales, lead opportunities, SEO, overall traffic, and customer retention, with 90% of forum owners saying that user submissions help improve products and services, as well.
Now, millions of internet users around the world use online forums to discuss politics, sports, parenting tips, and the latest celebrity meme. Learn how to easily leverage message boards to drive traffic and revenue by reading through our three-step guide and software reviews below.
Step 1: Choose a Forum Hosting Partner
Even though discussion forums are some of the earliest web technologies developed, the communication method and online communities still power a variety of well-known brands across multiple industries and interests. Forums on Reddit, the world’s fifth most-visited website, accounts for 21 billion page views each month across more than 130,000 active communities.
Without strong technology behind your forum, the increased traffic and interactions increase the risk of slow page loads, downtime, or compromised accounts. As soon as you decide to create a forum website from scratch, examine the various ingredients to find the perfect mix of speed, security, and scalability — starting with your site’s web hosting plan.
The best web hosts blend affordability with easy-to-use technologies like one-click software installations, domain name registration, and email notifications, among other components needed to run a successful forum website. We’ve listed our favorite options below for forum management, highlighting those that offer popular message board apps, around-the-clock customer support, and ample resources to support your burgeoning community. Read our reviews below and click on each to learn more.
- Install phpBB for FREE with one click
- Automatic site backups conducted daily
- Manage forum tools directly from cPanel
- FREE advertising credits
- US-based support available 24/7 with 99.9% uptime
- Get started on Bluehost now.
- Fast forum hosting for phpBB, SMF, and others
- More forum software choices than any provider
- Unlimited storage, bandwidth, and databases
- Easily manage your forum hosting with cPanel
- FREE SSL and SSDs for security and speed
- Get started on A2 Hosting now.
- Choose from any forum application
- Easily set up SMF and phpBB with 1-click installs
- All-SSD storage means 20x-faster page loads
- FREE SSL certificate and DDoS protection
- cPanel management with Softaculous script library
- Get started on InMotion now.
- Multiple forum options available via 1-click script
- Unlimited websites and bandwidth on most plans
- Optimized WordPress hosting to pair with forums
- Manage your forum via custom control panel
- High-speed hosting for less than $1 per month
- Get started on Hostinger now.
Step 2: Set Up Your Forum Software
Once all the hosting wires are connected, it’s time to choose the software you’ll want to power your discussion board. Creating an online forum system from scratch is a time-consuming and extremely complicated venture, so you’re absolutely better served by downloading and installing a program that handles all the complicated matters for you.
As you may imagine, numerous platform options exist for seemingly countless types of communities and website owners. For instance, WordPress users are likely to use an open-source program written in PHP, while premium options may offer businesses more freedom to customize and configure functionality. Here are some of the most popular free programs:
Once your software is installed (check the program’s documentation for help), you can now move on to the fun of choosing a theme, customizing the design, and setting up the various user permissions and forum rules you wish to implement. Write a post explaining the standards for discriminatory or vulgar language, spam, self-promotion, external links, membership, and moderation and publish it in a prominent, permanent spot. Going through the exercise will also enable you to test out the software from your users’ perspective and take screenshots for any knowledge base or support article you may post.
Step 3: Create and Organize Your Discussion Topics
Think of attending a speed dating event: Walking into a large empty room feels intimidating and awkward, right? However, you’d be more likely to find love with some soft lighting, defined sitting areas, and a moderator directing who should move where, and when. You can make your forum website similarly more cozy and inviting with just a few minutes of work.
If you’ve made it this far, you probably have an idea of the type of online community you’d like to build. But what specific types of conversations do you expect your users to have? Identify some major categories and a few subcategories, then start building out the structure to kickstart the discussion. If, for instance, you’re creating a fan forum for a specific college athletics program, you can start a category for football, basketball, and other popular sports; the subcategories could center around recruiting, finding tickets, and the current season.
All in all, you’ll want to make sure you know both your audience and the subject matter to ensure you’re highlighting the topics your readers care about enough to get involved. Be prepared to adjust as needed, but getting the original structure and a few posts established will help jumpstart the conversation.
How Do You Run a Successful Forum?
Given that the top online forums run the gamut from travel advice to computer programming, you can find success with a variety of conversation topics. The steps to success include successfully navigating the three steps listed above, of course, but there’s much more to keep in mind. As with any website or online venture, user experience is of the utmost importance.
For starters, you’ll want to create a safe, welcoming environment where your visitors want to engage. That means providing a safe space free of harassment that rewards thoughtful contributions to go along with the stimulating discussions. Enforcing the rules you established — and taking actions to remove users who refuse to follow them — builds positive energy your members will appreciate.
No matter how well everyone gets along, your online community won’t thrive if there are only a handful of users posting and reading threads. Be sure to market your message board and reach out to prospective posters. If you’re adding a forum to an existing website, notify your current audience about the new community. Otherwise, promote your forum on social media, search engines, and other relevant outlets.
Which is the Best Forum Software?
Just like Goldilocks and the three bears disagreed on the best temperature of porridge, website owners have wildly different opinions about the best forum platform. Price, programming language, usability, and other features all contribute to a program’s popularity, and the advantages or disadvantages can differ depending on your audience or expertise.
Large businesses with an established consumer base may prefer a premium forum solution, most of which are hosted on the forum platform’s own cloud servers to provide for top-tier scalability and performance. Some of our favorite paid forum platforms also include self-hosted or open-source options:
Overall, bbPress is largely considered the most popular forum software for WordPress sites. Founder Matt Mullenweg coded the PHP forum software from scratch to boost the content management system’s own support forums, and the team has since released it as a plugin. For those looking for other CMS-specific, PHP-based, open-source forum software: Joomla users should check out Kunena for its revamped codebase, while Harmony is a popular option for Drupal websites.
Although forum software written in PHP tends to dominate the market, website owners have a wide variety of needs. Wix and Weebly have forum options for those who need drag-and-drop website builder simplicity, while ASP.NET, Django, or Node.js developers will appreciate JitBit, Misago, and NodeBB, respectively.
How Much Does it Cost to Run a Forum?
Fortunately for most, the investment for running a forum website is usually fairly minimal: a few dollars per month for web hosting, coupled with open-source software, and user-driven oversight. That being said, businesses and inexperienced forum owners may need to spend quite a bit more by upgrading to a more powerful hosting plan and purchasing a hosted forum program, along with hiring developers and moderators to implement and manage the community.
How much you should pay for web hosting largely depends on the amount of traffic you expect to see each month. While the cheap web hosting plans are typically the most attractive, you may need to budget up to $20 per month for top VPS hosting services and roughly $100 for a dedicated server hosting package.
Beyond the web hosting and domain name registration, the latter of which typically costs between $10 and $15 per year, your forum software represents the next potential expense. We’ve covered the free and open-source options at length, but your audience may necessitate a more expensive solution. Depending on the specific product and package you choose, most forum software can cost between roughly $15 and $500 per month.
Aside from the technologies needed to create and operate a forum website, the only other potential cost is time. Your time can be considered free if you don’t need to take a salary from the operation, but what if you need to employ developers or moderators to help oversee your readers’ engagement? Many forums give their community leaders and frequent posters the responsibility of administrative rights to delete posts and ban users who don’t adhere to the forum rules.
Can You Create a Forum on Wix?
The world leader in user-friendly web design and hosting, Wix has long offered tools for customers to create online venues for ecommerce, restaurants, bands, real estate agents, and other ventures. The team behind the popular drag-and-drop site builder launched a feature for forums in 2017, enabling users to add the free app to their design experience.
The online communities you can create on Wix are optimized for mobile users and don’t restrict the number of discussion threads you can host. Wix Forums will automatically email forum participants when their post is liked or responded to, further boosting engagement and invigorating conversations.
We’ve long valued Wix as one of the best website builder options, and especially appreciate how the platform allows users to get started for free. While support and technical capabilities may be somewhat limited, the company truly streamlines the website and forum creation process, ensuring a well designed and hassle-free experience for both admins and users. Check out our review of Wix below:
- FREE signup with email or Facebook
- Drag-and-drop designing is super easy
- 1-year domain free with most plans
- Up to $300-worth of ad credits
- Access to 1,000s of templates and additional tools in the App Market
- Get started on Wix now.
Bring the Discussion to Your Website and Build Your Forum Membership
Successful forum websites pose a fascinating alternative to blogs and social media, offering more privacy and control over user data while still engaging your visitors from around the world. Understandably, the audience you attract is key to your forum’s success — beyond the sheer number of page views per month, you’ll want to see active and dynamic participation.
Forum owners can learn from teachers who take classroom discussions to online communities and message boards. Cultivate strong debate and commonality by fostering engaging questions with answers that extend beyond facts and statistics; search for real-world experiences that promote an interest in learning more and creating a team of comrades.
Take a look at lists of tips for community managers to determine how you can best oversee and grow your online message board. Oftentimes, that entails recognizing the fairly limited role you can play. Remember, the community you’re building should serve its members, not just you.
As the network of readers and contributors expands, consider implementing a membership system that protects — and perhaps monetizes — the content your users are creating. By adding a level of exclusivity, you’ll likely find more readers peering in the windows looking at the valuable information making the rounds.