Best Forum CMS Frameworks To Launch An Online Community

Community forums are a huge part of the web. They’ve been around since the late 90s and over time web forums have only grown larger with dozens of forum CMS’ on the market.

Running a forum is a lot of work. It’s one reason why so many people prefer running Facebook groups or subreddits. But with a forum you control all the content, the design, and the structure of the website. A forum is by far the best way to go if you’re hoping to foster a community around your website.

I’ve curated my picks for the top 10 forum CMS’ here with descriptions for each one. There are some alternatives not listed here, and of course new options pop up all the time. But these are by far the most widely supported and safest to run in the long term.

vBulletin

Anyone who was online during the early-to-mid 2000s must remember vBulletin. It was the de-facto forum software for over a decade and pretty much every major forum ran with vBulletin.

This program was first released in 1999 and it has widely cemented its place in history as the go-to solution for PHP web forums. And it’s still around today running vBulletin 5 with tons of custom features.

vbulletin forum

Every new vBulletin forum has built-in SEO and security measures along with many custom theming options. The entire forum is also mobile optimized for smartphones making it one of the few responsive forum CMS’.

You can browse through the features page to learn more, but suffice it to say this program is massive. You have so much control over everything from user/mod permissions, total number of sub-forums, metadata, custom user avatars, custom emojis and so much more.

The biggest downside is the steep learning curve. WordPress is a walk in the park compared to running a vBulletin forum.

But since vB is a trusted name you have a lot to gain by working with them. It comes down to your personal preferences and what you want out of your forum. vBulletin is definitely in my top 3 choices just for all its features and years of trustworthy development.

But if the learning curve is off putting or if it’s simply too pricey there are lots of alternatives.

Vanilla Forums

One free alternative you might try is the Vanilla Forum CMS. It’s also powered by PHP and it’s one of the newest forums to hit the web in recent years.

It has two distinct packages:

  1. A free open source Vanilla forum which you can setup & manage yourself
  2. A cloud hosted forum managed by their team

Both options come with the same forum software, but the first lets you manage everything yourself while the second lets you offload the server admin stuff to experts(for a fee).

All of the Vanilla forum code is 100% free and open source which makes problem solving a lot easier. The dev community is more willing to support open source code and there’s a lot of great solutions in Google for common problems you might face.

But just because this is free doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact you can find many big forums running the Vanilla CMS. Some notable ones are the Xamarin forums and the massive Marvel Heroes forums.

marvel heroes forums

What I like about Vanilla is how much customization it offers. You get full control over the entire forum design, the user profiles, and user/moderator permissions. This feels very much like vBulletin without the price tag.

But some of their better features go beyond vBulletin’s defaults. You can include custom badges for your users along with Q&A support and even an optional mobile forum for smartphone users.

Vanilla comes out-of-the-box ready to deploy with professional settings. And the learning curve isn’t really worse than vBulletin so it’s definitely a great free option for anyone willing to tinker with PHP.

IPS Forums

Another old-school forum CMS is IPS Forums, formerly known as Invision Power Board. It was first created in 2002 and served as a rival against vBulletin.

This is still around today with all the same features, but it got a complete rewrite back in 2012 to create the Invision Power Services(or IPS) package. This includes a custom blog module, a content module, an ecommerce module and an image gallery module.

All of these features come as one big package making IPS a true CMS engine beyond just a community forum. However the forum functionality is by far the most advanced, and it’s the main reason people stick with IPS.

ipb ips forums

You can learn more on the apps page with screenshots and demos. But this platform has come a long way since the early 2000s and it has evolved much like vBulletin.

However vBulletin has one huge advantage over IPS which may steer you away from this package. vBulletin is a one-time fee with a lifetime license for all updates and support.

If you go with IPS it’ll cost you a small renewal fee every 6 months to continue getting support and updates to the platform. Considering this extra fee it really doesn’t seem worth the price tag if you just need a forum CMS.

However if you’re looking to build an entire web portal then IPS is probably worth the cost. It has a smaller upfront fee and if you plan to earn a lot from your IPS website then the yearly fee can be rolled into your overhead.

bbPress

In recent years we discovered that WordPress powers 25% of the Internet with no signs of slowing down. This means a WordPress CMS forum would be ideal, but WordPress is just a blogging platform. How could you add forum support onto that?

With a little plugin called bbPress.

It follows the same open source license as WordPress so you can download and work with this for life without ever paying a dime. It’s also made to blend into your WordPress dashboard so you can administer your website & the forum all from one location.

I’ve tinkered with bbPress in the past and the biggest downside is that it kinda feels like an “afterthought” to the WordPress environment. It does work like a real forum and users can sign up, create profiles, create threads and all that good stuff.

But it also feels like someone shoehorned forum functionality into WordPress. You really have to mess around with the default setup to get something that looks nice and fits with your theme.

You can actually see a demo on the bbPress forums which are, naturally, powered by bbPress.

bbpress forums

With that said bbPress is heavily supported by the community and it’s unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Since it’s a WP plugin the installation is simple and it comes with multisite support.

I would recommend bbPress only if you prefer to keep everything within WordPress. If you’d be okay with a separate forum admin panel then try Vanilla instead. It has far more user-focused features and it feels more like a forum right out of the box.

Still, bbPress deserves a spot in this list because it’s a viable option to run any sized forum right through WordPress. This is by far its biggest selling point and there will always be people who like that type of convenience.

Discourse

Another unique open source forum is Discourse. It was created by Jeff Atwood who also created Stack Overflow, so you know this platform is pretty reliable.

Discourse is one of the few non-PHP options since it’s built with Ruby on Rails. Many big name forums use Discourse because it’s more of a communication platform rather than a larger community CMS.

For example, the Twitter dev community uses Discourse instead of a larger forum platform because it’s just easier to run.

twitter dev community

Discourse even offers custom integration plugins for Slack, Google Analytics, and WordPress. Talk about convenient!

My biggest complaint is the lack of sub-forum alternatives. The default homepage lists all the most recent threads by default so your forum’s homepage can feel crowded. I definitely like the simple style and ease-of-use, but this is far from an organized alternative to vBulletin.

Still not everyone wants a vBulletin-style forum, so Discourse might offer exactly what you’re looking for. Take a peek at their live demo and see what you think.

phpBB

Before Vanilla forums many web developers preferred the phpBB platform. This free forum CMS is also totally open source and offers a quality user experience.

It is one of the simplest forums to get up & running without much hassle. You just download a copy, install on a PHP/MySQL server, and start creating discussion boards. Easy peasy.

They have a sizable support community which also runs on phpBB so you can see how this looks in action. The forum’s behavior is similar to classic messaging boards, however the design is quite a bit different with fewer user profile features.

phpbb forum sample

Still I think for a free forum you can’t ask for a whole lot more. And the default template is fully responsive so if you can work within that template you’ll have a mobile-optimized forum ready to go right after launch.

Best of all their resources are totally free! So if you find a cool extension or theme you can just download it and get it running fast. The platform also supports 50+ language packs so you can run phpBB for localization in massive countries all around the world.

If you want something a little prettier then go with Vanilla. But if you’re willing to tinker with code and pretty this up yourself then phpBB is quite a versatile solution.

MyBB

The MyBB forum is, in my opinion, much better than phpBB when it comes to design and functionality. This is also an aged platform dating back to early 2002 and running consistently for almost two decades.

Inside the admin panel you get full control over your forum’s theme, functionality, calendars, user polls, profiles, private messaging, chats, the list goes on and on.

Take a peek at the official MyBB community site to see what this forum looks like. It feels like a slimmer version of vBulletin which is great for anyone on a tight budget.

mybb forum cms

But the MyBB platform isn’t without its faults, namely the lack of mobile support. Since so many people use smartphones for Internet browsing this can be a huge detriment.

There is a GoMobile theme but you’d have to run this alongside the original MyBB install. Definitely not a problem, but it’ll take a bit more effort to setup.

And MyBB does support multiple languages so this is yet another great choice for international websites. Out of all the free forum CMS platforms I definitely like MyBB quite a bit.

It may be somewhat limited compared to others, but if you just need a simple community then this CMS fits perfectly.

SMF(Simple Machines)

I personally find SMF really difficult to learn, but I also know developers who swear by SMF as the best forum CMS out there.

SMF stands for Simple Machines Forum and it’s a free PHP-powered platform that follows a vBulletin-style threaded architecture. The SMF templating system is the worst I’ve used and it’s very difficult to customize.

This is my biggest qualm with the platform because it requires so much effort to get it working. But I’ve been a member on SMF forums and the user experience is definitely nice.

smf forums

Their main community uses SMF so take a peek there and see what you think.

If you’re willing to spend time testing different forums then give this a go. You may really like the setup, the admin panel, or the dev-friendly environment.

But with other free options like Vanilla, MyBB, and bbPress, it’s hard to rank SMF anywhere near the top.

NodeBB

So many developers are moving to Node.js for its customization and ease of use with fullstack JavaScript. The NodeBB CMS is a great choice if you’re willing to play with a Node setup.

Sadly this forum is not free and it’s a bit tougher to setup. You really do need some background in web development to feel comfortable working with NodeBB.

However it is reasonably well-designed and it places a great deal of focus on the user experience. Since it’s a full JavaScript stack the pages typically load through Ajax dynamically, making the experience feel a whole lot smoother.

nodebb forums

You can actually get a nice demo on the NodeBB community page to see how this really works.

User profiles and forum threads are all very simple and the default theme is pretty basic. If you’re willing to learn the templating language you can do some crazy stuff with NodeBB.

However as I said before, this is really more of a developer’s CMS. If you’re just looking for something simple then NodeBB is probably the worst choice.

On the flip side, any devs itching to dive into Node will have a blast on this platform.

XenForo

A few of the original vBulletin founders left the company in the late 2000s to create a new forum. This went through many iterations and finally became XenForo.

You’ve probably seen these forums out in the wild because this platform has grown wildly since inception. XenForo is modeled after the original vBulletin so it borrows a lot of ideas like nested comments, breadcrumbs, and dynamic Ajax replies.

The license price is quite a bit cheaper than vBulletin but this also comes with 12-month support limit per license. To keep support up-to-date you’d have to pay an extra $40/yr to update the license.

But this ultimately ends up a whole lot cheaper than IPS so I’d argue XenForo is the #1 competitor to vBulletin. You can see a live demo on their community board and you’ll notice it does have a similar “style” to the original vB v3/v4 release.

xenforo forums cms

If you’re willing to spend some dough on a forum CMS then XenForo is a really solid option. It’s heavily supported by a passionate community and it was birthed from many of the developers who created vBulletin.

They don’t have a large “features” page but you can learn more by skimming this thread. XenForo comes with a very clean admin panel so it’s one of the easier forums to administer. But since the community is smaller it doesn’t have as many add-ons or templates to start with.

Still I think this should be in the top 3 for best paid forum platforms and it’s definitely neck-and-neck with vBulletin for a premium CMS.

Wrapping Up

If you’re struggling to pick a forum platform it’s good to first list out your goals. Are you looking for a free CMS or would you rather pay for support & extra features?

My top contenders for paid are vBulletin and XenForo. But if you’re going free then Vanilla forums and MyBB are both incredible.

In truth all of these forum CMS’ are fantastic, just each in their own ways and for different audiences. Take another look over this list and I bet you’ll find one that best suits your needs.

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