This post takes you step by step through the process of adding a forum to WordPress. It’s a simple process to get up and running – in fact, it only takes one click to install a working WordPress forum. We’ll then look at some more advanced options.
Not just another list
I’ve tried to avoid writing a blog post that turns into just another list of plugins copied from the WordPress directory (like some blog posts I could name). Instead, we’ll look at forums in general before focusing on guidance for installing and configuring a single plugin.
Some sites will post articles about the “best” forum plugin for WordPress but that seems to be a very subjective viewpoint and a plugin that meets the needs of one person might not be right for another. I’ve concentrated on the Discussion Board plugin and just added a brief list of alternative WordPress forum plugins here as extra bonus content at the end.
But before all that, let’s take a look at the many reasons to have a forum on your website.
What is a forum?
A forum, in ancient Rome, was a kind of marketplace – just somewhere that people met.
A forum today serves much the same purpose as a Roman forum did: it’s a place where people can come together to discuss whatever topics interest them. There are just fewer goats.
Online forums provide a platform for users to add their own topics and/or comment on the topics of others. If you run a website, a forum is a way of allowing your users to have conversations with one another. Forums can be private or publicly available.
In this post, we’re looking specifically at WordPress forums and, for reasons I’ll touch on later, forums that are added using a plugin not a theme.
Types of forum
This list is not comprehensive and I’m sure you can think of more reasons to have a forum.
Community forums are a great way for people within a community, either geographical or connected by a common interest, to communicate and interact with one another. This could be a resident’s association wishing to create a platform to exchange ideas and thoughts about their local area or it could be a global network of users of a software product that would have no other means of interacting.
Example community forum: Mumsnet
A very common reason to start a forum on your site is to support a product or service that you offer. Support forums could be peer-to-peer, where users reply to and help other users, or they could be centralized, where staff members respond directly to users. Support forums are generally used to report issues or faults.
Example support forum: WordPress.org
Question and answer forums
Q&A forums can be a type of support forum where one user asks a question and another answers it. Q&A forums often have the facility for users to vote questions and answers up or down, meaning that the best and most useful answers are highlighted.
Example Q&A forum: Quora
Idea boards are often used to help determine future development of products or services. Users can post feature suggestions and other users can respond. The more popular suggestions can be incorporated into the product.
Example idea board: WooCommerce ideas
Forums can be used to make announcements about events, product updates, new launches, anything you like.
Training and learning centers
Many educational or other types of training organizations use forums to provide assistance and support to learners. Again, this could be peer to peer, tutor-led, or a combination of both. Schools can use forums to provide another channel of communication between teacher and pupil, or pupil to pupil, and even to encourage parental involvement.
Forums take on an even more crucial role when learning is remote, e.g. for online training. They are crucial in helping learners connect with tutors and are increasingly part of the overall learning experience, not just an adjunct.
A discussion forum is a place where people with shared interests can meet and exchange ideas. A typical example would be a book club.
Example discussion forum: Articulate discussions
If you’re selling products online, you can use forums for far more than support. Forums can be a place for your customers to share ideas and recommendations, or provide advice around products.
Why do I need a forum?
If you’re reading this post, the chances are that you’ve already decided that you need a forum and you’re just looking for advice on how to create a forum in WordPress. If that’s the case, you’re welcome to skip ahead to the next section on adding a forum. Otherwise, read on to learn some of the benefits of an online forum.
Search engine optimization
SEO is a prime reason to include a forum on your site. User generated content has long been seen as a huge benefit to SEO – take a look at this article from Search Engine Land.
With a forum, your users are going to create unique content on your behalf. This unique content is going to contain key words that don’t appear anywhere else on your site and it’s vital for long-tail searches. (Long tail searches are for niche words or phrases – individually they don’t account for much traffic but cumulatively they can be significant). The more content you have, the more likely you are to figure in searches, and the more traffic you’ll encourage to your site.
Increased time on site
Time on site, or dwell time, is another SEO benefit.
How often do you find yourself visiting a forum and getting drawn into the conversations between strangers, whether or not they’re relevant to you? YouTube is a prime example of this – very often the comments are more fun than the videos. I also find it in places like Stack Overflow, the question and answer site for developers, and even on the WordPress directory, particularly in the reviews (check out this thread which starts off as a bland, one-line review but evolves into a philosophical argument on freedom of speech). I can get lost for hours in stuff like this.
Having a forum encourages users to spend longer on your site. Dwell time is seen as a really key metric for SEO: see this article from Moz and this post from Search Engine Journal. Search engines see the length of time that users spend on your site as a key indicator of quality.
Understand your users
Some types of forum, like support forums, are used specifically to allow users to ask questions and obtain help. Whether this is community-based, where you expect users to help each other, or if you or your staff are running the forum yourselves, any forum is an opportunity to learn more about your user base and their requirements, expectations and issues.
Build a marketing list
If you have a forum that requires users to sign up, you have the ideal opportunity to start building a mailing list that is focused on people you know are interested in your product or service. Email is often considered to be the single most effective form of marketing at your disposal. According to this article, email generates more than 10% of sales for over 50% of companies. Forums are an incredibly simple way of capturing email addresses.
People like to have a voice; and they like to think someone’s listening. Having a forum on your site gives your users a place to:
- Communicate with you and with other users
- Request new features
- Ask for support
- Vent their feelings
More than anything, it’s a place where you can connect with your users, understand their pain points, and improve your service.
Create a community
You could argue that allowing users to comment on posts is enough to build engagement. But a forum is a unique place where users can add their own topics and comment on the views of others. It’s another level beyond just commenting.
A forum achieves more than social networks because it’s located on your site. It’s an additional reason for users to come to your site beyond the content or products you already have there. And because it’s your site, you can moderate and control the nature of the discussion and interaction between users in a way that you can’t with Facebook or Twitter.
Users can see other people interacting with you and your content. In the often anonymous online world, this can be a huge boost to your credibility. Having a forum means that people can see that you’re real, you exist.
Build your sphere of influence
A well-managed, popular forum will improve your reputation within your industry. It will become a primary reason for users to visit your site, extending your overall reach within your field of business. As your forum develops, your reputation will increase.
How to add a forum in WordPress
In this section, we’re going to go step-by-step through the process of adding a forum to WordPress. We’ll use the Discussion Board plugin, starting with the basic features then looking at more advanced, optional features.
Should I use a forum plugin or theme?
But first, you might be thinking that you want to use a theme to create your WordPress forum. Well, you really shouldn’t. If you do, you’re going to be locked into that theme for ever.
There’s a really clear distinction between what you should expect from plugins and what you should expect from themes. A theme dictates the look and feel of your website – it’s commonly called the presentation layer. Plugins generally supply functionality that’s not already available in WordPress.
Unfortunately, theme developers don’t always hold to this distinction.
If you use a theme that has additional functionality, it is going to be difficult for you to switch away from that theme in the future because functional elements, like a forum, are baked into the theme. One day, you might decide that you don’t like the look of the theme, or the developer has stopped supporting the theme, or it’s emerged that the theme has a security vulnerability, and you decide you’d like to move to a different theme. The problem is that by changing themes you’ll lose access to any content that was created using functionality unique to your original theme.
A forum is used to create content and definitely falls into the functionality category – so you should always look to create your forum using a plugin.
There’s a useful article by Justin Tadlock on content lock-in in themes here.
WordPress forum theme
However, there are themes that are built with forums in mind. These don’t provide additional functionality but integrate with forum plugins instead. One such theme is Singularity, a free WordPress theme that integrates with Discussion Board. It doesn’t have any forum functionality itself but is designed to work with a plugin that does.
Installing Discussion Board
Discussion Board has a free and premium version. First, we’ll look at installing the free version and the features available to it, then we’ll look at the premium version.
You can install the plugin from your dashboard. Log into your WordPress site and go to Plugins > Add New. Type ‘Discussion Board’ into the search field.
You’ll see the Discussion Board plugin appear. Click the ‘Install Now’ button then, once the plugin has been installed, you can click the ‘Activate’ button which will appear in the same place.
One of the advantages of Discussion Board is that it has an automatic set-up. When you activate the plugin, it will create the pages necessary for the forum to work. These pages include:
- Topics: a list of all the topics on your site
- Log In: a page with a log-in form
- New Topic: containing a form for users to post new topics
Each page has a shortcode inserted when it’s created to ensure the correct content is displayed. You can change the titles of these pages and add some more content if you wish but it’s advisable to leave the shortcodes.
Your forum is now fully functioning. Users can go to the New Topic page and submit new topics which will be listed on your Topics page.
Discussion Board settings
On activation, the plugin also creates a ‘Discussion Topic’ post type and adds a new menu item. Click on Discussion Board > Settings to take a look through the settings.
In the free version of the plugin, there are three tabs on the settings page: General, Design and User. Rather than go through each setting individually, we’ll just look at how to do some simple tasks to configure the forum in the way you want. For more in-depth guidance on each setting, you can take a look at the support pages for the plugin.
Discussion Board has several options around registration and logging in. You can override the default WordPress log-in form and use a front-end form that’s a little more user friendly. To prevent users from logging in through the default form, select the ‘Hide WP Login?’ checkbox in Settings > General.
Discussion Board has a couple of options for reducing or even preventing spam registrations. The most effective way is to require the user to confirm their registration via a link that is emailed to them. This circumvents anyone who uses a fake email address. To enable this feature, click on the User tab in Settings and check the ‘Require account activation’ box.
Posting and viewing access
Unusually for free forum plugins, Discussion Board gives you the ability to decide who can post topics and who can view topics according to their user role. This means that you could, for instance, allow anyone to view topics while only allowing registered users to post new topics.
By default, anyone can view topics. From an SEO point of view, this is the best option as it means search engines will be able to index your content. However, only subscriber-level users (and admins) can post new topics by default. This is to prevent spammers being able to post content.
To change the user roles, go to the User tab in Settings. In the ‘Permitted viewer roles’ field, you can select one or more roles that are permitted to view topics (use the CMD or CTRL key to select more than one role). Leave this field empty if you want to let anyone view topics.
To change who can post new topics, update the ‘Permitted poster roles’ field. Select the roles you’d like to allow to post content – again, hold down the CMD or CTRL key to make multiple selections.
Discussion Board’s default layout is modelled on a traditional forum design with topic titles, user avatars and dates laid out in a table format. Its overall design is intended to be as neutral as possible in order to fit with any theme.
However, you can experiment with different layouts and designs directly from the Customizer if you wish. Just click on Customize > Discussion Board and you’ll see a couple of panels for single and archive pages where you change the layout and update colors.
Discussion Board Pro is a premium WordPress forum plugin. The free version of Discussion Board will be enough for many users but if you’d like to grab some extra features then you can upgrade to the Pro version.
Installing and activating Discussion Board Pro
When you purchase Discussion Board Pro, you’ll receive an email with a license number and a link. Click the link to download the zip file, then go to Plugins > Add New > Upload to upload it to your site. Once uploaded, click Activate.
Organize topics into boards
One of the key features of the Pro version is the ability to allocate topics to specific boards. Boards act like sub-forums so topics are grouped according to subject. Users can choose which board to allocate their topic to when they create it.
To enable this feature, go to Discussion Board > Settings and click on the Boards tab. Check the ‘Enable Boards’ box.
Follow topics and boards
Users can subscribe to topics that they’re interested in, or even subscribe to boards. By following a topic or board, the user will get an email notification when new content is posted. To activate this feature, go to the Followers tab and select the ‘Enable topic following’ and ‘Enable board following’ checkboxes. The user then gets a simple button to click to start following topics.
Upload images and WYSIWYG editing
Discussion Board Pro also gives you the option to allow users to upload images to their topics, either as a featured image or within the topic content. You can also enable a WYSIWYG editor on the topic form so that posters can use the standard WordPress editor on the front end.
To enable these features, go to the Pro tab and select the ‘Enable editor’ and ‘Allow media button’ checkboxes.
Finally, it should be noted that DB Pro comes with a number of useful widgets for your forum, including:
- Log-in widget: log-in form for your sidebar
- Recent replies: list the most recent replies to topics
- Recent topics: list the most recent topics on your site
- Top commenters: list the names of the most frequent commenters
- Top posters: list the names of the most frequent contributors to your forum
View a demo
You can take a look at a demo version of the plugin at discussionboard.pro. The demo is fully functioning so you can register, post and comment if you wish.
Other WordPress forum plugins are available
At the start of this post I said that this wouldn’t be just another round-up of available plugins and hopefully I’ve stuck to my word. However, I am going to provide a list of other plugins that you might find useful in case the information above isn’t quite what you’re looking for.
Slightly predictably, I’ve put bbPress at the top of the list of alternative forum plugins. It’s the most commonly used WordPress plugin for forums and has over 300,000 active installations. It’s developed and maintained by some well-known figures from the WordPress community and has been around a long time.
Posts Table Pro
Posts Table Pro is a WordPress table plugin. It can be used on its own or with other WordPress plugins such as bbPress. Either way, with this plugin all your forum topics can be displayed in an easy to view and sortable table.
wpForo is a lot newer than bbPress. It has over 10,000 active installations and is regularly maintained and updated. As well as the free version, wpForo has several paid extensions.
DW Question & Answer
DW is specifically a question and answer plugin rather than an out and out forum plugin. It allows users to post new questions and answer existing questions. It has over 10,000 active installations.
CM Answers is another Q&A plugin, specifically intended to allow you to replicate a Stack Overflow style site. It has 2,000 active installations and slightly more mixed reviews than the plugins listed above.
The list of plugins above is a relatively small sample set of what’s available. To start working with the Discussion Board plugin, you can follow the links below.