We all remember the early days of online communities - those of us who have been online for a while will fondly recall the Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) of the 1980s and 90s. While something of a precursor to modern forums and social networks, BBS laid the groundwork for bringing people together in online spaces to share information and ideas.
It was forums, however, that really helped online communities blossom in the late 90s and 2000s. Forums provided a centralized place for members' thoughts and discussions on virtually any topic you could imagine. General forums covered a wide array of topics while more niche forums allowed for in-depth conversations in specialized areas like podcasting.
Forums were hugely popular for over a decade but saw a decline in audience with the rise of quick-hit social media like Facebook and Twitter. It's a shame that forums lost some of their prominence, as they offered tremendous value as searchable online resources where you could easily find information on just about any subject.
Unfortunately, much of the invaluable knowledge once shared on forums has been absorbed by Reddit. While Reddit serves as a large centralized hub, it comes with its own downsides. The recent "Reddit apocalypse" highlighted issues like the removal of third-party API access and the purging of volunteer mods from niche subreddits. Without passionate unpaid mods to curate niche topics, the quality of knowledge shared on Reddit has suffered.
Forums weren't perfect either, as many relied on just one or two dedicated individuals to run the whole community. However, forums do offer small business owners and content creators looking to build an online following some key advantages over alternatives.
For one, forums allow you to truly own your community rather than hosting it within someone else's walled garden like Discord or Facebook. If those platforms change their rules or shut you down, your entire community is lost. With a forum, your community is fully under your control.
Forums also excel at audience retention and engagement. By promoting your forum on your streams, videos, or website, you give your followers a dedicated community space they can visit anytime. The search engine optimization (SEO) benefits of forums also mean people searching for help on specific topics are more likely to find your discussions.
So where do you begin if looking to start a forum? There are both free and paid forum software options available:
- Free forum software like PHPBB and MyBB are great starting points. However, as volunteer-run projects, their development has slowed in recent years without funding.
- Paid forum platforms like XenForo offer more robust ongoing support and development incentives since they derive revenue. XenForo's self-hosted licenses start at around $160/year while monthly cloud plans begin at $60/month.
- Invision Powerboard is another paid forum platform offering monthly plans from $54/month. They provide a broader suite of modules compared to basic XenForo plans at the low end.
Ultimately, paid forum platforms may offer better long-term value through professional support, frequent updates, and advanced features. But free, open-source software could work well too for hobby communities.
When choosing software, weigh factors like cost, features, community size/activity levels, and your long-term goals. Do you want ultimate control of your community or prefer a hands-off cloud hosting option?
For serious businesses and content creators, forums can be an investment in building a dedicated, engaged audience you own completely. The control, SEO benefits, and future-proofing of independent hosting make forums a smart choice for any entrepreneurs seeking to cultivate long-lasting online communities.
As we enter 2024, online discussions will continue evolving rapidly. But even amid constant change, forums remain a tried-and-true foundation for any community looking to empower members and spread knowledge for years to come. With a little work upfront, forums could become a valuable asset driving engagement and discovery for your brand for many years to come.