Most people associate WordPress (WP) with blogs, whether free or self-hosted. It’s easy to understand why this is so: WP is the most robust and user-friendly free blogging platform online. You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that WP also offers an effective forum solution as well.
First Thing’s First: What’s A Forum?
Forums, also called message boards and bulletin boards, are the original Web 2.0 sites where people gather to discuss various categorized topics. Conversations are arranged into individual “threads”, with each new comment or post added below the prior entry and the overall discussion scrolling down the page over a period of time. While slower than real-time chat, this method of communication is very clear and easy to follow; one major benefit of the static posting is the fact that entire threads can be archived for future participants to reference.
A forum can be a successful site in and of itself, but most people use these tools as a support device or backend marketing tool to enhance a commercial Website. Providing customer service through a forum grants a more personal feel, and it allows you to archive interactions for the benefit of new customers. And of course, a few quality discussions on topics relevant to your market is an excellent way to field some free research while building relationships with your prospects and buyers. Consultation through a private forum could be an attractive bonus item for your main offer. The potential ways to leverage a forum are varied and numerous.
There are a number of free and commercial forum solutions available; a very solid yet little known alternative is using a WP plugin to convert your blog into a forum, or to simply add a forum option for your readers.
The Simple:Press Alternative
Simple:Press (SP) Forum is the premier WP plugin for integrating a forum into your blog. This software has many of the same features as commercial forum software, but without the price tag. You can download this excellent application at http://simplepressforum.com and you can have it up and running in less than half an hour, providing you’re at least savvy enough to operate an FTP client.
You’ll definitely want to use FTP rather than any Cpanel uploader or the built in WordPress plugin uploader, as this particular plugin is quite large. Most likely any uploading “wizard” you try will time out or fail. Once the entire plugin is transferred into your WP plugins directory, you of course need to login to your dashboard, navigate to Settings, then to Plugins, and find Simple:Press Forum on your list; activate the plugin as you would any other plugin software.
With your new forum application uploaded and activated, click on over to the individual settings page for SP Forum and click the install button. This action will set up and synchronize your database tables for you. Believe it or not it’s really this easy! It’s possible you may have to create some folders via FTP if your web host is set up differently than standard, but this is easy and the plugin will tell you where to create these folders.
Beyond the raw activity of placing this system on your server and populating your database, you’ll have a massive number of more specific setup options. I could write an entire article on this topic alone so, for space purposes, I’ll simply point out that via the excellent documentation and user support you should have no trouble configuring this nifty free forum to your exact specifications.
I’ve personally used this plugin on only a relatively small site. Our forum is pretty active but not very large compared to the most popular forums out there and we’ve kept to the basic functions of the plugin. However the SP developers claim their software can accommodate a very large discussion community.
The only major drawback you’ll find with SP is that, due to the limited number of people currently using this software, you won’t find an extensive selection of pre-built skins or templates available. This may not matter if you’re just looking for a simple message board; if you do want something a little more fancy you can always hire a coder to tweak an existing skin for a small fee.
Overall the pros definitely outweigh the cons. SP Forum is, at the very least, worth the time to investigate and try out. If you like this tool you’ll save money and have a great system that allows both you and your readers to flow from blog to forum experience with ease; if it’s not for you the only thing you’ll be “out” is a few minutes of your time.
Additional WordPress Forum Plugins
While SP is, in my opinion, the best WP forum plugin, there are alternatives you can peruse. One in particular may be of interest to staunch supporters of WP: the bbPress script is a forum plugin developed in-house by the core WP team.
The main page touts a resource that’s efficient and fast-loading while at the same time robust in features, easily integrated with your blog, and designed with future expansions and add-ons in mind. In the words of the makers themselves, bbPress is “lean, mean, and ready to take on any job you throw at it”; clearly the coders behind this project intended their product to be workable for small or large forum services.
This plugin doesn’t appear to be as regularly updated/upgraded as the core WP software, perhaps due to the limited use. Also documentation is pretty sparse right now. Plans are currently in motion to improve the user-friendliness of this tool and to enhance the manner in which it ties into the main blogging platform; this could feasibly increase use and prompt the expansion of new bells and whistles.
A quick Google search or a visit to your favorite independent theme and plugin directory will most likely turn up additional options beyond the two covered here. Like anything else, selecting the right forum script will involve your personal taste, an appraisal of all required functions, and an understanding of what your potential users want and need.
I hope you’ll at least look into the option of leveraging a plugin to assimilate a forum board into your blog. This approach can save you money and provide you with a powerful new layer of interactive marketing.