Online brand communities have become a driving force of improved customer support, product ideation, and more. In the Age of the Consumer, today’s businesses have more opportunities to engage their customers than ever before. But rather than trying to make an impact in the crowded word of mainstream social media, brands are instead turning towards communities of their own. That way, they can enjoy full control over the user experience while keeping the brand on the centre stage. With many options to choose from, comparing forum software isn’t easy, which is why we’ve compiled a list of important features to help you make the decision.
#1. Open vs. closed source
The first big decision is to choose between open and closed source software. Open source means that the source code is available for modification, thus enabling practically unlimited customisation. Open-source software is often free and supported by developer communities. It requires some technical knowledge to setup and maintain. By comparison, closed source software can be expensive, but it’s also supported by dedicated service teams and tailored to the specific needs of a particular type of user. Forum software is usually open-source, even if it’s not free. However, paid open-source forum software can offer the best of both worlds by being highly customisable but also professionally supported.
#2. Profile customisation
Forums are rather like basic social networks. Indeed, they’re the predecessors to mainstream social media. As such, just like Facebook and other major platforms, they usually allow users to create profiles by uploading images, brief bios, and contact information. Generally, the more options users have for customising their profiles, the better. User profiles can also serve as places where community members can catch up on discussions they’re involved in, view their rankings, and customise their information. Most forum software also allows members to upload custom signatures, which will automatically be appended to their posts.
#3. Rich-text editing
In the early days of online forums, most platforms were coded in HTML from scratch, and they would only support ASCII text. Fortunately, almost all forum software these days provides full support for Unicode, thus making them ready for multilingual environments, not to mention all those fancy hand-written emojis. Rich-text editing allows users to format and customise their posts extensively, but it can also make content harder to navigate, particularly on busy forums. Depending on your needs, you may also want to allow users to upload images and videos in their posts. Some of the most sophisticated solutions even support live streaming.
#4. Flat vs. threaded
When comparing forum software, one of the most important decisions concerns the way the conversations are presented. A flat discussion only displays new replies at the end, but this can also make it difficult to know which message the member is replying to, unless they quote the message in their reply. Threaded discussions allow members to respond directly to any messages in the discussion so that the reply will appear right after the message, rather than at the end of the discussion. This is preferable for longer discussions. Both have merits and drawbacks, but a lot of forum software, such as the popular phpBB, doesn’t offer threading.
#5. Mobile functionality
One of the biggest drawbacks of many online forums is that they offer a very poor experience on the small screen, even though that’s what most people are now using. It’s imperative that your community platform provides a natural and streamlined user experience on smartphones and tablets, particularly if your brand is consumer-facing. To ensure your forums look great and are easy to use on any device, you’ll need to choose a platform with a responsive design that automatically scales to the size of the screen it’s being displayed on. So when comparing forum software take time test your shortlist on mobile and tablet. . Another important mobile function is push notifications, which allow you to send alerts to your members. If your main focus is on engaging mobile users you should probably look at a community app as an alternative to forum software.
#6. Achievement systems
Unfortunately, undesirable behaviour like spamming or trolling is something that can afflict any online community. Busier forums often have armies of moderators tackling the problem, but there is another way, and one that greatly reduces the burden on your moderation team. With peer-to-peer moderation, members can upvote and downvote posts and report any infractions. By merging this with an achievement and reputation system, members will be encouraged to post constructively in return for extra recognition in the form of ranks, badges, or points. Aside from enabling self-moderation, this approach taps into our psychology to boost engagement. Some modern forum software will support Shadow Banning which reduces toxic behavior by hiding a members posts and comments from the community, but continuing to show them to the banned member.
#7. Private messaging
Many online forums are open to the public, and there’s often no way to easily send a private message to another member. For some communities, particularly those which offer customer support or product ideation, the lack of private messaging can be acceptable. But if you want to encourage stronger relationships rather than just provide a knowledge-sharing platform for members, private messaging is a must-have. More sophisticated forum software even allows members to bring more people into the conversation. However, if your primary goal is to foster stronger relationships, you might want to consider a private social networking platform instead.
#8. Single sign-on
One of the most common online irritations these days is that most of us have to remember the login details for dozens of different accounts. If a member forgets their login details, there’s a good chance they’ll stop coming back rather than go through the password-recovery process. Fortunately, when comparing forum software, you’ll find most provide support single sign-on, a form of access control that lets users securely log in to multiple independent systems. For example, people might be able to log in with their Google or Facebook account. Single sign-on helps eliminate barriers to participation while improving security for your members.
#9. Data analytics
If you’re comparing forum software for business use, then the ability to measure the reach and effectiveness of your community is crucial for success. At the very least, you’ll want to be able to track all the standard growth metrics, such as monthly active users, new member counts, page views, and visits. More sophisticated solutions provide highly detailed and customisable analytics dashboards, while some even integrate with major platforms like Google Analytics. With a centralised hub for tracking and monitoring the health of your community, you’ll have a constant source of insights to help you continuously improve your offer.
#10. Software integration
With today’s business software environments being more disparate than ever, it’s easy to end up in a situation where you have so many different solutions but none of them sit well together. Now that data is the most valuable asset of all, the inability to easily share it between systems can hinder productivity and innovation alike. Software integrations make it easier to share data or extend functionality. For example, by integrating your forum software with your CRM, you’ll be better able to track and address unanswered customer support queries and concerns. Another important consideration is monetisation – if you want to sell to your community, you’ll need to be able to integrate third-party payment and ecommerce platforms.
Using a community app as an alternative to comparing forum software
For mobile-first communities and monetised communities, an alternative to forum software is a branded iOS and Android community app. Disciple offers a platform goes beyond the capabilities of online forums to provide a fully-fledged social networking platform that you own and control. Your app will be built and maintained by Disciple, but listed under your name in the Apple App and Google Play store. Apps are easily monetised using mobile in-app purchases and subscriptions.