How to Build a Community Forum Website With WordPress

Imagine this. Instead of needing to painstakingly create every single piece of content on your site, what if you had a community of loyal users who created content for you?

By adding a forum to your website, you can create this type of user-generated community. Users will register on your site, create and respond to discussion topics, and just generally create a vibrant community built around your site.

But how can you actually create a community forum, either as a standalone site or as an addition to your existing WordPress site? That’s the topic of this post!

Below, you’re going to learn step-by-step how to create a WordPress forum and then grow it into an active community – potentially even one that makes money!

This guide works in two different scenarios:

  1. If you don’t have a website yet, it will show you everything that you need to create a dedicated forum community website.
  2. If you already have a WordPress website, it will show you how to add a forum community to that site. This works great for blogs, online courses, eCommerce stores, and so on.

The Benefits of Creating a Community Forum Website

Whether you’re creating a standalone forum or adding a community forum to your existing website, there are a lot of benefits to building an active forum:

  • Create a more engaged user base – for a lot of sites, people will visit one time and then never return. But when you build a community forum, visitors have an incentive to keep coming back to your site to participate in the community.
  • Benefit from user-generated content (UGC) – once your forum gains momentum, you’ll have users constantly creating fresh content on your site. This helps you not only entice existing users back to your site but also reach new visitors in search engines or on social media.
  • Connect directly with readers – when you publish blog posts or other content, you’re connecting with your audience in general. But when you participate in a community forum, you’re engaging directly with users, which helps you build a deeper connection.

How to Create a Community Forum Website With WordPress

Now that you know the benefits of building your own online community forum, it’s time to get into the actionable, step-by-step tutorial.

Here’s a high-level look at the process – keep reading for a detailed explanation of each step:

  1. Set up your basic WordPress website (if you haven’t done so already).
  2. Install a WordPress forum plugin.
  3. Install a WordPress forum theme (optional).
  4. Configure your WordPress forum functionality.
  5. Add more features using other plugins (optional).

1. Set Up Your WordPress Website (If You Haven’t Done So Already)

If you already have an existing WordPress website that you want to add a forum to, you can go ahead and skip to the next step!

But if you’re starting from a totally blank canvas, the first step in the process is to set up your basic WordPress website.

Creating a fresh WordPress site usually involves a few different steps:

  1. Choose and purchase a domain name, which will be your forum’s permanent address on the internet.
  2. Purchase WordPress web hosting, which is the engine that will power your online community.
  3. Install the WordPress software, which will be the foundation for your actual forum website.

If you want an even easier way to create a WordPress website, though, you can build your site with the WordPress.com Business plan.

Instead of needing to purchase separate hosting and domain names and then install the WordPress software, you can just sign up for a WordPress.com account and start building right away.

The advantage of choosing the WordPress.com Business plan over other WordPress.com plans is that you’ll also be able to install your own custom WordPress plugins, which are essential for turning WordPress into a functioning community forum.

If you’d like a helping hand with setting up your basic WordPress website, check out the full guide on how to build a website from scratch with WordPress.com.

2. Install a WordPress Forum Plugin

Once you have a working WordPress website, it’s time to add community forum functionality.

To accomplish that, you can install a dedicated WordPress forum plugin.

A forum plugin will build on your WordPress site’s foundation to add all of the functionality that a quality forum needs, such as discussion boards, topics, replies, user management, and so on.

When it comes to WordPress forum plugins, you have a number of popular options:

  • bbPress – the most popular option. It’s 100% free and has a vibrant marketplace of third-party extensions that let you add tons of features to your community forum.
  • P2 – a service from WordPress.com that’s aimed more towards businesses or teams looking to collaborate in a forum-like interface.
  • wpForo – a popular option with a free core version and then a number of premium add-ons from the developer.
  • Asgaros Forum – another option that’s 100% free, though it lacks the large third-party extension marketplace that you get when choosing bbPress.

This tutorial is going to use and recommend bbPress for a few reasons:

  1. It’s easy to use and includes all the essential features that community forums need.
  2. It’s the most popular forum plugin, so it’s easy to find help and lots of other plugins offer bbPress integrations.
  3. It’s 100% free, which helps you create your forum without breaking the bank.
  4. If you need more functionality, you can find tons of bbPress extensions to add new features to your forum.

If you created your website with the WordPress.com Business plan, here’s how to install bbPress:

  1. Go to Plugins → Add New in your WP Admin.
  2. Search for “bbPress”.
  3. Select bbPress from the list of search results.
  4. Click the Install and activate button on the next page. 
  5. Wait for a few seconds while WordPress.com installs the bbPress forum plugin for you.

3. Install a WordPress Forum Theme (Optional)

Before digging into configuring your WordPress forum plugin, it’s important to take a quick detour to another related topic – your theme.

Your WordPress site’s theme controls the style and design of your website.

All of the WordPress forum plugins above will work with any theme, so you don’t need to install any special theme to use them. 

In fact, if you’re adding a forum to an existing WordPress site, you’ll probably want to continue using your existing theme.

However, if your site is 100% dedicated to being a forum, you can find dedicated WordPress forum themes that offer special integrations with the bbPress plugin.

These themes offer more advanced forum styling, as well as forum-specific design rules to give you more control over the looks of your forum.

You can find a great theme by searching for “bbPress” at the WordPress.org theme directory or other theme marketplaces.

If you want to keep your existing theme – don’t worry! When you use bbPress, it will automatically adapt your theme’s styling to ensure a consistent design between your forum and the rest of your site.

4. Configure the WordPress Forum Plugin Settings

Now, you’re ready to dig into your forum plugin’s settings. This is where you can set up your actual forum boards and also make other important choices about how your forum functions.

With bbPress, you can access the main settings by going to Settings → Forums in your WP Admin.

This will give you a single list of settings where you can configure important basics about how your forum functions:

To set up your forums themselves, you can go to Forums → Add New in your WP Admin. There, you can add your forum’s name and description:

You can also use the settings on the side for some other important choices:

  • Choose a parent forum (optional) to create nested forums/sub-forums.
  • Change the forum’s visibility. For example, you could make it only visible to logged-in members.
  • Assign specific moderators to this forum.

When you’re happy with the settings, click Publish.

If you go to yoursite.com/forums, you should see a list of all the forums that you created:

5. Add More Features Using Other Plugins

At this point, you have a functioning forum – congratulations!

However, depending on your community, you might want to add more functionality to your forum.

With bbPress, you can achieve this by installing additional plugins to extend the core bbPress plugin.

Here are some examples of bbPress features that you can add with plugins:

  • Send email notifications to users for new topics or replies.
  • Let users vote topics up or down (like Reddit or StackOverflow)
  • Give users the option to upload file attachments.
  • Add “gamification” features such as user ranks and titles based on their activity.
  • …lots, lots more.

To find these bbPress extensions, you can browse the official WordPress.org plugin directory. Then, you can install them just like any other plugin.

If you’re using WordPress.com, one feature you don’t need to add, though, is spam protection. Why? Because if you’re using WordPress.com, your bbPress forum will automatically benefit from the built-in Akismet integration, which protects your forum from spam without you needing to lift a finger.

How to Grow Your Community Forum Website

Once you set up your forum at a technical level, building a vibrant community on that foundation requires dealing with the age-old “chicken and the egg” question. That is, “which came first, the chicken or the egg”?

To encourage users to join your community, you need to have an active community with enough topics for those users to engage with.

But without already having users, it’s tough to generate those fresh topics!

That’s a bit of a pickle, right?

Well, growing your community is kind of like the snowball effect.

When you’re just getting started, you’ll need to put a lot of work into growing that “critical mass” for your community. But once you get that critical mass, your users will create so much content that it will naturally start growing by itself.

So – how can you start getting that critical mass and solving the chicken and the egg problem? Here are some strategies to grow your community forum…

1. Create Regular Discussion Topics

To encourage people to join and participate in your forum, you’ll want to create regular discussion topics. That way, your forum won’t feel “empty,” and users will constantly have new content to respond to.

If it fits your niche, you can try to create topics about trending topics, as these can generate a lot of activity.

During slow periods without new topics, you can also create more “evergreen” discussion topics. These are topics that aren’t trending but are always going to be relevant to your niche.

For example, let’s say you’re creating a community forum around triathlons:

  • A trending topic might be about a specific race that’s about to happen. For example, the 2023 Los Angeles Iron Man.
  • An evergreen topic might be about how to train for a triathlon. No matter what’s happening in the world, this type of topic will always be relevant.

2. Respond to Everyone

To encourage discussion and build momentum, you’ll want to respond to every post at the beginning of your community.

When you respond, you’ll, in turn, generate responses from other users, which starts to create that snowball effect of community growth.

Once your forum starts growing, you can start to pull back and rely on other members for discussion. But at the beginning, engaging with every topic is essential.

3. Encourage Users to Create Topics

In addition to creating your own discussion topics, you should also find ways to encourage other users to create their own topics.

First, you’ll want to make it very obvious how people can create their own topics. Use big buttons and other design elements to draw users’ attention to the “create topic” function.

To go beyond that, you can also find ways to encourage users to post interaction-generating topics.

One common example here would be encouraging users to post their own progress logs. This can work great for all types of topics, from business to sports, hobbies, and more.

Going back to the example of a community built around triathlons, you could encourage people to post their own progress topic that details their training and race results.

Each individual progress log would encourage interaction from other members and help grow your community.

4. Enable Email Notifications

One of the most important parts of building an active community is finding ways to get users to come back to your site in the future.

An effective strategy here is to send users email notifications based on relevant actions such as someone replying to the user’s topic/post or new topics that the user might be interested in.

That way, your members will know that there’s new content on the forum, which gives them a reason to come back and interact again.

5. Leverage Other Website Channels to Promote the Forum

Don’t feel like you have to rely on just your forum for growth. If your website has other areas, such as a blog, you can use those channels to promote your community.

For example, you could highlight lively discussion posts in a weekly roundup blog post.

Or, you could replace your blog comments section with a forum thread instead, which lets the comments section do double duty as a forum topic. You can achieve this with plugins such as Post Comments as bbPress Topics.

You can apply similar strategies to other types of website functionality:

6. Promote Topics on Social Media

Finally, you can look outside your website itself and also promote interesting forum topics on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc.

This gives you a chance to reach a completely new audience and bring them into the discussion.

You can highlight entire topics or even individual replies inside topics.

How to Monetize Your Community Forum Website

Once your community forum starts growing, you might want to consider monetizing it.

This is totally optional, of course, but lively communities can take a decent amount of time and money to run, so you might want to have some money coming in to at least offset those costs (if not earn yourself some profit).

One of the most common monetization strategies is to use display ads, either by selling them directly or using an advertising service like WordAds or AdSense. A plugin like Advanced Ads can help you automatically insert ads at different parts of your forum, such as after X number of forum replies.

If you feel that your community offers a lot of value, you could also create a paid community based around it. You could charge users for access to the forum in general, or you could create a special part of the forum that’s only available to paying members.

You can set up this type of paid forum functionality using a WordPress membership plugin that integrates with bbPress, such as Paid Member Subscriptions.

Finally, you can consider using affiliate marketing to promote relevant products in your community and earn a commission. There are even plugins that let you automatically link certain words in your community to the relevant affiliate offer. For example, every time someone mentions a certain product, you could add your affiliate link to capture a commission if someone ends up buying that product after seeing it in your community.

Create Your WordPress Community Forum Today

Creating a WordPress community forum is a great way to build a loyal, engaged audience and harness the power of user-generated content.

Thanks to WordPress plugins like bbPress, you can easily add a forum to your existing site or create a brand new site completely dedicated to your forum.

If you want to get started with a WordPress forum, the easiest way to launch a site that’s capable of running bbPress is with the WordPress.com Business plan.

All you need to do is sign up for an account and create your website, install the bbPress plugin, and start growing your forum.

Purchase the WordPress.com Business plan today, and you’ll be up and running in no time.


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