A "Quick and Dirty Guide" to choosing Forum Software
This 6-point "quick and dirty guide" aims to help choosing your forum software. It's not meant to be exhaustive, and you will find there's nothing quick about choosing software!
This guide doesn’t review specific software, or give recommendations. Instead, it puts you on the road to becoming an independent forum researcher, rather than being at the mercy of other user opinions, how ever experienced they claim to be. Becoming a forum researcher requires committing some time, and embarking on a rewarding project to identify the most appropriate software for you.
The guide isn’t meant to stir up controversy. It offers a certain perspective, which hopefully you will find useful.
1. Free or Paid Software – Some Myths
Any significant distinction between paid or free forum software is not made in this guide In fact, there are a few common assumptions, i.e. myths about differences which need busting
Myth: You begin by using free software (e.g. phpbb) and learn the basics. When you become a more experienced and serious, you move on to paid software (e.g. vBulletin). Or, just start with the best, invariably meaning paid software.
There are no solid reasons to accept this evolutionary path. Nor is paid software necessarily better that free software, because what counts as ‘better’ will be defined by your actual use of the software and what you want from it.
In fact, some Admins start from free software and stick with it; and some migrate from paid to free software. There are no hard rules to follow - you decide.
Myth: Free software only can offer limited support, while paid software will offer much more substantial and reliable support.
Well, you should expect far better support from paid software, but this doesn’t mean that the support offered by free software is of sub-standard quality. It could easily be good enough for you. Furthermore, you need to discover what kind of support you would want/need.
Myth: Paid software indicates a serious commitment to your members, unlike free software.
The most significant commitment is the kind of community you want to create in terms of the effort you put in as an Admin, regardless of the software
2. Demo/Trail Forum Software
Most learning happens when you actually administer a live board for some time and learn from experience. Without running a live board, the next best thing is trailing software. It enables you to at least get a sense of the Admin Control Panel (ACP) and some of the key features of the software.
Don’t only rely on other user recommendations or commit yourself before trialling. You may find the ACP of recommended software to be limited, awkward or just plain confusing to use. You need to be happy with the ACP, otherwise you will have a grim time
It is very useful to trial more than one software, so comparisons of the ACPs and features can be made. This can be a time consuming business, so try narrowing down your potential choices. By spending some time on the support boards of the forum software, you can also get an initial feel for the software and its features, (though don’t let the forum default features or skin/theme put you off).
3. Available Support and Modifications
It doesn't matter how feature rich or poor the paid or free forum software is - if you don't like the support community, you’ll get frustrated and move on. To begin with, join the community you are planning to use the software of, and do this before or at least during trialling the software. Spend plenty of time on their boards and ask lots of questions.
Get a good sense of what the support is like and how responsive the community is. It is especially worth researching how they handle requests for modifications (mods). Unless you are happy with the standard features of the forum software (unlikely), you will want to add extra functionality via mods. Find out how difficult it is to mod your board, the range of available mods/hacks, as well as maintaining and upgrading the software.
By extensively hanging out on support boards, you have a good chance of discovering the idiosyncrasies of the software, its limits, weakness, and key missing features/mods that you may want. Thus, someone simply claiming "VBulletin, it's the best" or "phpbb is the best free one" refers only to their knowledge, aptitude and needs, not necessarily yours.
By join the various support communities of the forum software you are interested in, you'll be in a position to make an informed choice based on your own acquired knowledge – not just other opinions. Moreover, here at TAZ, you'll now be able to ask more informed questions, rather than the usual "which is the best…?" or "which is better X vs. Y...?''.
4. Using New Forum Software?
If you continue to be swayed by majority user opinion, it is unlikely that you will be bold enough to try out using new forum software. Whether paid or unpaid, these usually will have smaller communities than the more established software. Don’t let a smallish user-base put you off though. Find out how active it is, how fast the community is growing, the size and openness of the development team, feedback from current members etc. All forum software starts off from somewhere.
Of course there are disadvantages of using new software, as you may have to wait for some features, and put up with frequent upgrades and possibly bugs. It is also difficult to predict the success the of new forum ventures. One possible indicator is how much effort the developers are investing in scripts to convert from existing software, and whether users have been migrating from other established software. But again, don’t just follow the crowd.
There are advantages in opting to use new forum software. You’re likely to have a greater influence in the development of the software and its core features, and gain a better understanding of its functions and modding possibilities. You also can feel more involved in its growing community, and being part of something new can be very exciting and motivate you further.
5. The Longer Term
Some Admins outgrow their chosen software and want to move on, but all the advice above is still applicable.
The point is that learning never stops. Forum software is constantly evolving, not just in terms of adding more features, but also in relation to the broader evolving cultures of communication on the net. So returning to a software package that you thought was a bit limited last year, could now surprise you.
Don't get hung up on finding the ‘perfect’ software. There always will be compromises to make, as none do it all.
Most members want an active, vibrant community to participate in, and aren’t bothered about the underlying software.
Admin mantra (chant 3 times/day): running my community is more important than the software...
Good luck becoming a forum software researcher