Online communities for marketing & customer support

Online forums or bulletin boards, like e-commerce designs, can be implemented two ways depending upon the business emphasis.  You must answer the question:

"Will you be using an online forum to sell your product & service, or is the forum itself the product?"

Embedded forum: Kunena with Joomla CMS

"My forum will support my business… therefore, I want a CMS containing forum pages which will easily navigate back into my main web site."

A forum section of your web site is useful for:

  • marketing: encourage people to use your web site, by hosting discussions in your business field while periodically announcing products, services, events, etc.
  • customer support: works well when problems can be solved by cooperation.  This works even when it's not obvious why common users of a product would be interested in cooperating.
  • your communication-oriented business: writing & journalism, politics, music, art, film, performing arts, and more.

For this, Computers of South Dublin recommends the free Kunena extension on your Joomla CMS web site. Kunena is:

Your COSD web design with Joomla and Kunena will have a powerful, stable discussion forum appearing within your web site content… so it will always show your site template and menus as a means of marketing to your forum visitors.

phpBB and vbulletin

Dedicated forum: phpBB or vBulletin

"My forum is my business… therefore, I only need the forum software itself with a handful of CMS capabilities."

In this case, your site software is generally a choice between the two most ubiquitous software packges, phpBB and vBulletin.  COSD in this case is vendor-neutral and has design experience with both.  Other similarities:

  • For either package, your web site will look much like other web sites using that package, with variations in theme limited to colour choices & logo.
  • Both have plug-ins for online subscription (i.e., your forum is the product, and you are selling access to it.)
  • Both are supported through user forums that share everything from question answers to code modifications.
  • Both are used for large deployments (over a million postings) as well as small sites.
  • Both work well with search engines.
  • Both have bugs that regularly appear & are regularly fixed, though each community claims this problem is unique to the other.

The differences:

  • phpBB is free, while vBulletin has a one-off cost (US$175) with extra charges for de-branding, product support, and CMS capability.
  • vBulletin appears "more powerful" and gets better reviews for stability and ease of use.
  • In author's experience vBulletin is not well documented, and the company-provided support is not sufficient to allow non-technical forum administrators to deal with problems on their own.
  • See what each community says about the other: phpBB vs. vBulletin and vBulletin vs. phpBB.
  • Try it yourself, with these links to full-fledged demos: vBulletin and phpBB.