Discussion board, forum, bulletin boards. Whatever you call them, you’re talking about a page where your visitors or members start and reply to topics.
The software you pick has to do a lot besides publish the topics and replies. Think about other features you want like:
- formatting tools for the comments – bold, quote boxes, bullets, etc.
- a way to easily attach files to share
- easy way to add pictures
- easy way to add hyperlinks
- allow different levels of users
- allow users to get email notices of replies
- intuitive layout – easy for forum users to work with
As an administrator, you may also be looking for something that is easy to install and set up and run, something that isn’t expensive to buy and maintain, or something you can manage yourself without much help from webmaster, after setup.
Quick case study
I looked at (and tried some of) the following WordPress bulletin board plugins:
bbPress: It was easy enough to install (WordPress lets you install plugins with a few hand-held clicks). But what this client needed were rich text formatting options, the ability to upload files, and quick setup. There are plugins on this plugin (plugin extensions) to help with that. But I admit, bbPress for me had a steep learning curve in terms of setup. As others have said, it can take a bit more experience to set up.
I think a main concern for the project was the interface. The top view, or list of topics didn’t include the desired information. You can see topic title, voices, replies and “freshness”. But what if you want to see topic author, and the name of the person with the latest reply? In a membership forum, seeing names is more important, because the strength of the relationships drives so much of the interest.
Simple:Press: Initially, this was the solution that really made my client happy. You can set it up fairly easily. With add-on plugins (that you buy), you can add rich text formatting tools and other features. The layout allows you to see who started the topic and who gave the last reply. You can even see how many views of a topic there are.
This client reported overall she and her members liked it and found it easy to use. She liked getting a notice by email when someone posted a new topic.
She reported 4 problems:
- Unread posts still show as unread after reading; they’re marked ‘read’ after posting a reply
- In IE, not every function works
- There’s no way she could find to allow members to get notified by email automatically anytime someone posts a new topic.
- The file attachment feature is not simple enough for many members, and it doesn’t allow the latest common file extensions to be attached (it allows .doc but not .docx, for instance).
A second client also tested SimplePress. She and her tech support person did not easily learn to administer the forum or feel comfortable enough using it to open it to members.
Finally when trying to speed up the site using WP-Minify and W3-Total Cache, the forum stopped working. It isn’t currently compatible with some other plugins you might want to make your pages load fast.
Summary: Simple Press basically works well after setup, which can take a few hours for a first-time installer. Simple Press didn’t have desired features like rich text formatting, in the basic plugin, but add-ons are available for sale. If you need to use other plugins to optimize site speed, you may have to be careful to exclude Simple Press scripts to keep it working.
YABB: This is an open source bulletin board software program that has nothing to do with WordPress. But since you can easily add custom menu links as of WordPress 3.0, it’s no problem. You can build a forum outside of WordPress and simply add a link to it in the menu.
My first go-round installing YABB posed some challenges -
- Read and follow the installation guide. Unlike WordPress plugins, you don’t simply install, unzip and go with YABB. You have to follow YABB’s installation instructions meticulously. In particular, you have to take care to use Binary FTP settings for the .gif images, and ASCII settings for the other files (like html) as directed. Otherwise, the layout breaks. The guide is part of the version you download.
- You can add styles and branding from your website – by modifying the basic template. The quickest way I found to add site styles was to edit the default.htm template. You should keep a backup of this to make sure you can add your customizations back in after making any future updates.
- Navigating all the setup features takes getting used to. The setup menus somewhat disperse features in a way that made them hard to find and use, in my experience. Especially, it was a challenge to find how to turn on the features that allow members to get email notification on new replies to a topic. The admin has to enable this feature, and then the user needs to give YABB permission to email replies, using a setting in their own profile.
YABB shows when topics are read and comes with an easy tool to upload files. As an admin, you can allow any file type you want to be able to upload by listing allowable file extensions.
The more we use it, the more this client likes it.
I want all of you to answer this question for me: What are your biggest challenge right now with using a discussion board for your business? Is this something you want to add to your business, but don’t know how? Is it something you’d like to do but don’t know where to start? Offering private access to you and your advice in a private forum can be a great way to add value to your business – but only if you get the answers you need.
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