We live in a social world. The days of simple brochure sites being enough to drive revenue or engagement are over. These days, attracting clients or customers is about building tribes and leveraging social networks to cultivate fans and followers.

Savvy site owners are increasingly trying to grab a piece of that social pie for themselves by creating their own online communities. Implementation, however, can be a tricky business.

In this article, we’ll cover the main points to consider when planning your community site, discuss the merits of the native WordPress plugin offerings in bbPress and BuddyPress, and survey a range of alternative third-party plugin solutions.

By the time we’re finished, you’ll have a solid understanding of community options available within the WordPress ecosystem and a set of informed criteria for evaluating them.

Let’s start with a look at online community planning.

Community Planning Considerations

When planning your community site, it’s all too easy to be seduced by the technology’s promise before you’ve really mapped out your needs.

Plugin marketing typically implies that just a few simple configuration tweaks are all that’s required for a thriving community to magically spring into life. The “social network in a box” promise of BuddyPress is a case in point here. The real world, sadly, does not usually run this smoothly.

Set yourself up for success by walking through the following set of questions before you start shopping for a solution.

What Type of Community Do You Need?

“Community” can mean very different things to different people, so start by narrowing down your site requirements.

Is basic forum functionality all that’s needed? Or maybe you have more of a full-blown social network in mind, along the lines of Tasty Kitchen? Small business owners or service providers may naturally lean towards the type of private membership model used by Mixergy.

TastyKitchen Recipes

Tackling this question early makes choosing a specific technical solution much easier down the line.

Who Are the Potential Members of Your Community?

Save yourself time by creating user personas for the type of members you expect to attract. This gives you multiple lenses to evaluate possible solutions and feature sets through.

Who’s Going to Run the Community?

Communities require constant monitoring and maintenance. Left alone, they either quietly wither away or become toxic, troll-filled environments. A quick peek below the fold on any YouTube page shows what inevitably happens in a totally unsupervised environment.

You will need moderators, administrators and clearly stated community guidelines in place from the outset.

How Big Will The Community Become?

Regardless of the solution employed, community software is usually resource-heavy. Tales of capacity related server crashes during site teething stages are common. The key takeaway is this: factor in headroom for growth from the start.

Moving On

Let’s assume you’ve completed your initial planning and are ready to look for a WordPress-based community plugin solution. We’ll spend the remainder of the article running the rule over the main contenders. Let’s start with the two native offerings: bbPress and BuddyPress.

bbPress – Forums Made the WordPress Way

bbPress is WordPress’ official forum solution. Easily installable as a free plugin, it’s fast, light and battle-tested on a range of high traffic properties – not the least of which is the support section of the main WordPress site itself.

Its open-source license means you’re free to get in under the hood and customize to your heart’s content, but there’s an excellent chance you won’t have to. As a high-profile part of the Automattic empire, bbPress benefits from a healthy ecosystem of high quality free and commercial plug-ins such as these:

bbPress also integrates smoothly with WordPress Multisite out of the box. Theming is similarly straightforward. Any version from bbPress 2.0 onwards has built in theme support so your existing theme should play nice right out of the box.

After over 10 years of active development, the stability and speed of bbPress are impressive, but there are mutterings within the community about how much of the heavy lifting in terms of functionality still has to be carried out via additional plugins.

bbPress has been a victim of its own success to an extent. The simplicity and ease of integration make it a perfect starting point for community building, but it comes at the cost of a necessarily stripped-down feature set.

Depending on your exact requirements, and with some minor plugin tweaks, bbPress could be more than enough to get your community off the ground. If you find yourself needing an expanded range of functionality for your community though, it might be time to consider BuddyPress.

Speaking of which…

BuddyPress – Run Your Own Social Network

BuddyPress is the heavyweight of the WordPress community plugin world. Touted as a “social network in a box” by Automattic upon its launch back in 2009, it now boasts more than two million downloads, over 100,000 active installs, support across seven languages and a vibrant ecosystem of plugins and themes.

As a plugin, installation is relatively straightforward and a couple of clicks is all that’s required. Just as with bbPress, Multisite compatibility is baked in.

Features

BuddyPress comes with an impressive range of core social network functionality as standard. Some of the highlights include:

  • User profiles: Member profiles can be easily extended and customized.

  • Groups: Public, private and hidden options all available along with in-group messaging.
  • Friends: Members are free to establish connections and track each other within the community.
  • Activity streams: Personal, group and sitewide activities can all be tracked and displayed to boost engagement.
  • Member messaging: Private emails are available for all members.
  • Forums: Available for integration via bbPress.
  • Member blogs: Available only if you are running Multisite.

Requirements

All that functionality comes at a price though: you are going to have to choose your hosting solution carefully. The basic BuddyPress requirements are straightforward, but fine-tuning performance is another matter.

This is something of a moveable feast, so it’s difficult to offer precise suggestions. Your exact needs will vary according to community size and how active your members are. That said, make sure you pay attention to the BuddyPress guidelines for optimizing performance and bear these two thoughts in mind:

  • Try to avoid starting with shared hosting. Some have made the case for shared hosting being sufficient, but you’re unlikely to be able to tweak database or server settings in a shared environment. VPS hosting – if you can manage the system administration requirements – is a more sensible starting point.

  • Go big on your database resources. Like all community software, BuddyPress is database intensive out of the box. Add in member activity plugins and things can soon grind to a halt. Ideally, you want a healthy amount of RAM (2GB+) running off a solid state drive (SSD).

The good news is that BuddyPress hosting options are likely to change dramatically in the near future. An increasing number of managed hosting offers are already popping up throughout the WordPress space, along with interesting dedicated community applications on the horizon such as Flox.

As things stand today though, unless you have an expert taking care of setup for you, BuddyPress is best suited to experienced PHP/WordPress users who can bend it to their will and take full advantage of the power under the hood.

High-Profile Sites

BuddyPress has never quite gained the overall traction in the community space that many were predicting back at its launch. No other platform has really stepped into the breach either though. A one-size-fits-all community software solution remains something of a holy grail at the time of writing. There are, however, a number of long-standing, high-profile, BuddyPress sites in the wild to inspire you:

Other WordPress Community Plugins

Symposium Pro Forum

With core team support, solid track records and flourishing ecosystems, we have no hesitation in recommending bbPress and BuddyPress as your first ports of call when looking for a community plugin solution.

There are other decent candidates out there though, particularly for more niche use cases. Here are four further options to consider.

  • WP Symposium: The leading rival to BuddyPress in terms of feature set and available in self-hosted and cloud options. Still not at BuddyPress’ level overall but catching up steadily.

  • MemberPress: Targeted squarely at the monetized membership site segment of the market, the focused nature of MemberPress’ offering makes up for its lack of wider community features. Ultimate Member is another recent entry to this space worth looking over.
  • Vanilla Forums: A solid alternative to bbPress, Vanilla Forums is available as a plugin and also as a fully managed hosted service. Simple:Press is another alternative worth checking out.
  • CM Answers: Finally, for those looking to add Q&A functionality as a community option, CM Answers is solid solution. AnsPress also offers similar functionality.

Non-WordPress Community Options

There is of course a wider world outside WordPress, if you dare betray our beloved Content Management System! If you’re finding the available WordPress options limited, consider the merits of the following:

  • Drupal: The grand old man of online community infrastructure. Plus points include an enormous range of functionality and a large existing pool of talented developers. The learning curve is famously steep however and can be overwhelming for beginners.

  • Ning: If you can work within the platform restrictions, Ning is a simple way of getting a community online in minutes. SocialGO is another fully managed solution worth considering if you want to take the hosting and infrastructure burden entirely off your shoulders.
  • SocialEngine: A PHP-based, dedicated community solution with cloud and self-hosted options.
  • Discourse: An interesting next-generation take on the forum concept from one of the co-creators of Stack Overflow.

Conclusion

We hope this overview has helped you make up your mind about which route to go down in selecting a plugin to base your community site around. Let’s briefly recap the main points we covered:

  • Make sure you have an overall plan for your community site in place before looking for technical solutions.

  • Weigh up the merits of bbPress first and see if it can be tweaked to fit your needs.
  • Check out BuddyPress thereafter but be sure to give it the hosting power it really needs.
  • If neither of those solutions fit the bill, explore other leading plugins on offer.
  • If all else fails, consider a non-WordPress solution.

Let us know how you get on in the comments below and if you have a community site you’re particularly proud of, feel free to share it. Any tips, tricks, gotchas or recommendations are massively appreciated as always! You can also let us know if you have more questions about Avada.