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Implementing a forum into your WordPress website is an easy and effective tool for engaging site users.
Even if you have a private Facebook group and a hyper-engaging twitter feed, discussion forums have a leg up on social media in a few key areas. A forum keeps visitors on your site, allows you to control the settings and features, and most importantly, offers the ability to organize discussions into searchable threads.
With WordPress, it’s simple to set up a forum, but the real work comes in keeping it well-organized and engaging for users.
Tips for Managing a WordPress Forum
A forum can function in a few different ways. You can set it up for a membership site or subscription service where members are accessing a password protected area. You can also offer it publicly as a support center where support questions and discussions can be organized and monitored.
The most popular WordPress forum plugin is bbPress. Not only is this plugin completely free, but it integrates smoothly into just about any WordPress web design, especially if you’re using a compatible theme like Total. bbPress offers the ability for users to join the forum, create a profile and start adding comments, plus much more.
The following tips can help with the setup and ongoing management of your forum to get the best results.
1. Establish Community Guidelines
Establish Community Guidelines
Clarity is king when it comes to creating a productive forum. In an obvious location on your forum, establish a set of guidelines for every person to follow. WordPress has a fantastic example of a comprehensive, yet clear, set of rules.
Your guidelines can include behavior expectations (such as disallowing posts about commercial products) or personal interaction guidelines (like condemning hassling or aggressive language).
Make sure to also establish guidelines on confidentiality and security as well. For example: remind users not to share any logins or confidential information in the open discussion, even if the forum is for members only. Once guidelines are established, you can monitor participant behavior and block those who do not follow the rules.
2. Engage Your Audience With Prompts
How do you entice people to start posting and interacting with others in your forum? You can start by leaving breadcrumbs – the flocking will naturally follow. Prompting your users with topics or questions that they are already interested in can ramp up forum engagement.
Here are a few ways to come up with prompts that will start conversations:

  • Repurpose common questions you get from users across platforms
  • Consider your user’s goals on your site (hint: look at your site analytics and where your visitors are spending time)
  • Talk to your customer care team or anyone on the front line with customers to get an idea of interests, concerns, or questions that come up
  • Look at your social media platforms and other marketing channels to see what’s performing well

Once you have a few attention-grabbing prompts, post them in the forum and watch users flock in response.
3. Moderate Postings & Block Spam
bbPress Spam Settings
To keep spam and inappropriate posts out of your forum, you’ll have to do some moderating. To mitigate unwanted user behavior, you can keep a record of users that have been causing any issues. If there are repeat offenders, don’t be afraid to take action: you can remind them of guidelines, mute them, or ban them if the problem persists.
When it comes to keeping conversations on-topic, you can sift through threads and move any off-topic conversations to another general thread to avoid it getting out of hand. If all else fails, you can lock a thread to move users onto a new subject. Another way to keep conversation productive is to blacklist any words you don’t want to see in the chats (swear words, offensive idioms, etc).
What about preventing spam? How do you stop robots (or humans) from flooding your threads with disruptive spam content? Here are just a few ideas:

  • Require admin approval for new users
  • Require email confirmation for new users
  • Use bbPress core settings to throttle posting (see above image)
  • Implement a recaptcha on all website forms
  • Use a spam blocking plugin like Akismet
  • Make it invite only
  • Implement an IP blacklist database

Many of these features are offered by bbPress as plugins, so once you figure out how you want to tackle spam prevention, check if there’s a simple plugin that meets your needs.
4. Provide Great Search Features
A huge benefit of having a forum is that content threads are well-organized and easy to search. The key? On-site search. This feature allows users easy access to the topics they want to engage with. Don’t forget to test the search functionality to ensure results are matching up well with search terms.
You can really squeeze the juice out of this feature by using plugins that offer add-ons to improve or expand search functionality. For instance, SearchWP has an advanced search add-on feature that expands the default bbPress forum search functionality to give users more targeted results.
On top of making your user’s engagement easier, adding a search feature can give you access to valuable data on the keywords being searched. With Google Analytics, you can enable on-site search tracking to access an on-site search report that will pull keyword data from user searches. This valuable insight can be used to organize your forum and other marketing efforts around topics you know customers want addressed.
5. Protect & Secure User Data
Security is a critical component of any WordPress site. This is especially true when you have users setting up profiles or accounts on the site and submitting information in the forums. If your forum is password protected like with a subscription or membership site, users may be sharing even more information in the membership area with the assumption that it’s protected.
It’s important to understand that WordPress is not immune from hackers, so always follow WordPress security best practices: 24/7 security monitoring, having a secure hosting server, and ensuring your SSL certificate is properly configured. Chrome and other browsers will warn users before submitting a form if it’s not secure, and this will likely deter users from moving forward.
Privacy is also extremely important to your users, so following data privacy laws such as CCPA and GDPR are absolute musts. Best practices for data privacy include:

  • Having a privacy policy
  • Providing a note when users are registering that they are agreeing to the privacy policy
  • Explaining within your policy that users can reach out to obtain a copy of their personal data or request erasure of their data.
  • Pro-Tip: You can set up a Personal Data Request form to handle these specific requests

A lot of privacy features are built into the WordPress core, allowing for personal data exports or removals (you can find these under the “Tools” section in your WordPress dashboard).
Gravity Forms Personal Data Settings
You may need to adjust some data settings in a form plugin, such as Gravity Forms, to make sure all user data can be erased through these WordPress functions. All in all, if you create a safe space for your users, you will have much more success with engagement.
6. Add Community Enrichment Features
To create greater buy in and loyalty from users, make engaging with the forum as fun and rewarding as possible. You can create a real sense of community and belonging by making a few simple, yet powerful adjustments. First, you can add custom avatar support for personalization. Users will feel more ownership over their accounts when they get to personalize their profiles.
Another way to engage users is by setting up email notifications. When someone comments, likes, or interacts with a user, they will get an email prompting them to go to the forum to see the interaction.
BadgeOS Community Add-on
You can also use gamification to engage your users. For example, you can encourage activity by implementing achievement-based badges. This is possible with the help of the free BadgeOS add-on for bbPress and BuddyPress. These badges could be earned based on the user’s amount of interaction, the quality of interaction, or the length of time a user has been a part of the forum. If a user sticks around long enough, they can proudly be known as a veteran user. With the free BadgeOS plugin, the site administrator can create different rank types and select a unique image design for every achievement level.
You can even use gamification to encourage good behavior. One way to do this is by rewarding users who exemplify good behavior with a promotion to “Group moderator.” Essentially, if a user is particularly helpful to other users and abides by all of the forum rules consistently, they get rewarded with responsibility, creating a greater sense of ownership and dedication. It also creates a desire from other users to achieve a similar status.
These community enrichment features serve as incentive for users to return to your forum, and the best part is that when done right, these features build upon each other.