Building a community website takes a lot of planning, work, and effort. You’ve probably considered, or at least wondered, if a WordPress plugin might be your best option, but it’s not always that simple.
For starters, WordPress may not even be the way to go. Check out Tom Ewer’s post on whether or not WordPress is the best option for building a community website if you’re still unsure of how you’ll be building your site.
If you’re certain WordPress is the best option for you, your next step is to determine which type of community website you want to build. You can build a forum, a place where your audience can submit their own blog posts, or a full-fledged social network complete with user profiles and messaging features.
Once you decide which type of community you’d like to build, decide which plugin you want to use. We list a few suggestions throughout this post.
Let’s get started.
Decide What Type of Community Website You Need
The first thing you need to determine is which type of community website you want to build. There are three main types you can choose from:
- Community Blogs
- Social Networks
Your main focus should be to create an environment where your users can connect with one another in an easy manner without having to jump through hoops. It should have a clear direction of what users are supposed to be doing on the site, which varies depending on what type of community website you choose to build.
Each type serves its own individual purpose, but they’re all alike given they each encourage members of your community to interact with one another, which then encourages them to interact with your brand.
However, each one gets your community to interact with your brand in different ways, so it’s important for you to choose carefully before going forward. With that said, let’s take a moment to go over what each of these types consist of.
This is the most popular type of community website site owners choose to build, and for good reason. It can serve a number of different purposes depending on what your brand is. For example, if you have a product, a forum is a great way to have members of your community help each other with small issues rather than having them rely on your support team for everything.
It’s also a great way to have your community discuss topics related to your niche. For example, a site that sells courses on web design might have a forum where people discuss the latest advancements in web design and the projects they’re working on.
The anatomy of a great forum includes well-organized parent forums revolving around the most important topics of your niche, ease of use and a great moderating team to oversee the forum’s events and topics.
A well-designed forum plugin makes it easy for you to implement this type community without having to mess with custom code or build anything from scratch. A few suggestions of powerful forum plugins are listed below.
A forum is one of the most popular ways to build a community, but you can achieve a similar goal by having your community submit their own blog posts on your site. Forums are great for individual discussions or discussions on specific topics, but community blogs give audiences chances to have their opinions heard in more elegant ways.
A community blog is essentially a blog filled with user-generated content. Again, content is king, but publishing blog posts on a regular basis takes a lot of work and time, time you may not have. Having your audience fill in the gaps is a great way to keep the rest of your audience engaged without requiring you to put in any extra work or time.
What types of content should your community produce? That depends. If you sell a product, have your audience publish blog posts describing how your product helped them and what it helped them produce. If you publish tutorials, have your community share their own tips and expertise.
Your own blog posts are meant to attract new customers and inspire them to use your products to create something or do something amazing, so why not let them build on that with their own content? Community blogs create a great way for them to do just that.
Social networks go a few steps beyond forums. They allow your audience to interact with one another through individual discussions, but they also allow them to create their own social profiles where they can build friends lists and message other members of the community privately.
Social networks also allow members of your community to form different groups, which are basically mini communities inside of your main community. This may not sound as useful as a forum or community blog, but it does give you the chance to show your community you care about them by giving them a few additional ways to interact.
If you want more information on how to create a social network with WordPress, check out Brenda Barron’s post on the subject.
Top Plugins for Building a Community Website
Plugins are the easiest ways to go when it comes to building community websites with WordPress, as is true with building anything with WordPress. However, as Tom explained in the post mentioned earlier, this might lead to you building your community website outside of WordPress.
bbPress and BuddyPress are the top two plugins you’ll see suggested whenever the topic of building communities with WordPress comes up. They’re powerful plugins that enable you to build forums and social networks with a few simple clicks, but they may not have everything you need.
Let’s go over a few plugins you can install to build forums, community blogs and social networks with WordPress.
bbPress is a forum plugin developed by Automattic, the team behind WordPress. It allows you to add a simple forum to your website by adding ‘Participant’ as a new WordPress user role and having participants assigned to this role create topics on your forum.
There are hundreds of extensions available for bbPress, but these are the basic features that come with this plugin.
- Social Networks
BuddyPress works best when used as a social network software. It used to be recommended for forums, but you’re now recommended to install bbPress alongside BuddyPress if you’d like to integrate a forum software on your site.
BuddyPress allows your community to create their own profiles, private message each other, form groups and interact with each other in ways that go above and beyond what’s possible in your site’s comment section or forums.
WP Symposium Pro
- Social Networks
WP Symposium Pro is a powerful social network plugin that allows you to build a community filled with social profiles for members, friends lists, private messages and groups your users can create themselves. You can also create an unlimited number of forums complete with attachments, YouTube videos, different layouts and more.
User Submitted Posts
- Community Blogs
User Submitted Posts is a simple yet powerful plugin that lets you add forms to posts and pages where members of your community can post their own blog posts through the frontend of your site.
The plugin works through a shortcode you insert in a post or page that creates a form your members can use to submit their posts. This form has fields for the user’s name, the title of their post, the post itself, and even post tags.
WP User Frontend
- Community Blogs
- Social Networks
This plugin allows users to submit posts through the frontend of your site, negating the need for you to invite them to use the backend of your site. They can also edit their own profiles, though it’s not as powerful of a social network plugin as BuddyPress or WP Symposium Pro.
- Social Networks
PeepSo is a new social network plugin that comes with a number of different features that make it fantastic for building a community website. This includes user profiles and private messaging features, but it also includes things like widgets that display your users’ photos and friends.
The developers published the plugin as an alternative to the current selection of social network plugins. This alternative is meant to be lightweight with a deep focus on style and design.
What to Do After You Install a Forum Plugin
There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done after you install your plugin. If you’re building a forum, the most popular type of community, you need to decide what types of parent and child forums you’ll have.
For example, if I were building a sports forum, I may have a different parent forum for each individual sport and a child forum for each individual league associated with that sport. This is how you should approach the organization of your forums.
Decide what the most popular topics or categories of your niche are, and assign them as parent forums. This makes it easy for users to find forums where they can create topics on things they’re interested in discussing.
Take things a step further with each topic or category you come up with, and create sub-categories as child forums for the main ones you created. Again, make sure they’re all relevant to your niche.
Aside from things related to your niche, popular forum titles found in most forums include:
- General Discussion
- Forum Rules/Information
- Introduce Yourself
The goal is to make it as simple as possible for your users to create new topics.
Selecting Moderators for Your Community Website
After you select which type of community website you’d like to build and which plugin you’d like to use to build it, you need to find members of your community you feel have proven themselves worthy of contributing more.
By more, I mean becoming a moderator for your community, which is someone who monitors forums and community blogs to make sure everyone is behaving. They’re also there to keep your forums and blogs active when you’re unable to do so yourself.
If you have an active blog, consider asking your top commenters if they’d like to become a moderator for your community website.
Designing a Plan for a Community Blog
If you decide to go with the community blog route, you’ll need a plan to keep things focused and uniform with the rest of the site or your own blog posts. Make sure you explain your post guidelines on a page of your site, and link to that page near the submission form for user-generated posts.
You can allow your users to write posts on any topic related to your niche, or you can start a campaign. Maybe have your community describe their best story related to your niche, or create challenges for them to blog about.
Asking them to blog about anything is fine, but encouraging them to participate with campaigns and challenges is even better and will net you more focused contributions.
Designing a Social Network
BuddyPress is arguably the most popular social network plugin for WordPress. This plugin is powerful and is jam-packed with features, but its popularity continues to rise due to the number of themes compatible with it, ensuring you don’t need to sacrifice style for functionality.
When you use these types of plugins to turn a WordPress site into a social network, you need to keep in mind that user experience is still very important even though you have little control over it when it comes to plugins.
In the case of BuddyPress, make sure you create a custom menu that makes it simple for users to navigate your site and their individual profiles. You can also encourage your users to converse with each other privately in a number of different ways, from PMs to group chats.
Groups are private, and discussions are only accessible by members of the same group. If we use the sports community website example, we can start different groups for individual teams or players. You get the idea.
Building a successful community website with WordPress starts with strategic planning, which all starts with knowing what type of community your website and brand needs. If you already have a website with an active following, don’t be afraid to ask your community how they would like to interact with your site.
Once you determine what type of community you need, you’ll find it much easier to select a plugin. Then you can determine what sort of help you’ll need to keep your community active and well-behaved.
Have you ever built a community website with WordPress? What plugin(s) did you use? Feel free to share below!
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