The forum is dead, long live Vanilla

Paul Boag

In a world dominated by Twitter and Facebook it is easy to forget that the humble forum is one of the most effective ways of building a community. But not all forum software was created equal.

In a world of social media and post Web 2.0. it would be easy to view forums as obsolete. In some ways they feel very much like a Web 1.0 technology. However in reality they are still a valuable way of building community.

Why forums are not dead

Forums have many advantages over other forms of social media. While the new generation of tools such as Twitter and Facebook focus on encouraging communication between friends, forums focus on creating community around topics. This makes them an excellent tool for building a community around a website or brand.

Forums also encourage a ‘many to many’ relationship. This helps to build a much richer community where everybody is interlinked. All communication is open and accessible to everybody, allowing people to search through the conversations of others to find information that may be useful to them. This is why forums are so popular as a support tool on many websites. Support queries can be addressed by other users rather than relying on central support staff.

Dell Forum

It is for these reasons that Boagworld has a small but active forum. It helps to build relationships between Boagworld listeners as well as act as a valuable resource for those with questions about designing or running their website.

Enter Vanilla

When we initially decided to have a forum I was shocked to discover that there was very little choice in terms of web standard compliant software. At the time the vast majority of forums was still dominated by table-based design. The exception that stood head and shoulders above the rest was Vanilla.

We ran entirely happily using the Vanilla 1 software for a number of years. I knew that a second generation of the software had been released but saw no real reason to upgrade because I was happy with the original. However eventually I decided to take the plunge and can say categorically that Vanilla 2 is by far the best forum software currently available.

Vanilla Website

I have been so impressed that I wanted to share with you just a few of the features that make it stand head and shoulders above the competition.

Twitter and facebook integration

One of my favourite features of Vanilla 2 is that it allows users to login via Twitter or Facebook. For us at Boagworld this solves two problems. First login via Twitter or Facebook significantly reduces the amount of spam our forum receives. This is because the majority of spam bots do not own a Twitter or Facebook account!

Vanilla Social Connect

The second problem that Twitter and Facebook integration overcomes is the barrier of registration. With Vanilla 1 users were required to complete a form before they could post to the forum. Now users can simply login to Twitter or Facebook and post-straightaway. I found this an invaluable way to increase engagement and to encourage my Twitter followers to join in discussions on the forum. It has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for discussion where a conversation can be initiated on Twitter without the inherent limitations that Twitter has.

WordPress integration

But Vanilla doesn’t just integrate with Facebook and Twitter. It also has superb integration with WordPress. This manifests itself in a couple of ways. First, Vanilla offers a single sign-on feature which means that if the user is registered with WordPress they also have the ability to automatically log into the forum. This creates a much more integrated approach between the two systems and avoids the user having to remember multiple usernames.

Vanilla's WordPress integration

Secondly, Vanilla offers a range of WordPress widgets that allow you to show various information on your WordPress blog. For example, you can show latest discussions in a particular category (or across the whole forum), currently active users or recent activity in the forum. Alongside Vanilla’s ability to have custom themes these widgets allow you to make your forum and WordPress installation look like a single integrated site.

Easily customisable

Talking of themes, Vanilla is it incredibly easy to customise and if you’re familiar with doing so in WordPress then this will be a breeze. You have the ability to edit both HTML and CSS. You can also either tweak an existing theme or override the CSS of any theme completely by adding your own CSS styling.

Gorgeous customisable themes

Even creating a theme from scratch is not that intimidating. The tagging is incredibly simple and you can turn round a fairly sophisticated design is only a few hours. I have to confess the guys at Vanilla helped me with my theme but I was gobsmacked quite how quickly they did it.

Outstanding customer support

It is that kind of outstanding customer service that probably impresses me most of all about Vanilla. Mark (the founder of vanilla) was unbelievably helpful in the transition from Vanilla 1 to Vanilla 2. He responded almost instantly to all of my questions and was very forgiving when I made a number of stupid mistakes! It is obvious that they really care about their customers and want their forums to be as good as possible.

You may be thinking that I received above-average service because of the profile of the Boagworld site. However it is worth saying that our forum is actually very small with very low levels of traffic. It really is not that high profile. In addition I’ve spoken to a number of other people who use Vanilla and they have all said they received the same level of superb service.

Customer support is often the downfall of open source projects so it is great to see such exceptional support on a product like this.

Hosted or not

Another thing I like about Vanilla 2 is that they now offer a hosted version for those of you who do not want to host the forum yourself. We found that having an active forum can put considerable load on your server so having the option to have someone else manage that problem was very appealing.

Not that Vanilla 2 has to be a hosted service. You still have the option to download it and install it on your own server. However I have to say having them host it has removed a lot of headaches for us. In particular they are very careful about which plug-ins they allow you to run which dramatically improves reliability. One of the strengths of the Vanilla platform is that it has this plug-in architecture very much like WordPress. They have a vibrant community of plug-in developers however like any such community you’re not always sure about the quality of a particular plug-in. We found that this was having a detrimental effect on the performance of our previous installation of Vanilla. With the hosted solution, this problem goes away as all the plug-ins used are carefully vetted.

Powerful yet elegantly simple

I think the thing that attracts me most to Vanilla is its simplicity and elegance. Sure, it is incredibly powerful however this is not at the expense of usability. The admin interface is beautifully designed and intuitive to use. You can add categories, manage users, send out announcements and indeed do everything else you would expect without any documentation or training. It’s just obvious.

Vanilla Stats Dashboard

In addition it has some great graphs and charts for tracking the statistics on your forum. Even these are beautifully presented and easy to understand.

The plug-in architecture means that if there is any functionality missing that you require on your forum, the chances are there is a plug-in that already exists which will do the job. If there isn’t it is worth dropping the guys at Vanilla an e-mail because they seem very willing to build custom plug-ins if there is enough interest. They also seem able to do so incredibly quickly!

Next generation of forum

If I had to sum up my initial impressions of Vanilla 2, I would have to say it feels like the next generation of forums. They seem to have learnt from the latest in social media and integrated that back into a forum environment. For example, each user has a profile page containing an activity stream much like you would see on Twitter or your Facebook wall. It also uses Ajax extensively to create a more application like feel.

If you are looking for a forum to integrate with your website I could not recommend Vanilla 2 enough.