Another Look at Vanilla: Online Communities Reinvented

It’s no secret that online communities, though the technology and structure has been around for a while, are still thriving and are as popular as ever. Apps have managed to take full advantage of this and provide their own take on the message board format and one such example is Vanilla. It takes the idea back to its basics and provides its users with an incredible interface to engage in real conversations.

I originally reviewed Vanilla back in 2010 but a fair bit has changed since then and I’ll be taking a closer look at these changes. Read on to find out more!

Vanilla?

Vanilla. If you’re an avid community participator, there’s a good chance that you’ll have come across a forum powered by the brilliant software that is Vanilla. It’s released as a free and open source software though the developers have taken the main core of the software and provided those with less technological knowledge to take full advantage of the system by hosting their forums with Vanilla themselves for a fee. The result is VanillaForums.com- a hosted version of the app that puts the simplicity back into online communities. As mentioned, a while ago I reviewed the app but a lot has changed since then so I’ll first delve into these changes by taking a look at one of its most popular features: it’s incredibly simply interface.

Overview

Overview

The Interface

One of the first and most obvious changes in the newer version of the Vanilla admin panel is its interface. In the old version, it was a lot more simplistic in design and really was the bare basics that any forum manager would need to manage their community. Since then, it’s been revamped and though the basic format is the same, a lot more has been added. The menus have been altered a bit to house the additional options and features that have now become available, and overall the design is just a bit more friendly and welcoming than its predecessor.

Dashboard Stats

Dashboard Stats

The dashboard now sports visual statistics about the site’s popularity with both regular visitors and users, providing graphs to show the number of these and the changes across the time. This is a really useful tool for admins to know how well their community’s doing through a single glance once they’re logged in and overall is a feature of great importance to those that need it. In addition, when discussions generate more activity, the top ones of these are also shown in the dashboard as well as a list of the most active users.

Initial Admin Panel

Initial Admin Panel

The design of the actual front-end interface hasn’t changed that much, apart from a few minor design tweaks. Due to the nature of Vanilla and its easily-recognisable interface, it’s quite good that they’ve decided to go with what’s already been proven to work for them and not stray away from the iconic design. Overall, the interface is still as much of a pleasure to use as always.

Themes & Addons

This new Vanilla comes with a few more themes than the last one and still allows for the customisation of these for paid accounts. This means that just about any designer can easily make a stylish Vanilla theme in a fraction of the time and have their site looking all ship-shape and ready to unleash on the community.

Customising Themes

Customising Themes

Another important recent development has to be the ability to enable a set list of addons within the app itself. I don’t remember this feature being present in the older version so it’s quite clear that the developers have tried to make the Vanilla-hosted version of the community as close as possible to the experience that one would find should they host it on their own server. Due to the surge in popularity of Vanilla itself (both the hosted and open source versions), there have also been plenty of addons released that can really add an extra level of intelligent functionality to each forum and a few of the best have been made available to those using the app.

Available Addons

Available Addons

Badges

One of the newest features of Vanila is its badges system. It provides participants of the community with virtual badges that are shown-off within the app for doing everyday positive tasks such as taking part in the community. This gives an added incentive for members to carry on doing what they’re best at: making an online community what it is. After all, a community’s a bit pointless if there’s only one person. The badges reward simple things such as reaching certain milestones and these are then displayed for the world to see on each user’s profile.

Badges

Badges

Reactions

Finally, the last feature that I thought to be exceptional within the recent wave of updates to the app is the ‘Reactions’ addon. When enabled, it provides users with the ability to provide their feedback on posts. With the simple click of a button, they can show appreciation for a particular post or flag it as inappropriate. The app also supports the promotion of posts and also the flagging of one as being off-topic.

Reaction Buttons

Reaction Buttons

It’s quite easy to see that a lot of consideration has gone into this feature and it allows admins and moderators to be immediately presented with a list of content that is either really popular or deserving of removal.

Reactions Best Of Page

Reactions Best Of Page

Final Thoughts

As a whole, I think that the app has come a long way since version 1. It’s kept the majority of its interface that was praised for being incredibly simple to use and that’s what Vanilla is pretty much all about. Though the price has increased and they don’t appear to offer a free option any more, the app seems to make up for this and offers a solution for those wanting to take full advantage of the simplicity of Vanilla’s core open source software without having to worry about getting it set up with their web host. It’s clear to see that communities is what these people do best so why not provide their community with a solution to their needs? These reasons are why I believe that Vanilla now deserves its bumped-up rating. Full kudos to the team!


Summary

Vanilla Forums allows just about anybody with varying levels of technological know-how to quickly set up an online community that is powerful, simple and packed with just about everything to take the community off the ground.

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  • http://gotsmith.com Sydney

    I was actually looking for a new forum script for a non-profit I work for and the open source Vanilla seems like a good one. phpBB is getting a little stale.

  • Vincent

    We signed up to the hosted solution for a monthly fee.

    Beware that Vanilla offers virtually no support despite claims that support is always available.

    The software looks great but support is really bad which makes one wondering whether it is worth paying over a hundred dollars merely for having a hosted forum solution.

    This would be a truly great product if the company started caring more about the clients.We had to wait for over 1 week just to get a reply to our support request. This happened more than once and left us really doubting the seriousness of Vanilla.

    Such a shame as Vanilla as a software works great. These guys should learn from companies like Zendesk who have excellent service and shows that they care about their customers.

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