Best Practices for Running a Forum Community

Recently, my team has gotten quite a few requests for guidance on how teams should be engaging with their fledging forum communities that are popping up all over the Microsoft Forums.  From our experiences with what has and has not worked with the MSDN Forums, we've been sending random mails out with suggestions, but thought it might be nice to draw up a "best practice guide" for engaging with the forum community.  What do you think?  What should I add that I forgot?

Starting a Community

· New Communities Need Strong Microsoft Support (Answer Customer Questions!) – The most common mistake teams make is thinking that there’s such a thing as a pre-packaged community, and all they have to do is create a new forum and the community will come. The number one reason community moderators to the MSDN Forums have given for joining the community was the strong involvement that they saw from Microsoft employees. If your team doesn’t answer the first few waves of questions that appear in your forums, nobody will. You’ve seen plenty of support newsgroups that are basically wastelands of unreplied messages. Don’t let your forum be one of them.

· Welcome People to Your Community – So, you just created a forum. Congratulations. Now customers will start asking you questions about your product that you’re excited about, right? Well, maybe. Remember that forums and newsgroups both have very little describing what exactly they are about. At best, customers are getting a good title and a description. At worse, they are getting a title like “Windows XP General”. (Any question about Windows XP can be asked here? Why should I keep looking for a more focused forum?) It’s up to you to post an announcement in your forum welcoming people to your new community, describing your product, and giving them some links for more information.

· You Know What the Frequently Asked Questions Are—Don’t Make People Search For Them— People ask the same questions over and over because people are all having the same problems. Maybe there’s a feature that is always being asked about in your product. Maybe there’s a known bug in your product that people are constantly bumping into. Why wait for the inevitable questions to pour in? Use the announcements feature of the forums to create an FAQ post that covers the answers to these common questions. It will stay at the top of your forum. These posts often get thousands of views—and those are potentially thousands of satisfied customers who got the answer to their question without having to type a word.

Maintaining a Community

· Give the Community Ownership of Itself—This is a simple one. If the community is indeed going to be self-sustaining, shouldn’t the top community members be the main moderators in your forum? By using the “Top Answerers in the Past 30 Days” box on a forum page, or the http://answerme/stats.aspx tool, you can easily view the top answerers in your forum. Click on their profiles, find their email address, contact them, and invite them to be community moderators. Try to not send them a template mail—type something personal to them thanking them for their passion in the community and asking if they would like to become a volunteer moderator. (Remember to tell them that *nothing* is required of them to remain a moderator—it is a volunteer position, not a job.) Be sure to invite not just people that answer a high volume of questions, but people that take time and patience with new community questioners to walk them through simple problems.

· Stay Engaged with Your Core Community Contributors—These people that you gave moderation privileges to are going to be the most important people in keeping your community healthy. Give them support. Give them an alias to escalate really tough questions to, and commit to answering the questions that come across that alias. If you’re going to make a new forum, ask them what they think about it. And keep answering questions, alongside those community moderators, so they know that we still care about the community.

· Thank Community Contributors - They are volunteers, they help out other people, and they are awesome.  'Nuff said.

· Give the Community the First Chance to Answer the Questions—In Developer Division, we have been pushing hard for a high percentage of questions in our forums to be answered within 2 days of first being asked. This has created a healthy community in most of our forums, but also given Microsoft people internally an incentive to jump on the questions and answer them as they come in. Although this is great and probably what you want to do when you initially create a forum, jumping on the easier questions too quickly doesn’t give the community a chance to answer. Once you have a decent amount of community moderators, concentrate on answering questions that are more than 24 hours old. This will give the community the “first shot” at answering. Past experience has shown that by just making that small change, the percentage of answers coming from the community can rise by as much as 25%.