Why Web Forums for Support? What Do You Have Against Newsgroups?

Last week one of the program managers, who works with a segment of customers that is very experienced and well established on the newsgroups, communicated some of the complaints that his key influencers (primarily MVPs) had when he broached the subject of moving their newsgroup to our web-based forum solution. I’ll refrain from any actual quotes, but let’s just say that the general reaction wasn’t positive. Common complaints with the forums included:

  • It’s clunky. I don’t want to click and wait every time I want to view a new thread.

  • It’s web-based. What am I supposed to do on the bus or airplane?

  • Fonts and colors? What is this…kindergarten?

  • Forums are filled with script kiddies and non-experts who are going to muddle the great conversation group we already have.

  • Did I mention I have to click to move from thread to thread?

  • Oh…and by the way…there’s a ton of UI quirks that make me like your forums even less than others.

And more. And more. What we were hearing from our top customers—people who have been participating in Microsoft mailing lists and newsgroups for years and years, was that forums were just a bad idea. Worse yet, they saw our move to forums as another example of Redmond-based arrogance…we weren’t listening to our customers and just decided what was best for them.

We did a few things wrong here, and they all center around one key point: the new forums hosted on http://forums.microsoft.com are not newsgroup replacements, nor were they ever intended to be. You know, two flavors of the same ice cream? I like coffee, you like tea…that kind of thing. The real goal with the forums is to create another community channel for peer-to-peer support that reaches a huge segment of customers that we’ve never reached before—people who have never used Usenet, or didn’t like its experience. Our experience so far with the MSDN Forums shows that this group of customers was being largely neglected in the past. We have over 50,000 registered users on the MSDN site, posting over 2,500 questions a week. Last year at this time, this channel didn’t even exist. In the same time, the Microsoft newsgroups have declined in post volume around 8%...the exact same amount that they fell from 2004 to 2005. Meaning—the forums aren’t poaching users from the newsgroups. They are bringing brand-new people into the mix of a Microsoft community.

Why? Well, despite the fact that a lot of the complaints above are valid…there’s also quite a bit to like about our forums solution:

  • We can tag answers. When I go to browse the site for an answer to my question, I can see what threads have information that might be useful to me.

  • We archive information for seven years—not 30 days. This means that every week, we’re adding about 1,100 answers into an ever-growing Q/A database. Coolness.

  • Passport authentication. No, really. Users can be banned. We can assign moderation to the community easily. User profiles can carry over to other Microsoft communities. And you already had a Passport…didn’t you?

  • Discoverability. Google, MSN, Yahoo…they all turn up forum stuff in searches. Yes, I have heard of Google Groups. I also know quite a few people that haven’t.

  • No client to configure. Yes, I’ve heard of WebNews, but the forums interface is something that many, many more people have already been exposed to.

  • We are able to expose the forums in ways that weren’t possible with the newsgroups. Has anyone ever noticed that the help menu of Visual Studio 2005 actually searches the forums for answers? http://blogs.msdn.com/jledgard/archive/2005/12/14/503723.aspx

  • Forums are flexible. Anyone ever notice the absolute sea of dead newsgroups on Usenet? Once you create a newsgroup, you always have a newsgroup. We can rename, merge, split, and, yes, delete forums.

  • We can moderate the forums. Once a message is out on Usenet, it’s out. No matter how off-topic or offensive or misspelled or stupid, that message is going to go out to everyone. Not in the forums. Our moderators can move, edit, delete, split, and merge posts/threads, not to mention mark questions as answered.

  • We’re finally keeping up with the Joneses. Name one other major software company that doesn’t have web boards or forums? Apple? Try http://discussions.apple.com. IBM? http://www-128.ibm.com/developerworks/forums/ Adobe? http://www.adobe.com/support/forums/main.html Microsoft Windows XP? http://um?????

  • RSS feeds are available for the forums. No, they don’t include replies yet (but they will). As the entire world moves towards using RSS to stay up-to-date with what they are interested in, why shouldn’t our customers be able to use RSS to stay up-to-date on the conversations about the software that they love (or that they have to use) without installing an NNTP client?

Obviously I’m biased towards the forums, but I really do believe that having the two channels living side-by-side helps us reach our entire customer base with peer-to-peer support. What do you think?

Edit (2/22/06, 1:30 PM): Josh Ledgard just reminded me of a great post he had on this same topic about a year ago. Funny...it looks like his post was provoked by some angry email as well... :) http://blogs.msdn.com/jledgard/archive/2005/04/17/409057.aspx