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

Comments (14)

  1. Pilar Mueckay says:

    I’m absolutely agree with you. Two different channels. However, the UI is so disappointed, not friendly, not usable. Are you collecting suggestions? Where?

  2. MSDN Archive says:

    The best place is the Bug Reporting forum:  http://forums.microsoft.com/MSDN/ShowForum.aspx?ForumID=53&SiteID=1

    But, I’d welcome any comments about the current interface right here…I’d love to see if my complaints about the interface and yours sync up.

  3. Nektar says:

    Why hasn’t Microsoft or the web community overall tried to improve the NMTP system all these years. The newsgroup protocol is much better than the web interface as your power-users have pointed out from their perspective since you are not limited to a single interface but you can use a real desktop app to manage your posts. Why haven’t you improved the newsgroup protocol in order to allow authentigated posting and why haven’t you created a web interface on top of that. Or at least why haven’t you improved your MS newsgroup web interface for so many years? There is already a web interface to all MS Newsgroups for some years now but is horrible. Why haven’t you improved it?

    I can’t understand why has the industry improved NMTP all these years so that all categories of users would be satisfied. Personally I hate the fact that everything has become web-based, from e-mail solution to all kinds of apps, even main business apps run in the browser. Too bad.

  4. Jeff Parker says:

    You forgot another thing of why newsgroups are well kind of dying and what always prevented me from getting to the old news groups. Security and firewalls, most corporations block nmtp traffic. I was never able to get to them at work where I needed them. But I can get to the forums.

  5. MSDN Archive says:

    Nektar – Well, you can guess why Microsoft didn’t try to improve upon NNTP…we don’t want to "hijack" a very common protocol.  If we added our own extensions to a protocol…well…remember the days when Internet Explorer and Netscape were doing that?  It wasn’t fun.  You end up with different newsreaders that support different protocols and it’s a mess for the end user.  Hey–I don’t like web clients either usually, but I think some applications recently have proven that it can work (Gmail, Virtual Earth, etc.)

    Jeff – True.  We’ve actually had a few customers mention that they simply couldn’t get to newsgroups anymore, so that’s a great point.

  6. Frans Bouma says:

    Does MS have the intention to release the forum software as open source as an example for asp.net?

  7. Garry Trinder says:

    I prefer NNTP as it is effectively a smart client. I can download all the messages and search them locally.

    My question is why can’t the web interface and the NNTP readers use the same message database? Then you can use either client…

    S.

  8. MSDN Archive says:

    Frans – We probably won’t release the source code for the actual forums app that we are using here at Microsoft, but it’s basically a forked version of Community Server…check out http://www.communityserver.com to download the source for non-commercial use.

    Steve – Offline client support is a big feature gap that we currently have with the forums–we’ve found that’s the number one reason why power users like NNTP.  We do expose an RSS feed though, but you can’t reply to posts from there, so it’s an imperfect solution.

    The reason we don’t use the same database is that we are trying to do some special stuff with the forums that isn’t possible on NNTP.  How would we support a post being moved to a new newsgroup?  What about an edit?  What about when a forum is closed?  What about our answer tagging?  As you can see, the solutions to these questions typically will involve a compromise on one platform or another, and we didn’t want to make both platforms sub-par with the hopes of compatibility.  For the most part, there’s enough users on both systems to have great communities on each.

  9. Garry Trinder says:

    Hi Joe,

    Moving – Is that common?

    Editing – Is that a commonly used feature?

    Closed forum – easy – readonly NNTP newsgroup

    Answer tagging – not available in NNTP readers, forums only

    I would expect that the first two features would not be missed by 90% of people. Even if you supported them make the changes appear as new posts in NNTP.

    I hasten to add that I know nothing about the NNTP protocol, but I would expect that it should be possible to allow NNTP readers basic access to the database if you make *some* compromises.

    I’ve used both NNTP and forums and frankly web is just not responsive enough. RSS is a big step forward but not enough.

    Why don’t you expose a web service API and we’ll write a client for you!

    S.

  10. Garry Trinder says:

    Hi Joe,

    Moving – Is that common?

    Editing – Is that a commonly used feature?

    Closed forum – easy – readonly NNTP newsgroup

    Answer tagging – not available in NNTP readers, forums only

    I would expect that the first two features would not be missed by 90% of people. Even if you supported them make the changes appear as new posts in NNTP.

    I hasten to add that I know nothing about the NNTP protocol, but I would expect that it should be possible to allow NNTP readers basic access to the database if you make *some* compromises.

    I’ve used both NNTP and forums and frankly web is just not responsive enough. RSS is a big step forward but not enough.

    Why don’t you expose a web service API and we’ll write a client for you!

    S.

  11. MSDN Archive says:

    🙂  Actually, moving and editing is more common than you think, especially if you’re a forum moderator.  95% of users never even see or notice that it’s happening, but there’s some leg work in moderating that really improves the experience for the end user.

    So, let’s just play with this idea of a Web Service API for awhile.  Do you really believe that people would write applications to browse the Microsoft forums?

  12. Garry Trinder says:

    People do all sorts of stuff with MS products. The forums are a rich source of knowledge after all…

    I’ve noticed a number of websites that redistribute the NNTP newsgroups and add on context sensitive ads. They feel it’s worth it, though I don’t know how profitable it is. The API wouldn’t have to be strictly used by offline clients which would expand the size of the user community…and then again maybe it won’t…who can tell what will take off 🙂

    I guess I’m implying a more structured approach to how MS handles community information. I notice that http://www.ASP.Net doesn’t use the forum engine.

    Aren’t they a good model for the great unwashed to get support as well? Then the volume would be much higher and an offline reader more attractive.

    Shouldn’t a lot of thdev stuff be part of Visual Studio after all? (I know it’s already a bit on the large side!)

    S.

  13. Garry Trinder says:

    The great advantage of news groups is all the “new” developers that don’t know about them.  The fact that these days most news groups only contains the “old hands” means that the signal to noise is a lot better in them.

    Also if I post something to a news group, I know anyone that tries can find it FOREVER as Google + others keep all the posting indexed.   With a Web Forums I can only hope that the company that runs it does not close it down, and then remove the benefit of my posting from the rest of the world.

    Blogs are even worth then Forums, how many blog posts will still at the some url in 20 years time?

  14. MSDN Archive says:

    I’ve heard that again and again from newsgroup users, but I can’t really say that keeping new users out of a channel is actually an advantage–what happens to the channel a few years from now?  As people leave, nobody’s going to come back to fill those gaps.  I’m pretty sure that’s why Microsoft’s NNTP traffic has been declining at an 8% clip for the past few years.

    As for the NNTP being cached by Google or other companies–that’s true…those will be available–until those companies either leave the scene or decide that they aren’t really making enough money from the service to keep offering it.  Microsoft has committed to web forum content to stick around for at least seven years.  Honestly, seven years from now, much of the questions that are being answered probably won’t be that relevant anyway.