When every calendar month is finished, I usually take a few minutes to browse the site statistics for the MSDN Forums and see how fast we are growing. Although we do track the percentages of questions getting answered and volume of questions being asked, the site statistics paint a clearer picture of exactly how many people are using the site, and what they are doing. Below is a few things I've learned about how people are really using the forums:
People Lurk, Not Post - Month after month, the ratio holds steady. There are nearly 1,000 times more page views than new questions. For every unique user who posts on the forums, there are about 70 who are just browsing.
People Start at Google, Not at the Forums - Quite a few people start their visits to the forums on the homepage, but the biggest reason people land on the forums is because they did a Google search to get there. Add in MSDN, Yahoo, and Live.com searches, and you see that most people arrive on the forums because a search engine pointed them there--not because they started off by typing http://forums.microsoft.com/msdn.
People Hate Signing In - Because the only reason to sign-in is to post, the number of people that ever "sign-in" to the site is pretty much the exact same as the number of people who post on the site.
People Use IE...but they also use Firefox - Especially developers. Definitely enough people so the site should work flawlessly for both browsers.
People Surf Around - People tend to stay on the site for a long time (as far as web sites go) and tend to click around.
This is all interesting, but what does it really mean? How is the average user using the forums?
To me, these stats have always reinforced one thing I've always believed in the forums--people use them as knowledge bases. Somebody is going about their business, trying to figure out a problem, and hits a wall. Hmm...what to do now? Search! They fire up their browser, type in a few keywords, and click on the first link that Google spits back at them. Hmm...a forum post. Scan, scan, scan. Nope, not the answer...but here's a related thread. Hmm...click...scan, scan, scan. That's the solution! Awesome...now they'll close their browser and go on with their day. They won't sign-in...that takes time. Maybe...just maybe they'll be encouraged that the forums they are on are a good place to ask a question, and maybe they'll ask a question, and enter into the mix.
People are busy, and most aren't terribly interested browsing, reading, and replying to technical discussion all day everyday. They just want an answer to their question to they can get back to what's important to them. They want the answer quickly, they want the answer to be correct, but most of all, the answer better be on the path of least typing and least resistance. Anything else is too much work.
That's why I believe the number one feature of a great technical discussion platform is searchability--however that searchability can be acheived. If it's writing a great search engine for your forums--great. If it's RSS feeds to make sure that other machines or influencers can keep up to date on your forums--great. Just make sure that those search engine bots can read every drop of info from your site and know how to index it well. For the average user, everything else is just extra stuff they have to scan through while looking for those nuggets of info that will help them get on with their day.