In the early 2000s, specialist web forums were the drivers of discussion on the internet. Arguably, they were a continuation of USENET newsgroups, where groups of enthusiasts could indulge in their passion for even the most obscure of topics. Friendships were made and communities strengthened.
And then those forums began to close. Spam made moderation ever harder and some shoddily built forum software failed to keep up with the arms race against data thieves. Not only that but the web’s seemingly unstoppable march towards centralisation drove specialist communities to Facebook, Reddit, and other commercial social media.
Recently, though, independent forums have started to make a come back. High quality forums software has solved the technical problems of before, giving a viable option to communities who want to control their own destiny.
When it comes to developer relations, though, are forums a useful channel? In a world of Stack Overflow, do vendors, projects, and developer communities really need their own spaces?
Adrian Speyer is Head of Community at Vanilla Forums, an open source forums software vendor based in Montreal. For Adrian, forums are an essential part of a wider community process and, as such, they’re not something you should allow another company to control.
In dev rel, we go to great lengths to shape the experience that developers have of our company and of our software. We care deeply about the quality of documentation, we agonise over swag details, we fight to minimise how much sales or marketing people get to interact with developers.
So, why do we then outsource the online aspect of our developer communities to other companies who might not share our values?
“I love Reddit and Stack Overflow,” says Adrian, “but it can be really difficult and intimidating for newer people who may not be comfortable asking basic questions in those communities.
“If you’re trying to get more people into your community, or to use your API, or to engage with your company, they should not have to feel that their first post must start with ‘I’m really sorry but…’ Right?
“The response to a new person joining a community should be, ‘Congratulations!’ And, ‘I’m so excited. I’m glad you chose us.’”
The sometimes frosty reception to questions posted by developers new to your software is a threat to the survival of your developer community. Stack Overflow, in particular, has acknowledged that this is an issue and, although we should celebrate when people use such sites to ask questions about our software, having your own online community puts you in charge of shaping its culture in a way that reflects your values, rather than those of a third-party provider.
”The difference of being on your own platform, you can warn or ban someone for bad behaviour. On a platform you don’t own, you are at the mercy of their guidelines and procedures. So if you have a bad actor who is constantly demeaning people, who are asking basic questions on how to get started with your API on another platform, you have limited recourse. Worst of all it could in fact translate into someone associating that experience to your brand. Why would you ever want to take that risk?”
So, what can developer relations people do to foster a healthy online community?
For Adrian, healthy communities and successful communities are not necessarily the same thing, “So, you can have a healthy community, but you can fail in achieving the objectives that make the community successful.
“And you can be successful but have a terrible, toxic community. It’s really about balance. In terms of focusing on health, it’s important to be present and transparent and authentic and always think about the people in your community, and why that space exists and why should people care to join and come back.
“But you should never ignore the success part, which is about hitting KPIs or OKRs, and things that matter to your internal stakeholders. For example, what does the head of development or product care most about right now? And how can the community help?
“Balancing those two is essential. I’ve seen a lot of communities that were really successful in terms of hitting KPIs or OKRs, but that were just a horrible place to be. And I’ve seen places that were really wonderful and people loved it, and then they ended up closing because they didn’t meet the goals of the company.”
There are certain repeatable principles that help get forums off to the right start. Adrian codified these into the five part CARGO framework.
“CARGO stands for concept, acquisition, retention, goals, and outcomes.
“You have to start with a very solid concept of what your community is about. Then for acquisition, you need to think about how you are going to acquire and get people to be interested in that initial phase of your community.
“For retention, it’s about how you get people to come back and actually care about your community.
“Then goals is a more complicated thing because it ties into something that I call the MVP principle, which is not minimal viable product, but most valuable people. That’s where we focus on the most valuable people inside and outside your company. Once you know who those people are, you can tie each goal to someone who’s important.
“O is outcome. It’s a combination of concept and outcome, in that your concept might be to become the number one place for a certain topic, with a caveat that you want a certain number of forum members to become clients by the end of the year, say. Outcome is the concrete realisation of your concept and goal. Combined, you have something that you can measure your progress against.”
The CARGO framework comes out of both Adrian’s and Vanilla Forums’ experience of working with communities and seeing what can go wrong and what goes well.
“A lot of times, communities fail because the community manager is afraid to talk to the key stakeholders. They’ll stay within their silo and so they’re not out there explaining the value of the community to people who hold the power.
“We want to empower the people that run Vanilla communities so that everyone at a company understands the value of the community and, even if the community manager moves onto another company, that doesn’t jeopardise the community.”
Not having management buy-in is a potentially life threatening problem for an online community. After all, running a forum is a significant time commitment. But what else can go wrong?
For Adrian, lack of presence is a major cause of dead or dying forums, “Some people think a forum can run itself. Or they have community guidelines but they don’t enforce them. Or they only enforce guidelines when someone breaks them, rather than also reinforcing good behaviour.
“Another mistake is that people sometimes don’t think about the value they’re offering to the people in their community.
“But the most frequent problem is that companies don’t plan properly. They put a forum up and think that’s all there is to do. I’d love to live in a world where everyone gets along and follows the rules but, you know, there’s always gonna be people that just don’t really care.”
One source of problems comes to back to Adrian’s distinction between healthy and successful communities, “I’ve seen communities where, unfortunately, there is an individual who is the most brilliant, most intelligent, most knowledgeable about something but they’re just terrible human beings to everyone else in the community.
“In the past, we even had that issue in our open source community where we had to ban someone because he was making it so intimidating for new people.”
Another aspect that leads to failure is forgetting that different groups have different needs, “Failure comes from not having a compelling concept or an appropriate space for the audience. For example, sometimes a community might lump developers in with end consumers.”
How, then, do you decide if a forum is right for your developer community? Adrian acknowledges that he is biased in favour of forums but he says that pretty much any technical project needs an online space for people to connect.
“Most developers just want to get their answers. They don’t want to be hit with pop-ups or marketing bullshit. Getting people to hello world, aiming to reduce friction in how people get started and then learn your product. Developer communities need to be low friction, straightforward, and focused on getting things done. So, I can’t see how you wouldn’t want to have a dedicated online space for your developer community to connect and share.”
Like any aspect of developer relations, it ultimately comes back to a compromise between what your strategy demands and what your resources allow.
If you’re able to put the time and effort into building an online community, perhaps it ought to be in a space you own rather than one where you’re always beholden to another company’s culture and decisions. However, if you can’t make the commitment or your community is simply too small to sustain a forum, maybe it’s better to focus your efforts elsewhere.
Jamie Wittenberg from Major League Hacking discusses the various ways in which your documentation can lose new developers in this talk from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019.
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