Helping users to help usersGrow your community by making it easy for newcomers to ask questions... and answer them

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There's a superb post by Kathy Sierra at the Creating Passionate Users blog about user-submitted questions and answers, which are at the heart of many online communities – especially the ones built around forums.

Here's how questions and answers typically work on those sites:

  1. A newcomer (a.k.a. a newbie) asks a question that has been asked and answered many times before.
  2. The forum's long-time members pile on the newcomer and berate them, often viciously, for wasting their time.
  3. The newcomer never comes back, and the community loses a potentially valuable new member.

The typical response from many forum operators is to create an FAQ – a frequently-asked questions list – and encourage newcomers to check it out before asking their questions. That can save some frayed nerves for experienced users... but it throws a hurdle in the way of first-time participation, and may give the pile-on crowd implicit permission to be even more caustic.

Kathy has some ideas, including a "low-to-no-tolerance policy" on ridiculing newbie questions, for creating a safe environment for asking questions. But the genius of her post comes when she suggests creating a similarly safe environment for answering them.

Allowing newbies to not just ask but also try answering questions means it suddenly becomes much easier for a community's newer members to escalate their participation – which is a crucial part of building successful, vibrant communities. And as Kathy says,

[M]ost user communities--especially the new ones--aren't hurting for people asking for help, they're in desperate need of people willing to help the newbies. And one of the quickest ways to keep a user community from emerging is when questions go unanswered. So the real problem is getting people to answer questions.

So how do you make answering questions more inviting? She suggests six approaches:

1) Encourage newer users--especially those who've been active askers--to start trying to answer questions
One way to help is by making sure that the moderators are not always the Ones Who Know All. Sometimes you have to hold back the experts to give others a chance to step in and give it a try.

2) Give tips on how to answer questions
Post articles and tips on how to answer questions, which also helps people learn to communicate better. You can include tips on how to write articles, teach a tough topic, etc.

3) Tell them it's OK to guess a little, as long as they ADMIT they're guessing

4) Adopt a near-zero-tolerance "Be Nice" policy when people answer questions [...]

5) Teach and encourage the more advanced users (including moderators) how to correct a wrong answer while maintaining the original answerer's dignity. [...]

6) Re-examine your reward/levels strategy for your community
Is there a clear way for new users to move up the ranks? Are there achievable, meaningful "levels"?

It's a great post (and if you like that one, you'll love her post about even more ways to make an online community grow, flourish and write your documentation for you), and CPU deserves a spot in your regular blog-reading rotation. Be sure to check them out.

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