Answering Questions About Your Product In An On-Line Forum

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Community of Practice, skmurphy

Situation — you have joined an on-line forum or e-mail list where participants discuss issues related to your product or applications or needs that your product is used for. Someone posts a question in an on-line forum along the lines of:

  • What tools are people using to solve problem X or need Y?
  • What are the pros and cons of choosing tool A vs. tool B (where you offer tool A)?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of solution B vs. solution C (where you still offer tool A)?

Recognize that you and vendor B and vendor C are all stakeholders in promoting the category: why do people select a commercial solution instead of rolling their own or using free or open source alternatives. In general you want to adopt the tone and perspective of a knowledge user not a cheerleader or advocate. This is a different situation than someone walking up to you at a trade show booth and asking for a sales pitch.

When there is very little context provided by the person asking the question it’s often better to start with some additional objective questions to better understand their particular needs, constraints, workflow or overall situation.

Acknowledge that both tool B and tool C are good solutions unless they are not at all appropriate. Mention other solutions that are also viable.

Point to objective third party write-ups of how to make the decision. Help the poster walk around the issues; don’t just advocate for your offering. Software, whether installed or SaaS, is the promise of an ongoing relationship with a customer, not a one time transaction. You are not selling a wedding dress–something that will normally only be purchased and used once in a lifetime–you are selling a tool that your customer will rely on going forward.  You want to act like a trusted advisor not a used car salesperson.

If you are selling a tool or service that is normally only used once (e.g. how do I migrate my data from X to Y and I am not going back) then focus on the results and how to measure them. Explain your process steps and quality control measures.

Be frank about the weaknesses or shortcomings of your offering that are relevant to the situation described in the question or uncovered in response to your request for more context. Acknowledging shortcomings increases credibility; if a user were writing in they would talk about relevant shortcomings of the solution they were recommending.

Offer one or two reasons why named customers have told you they chose your solution. Tie these back to the objective questions you asked in the beginning.

It’s critical to understand the problem the customer is trying to solve so that you highlight relevant capabilities that your product or alternatives offer for the particular use case. While the sales team at the Jaguar dealership cannot figure out how those poor guys selling Fiats make any money because no one ever walks into their dealership who wants a Fiat, consumer Reports still covers both in their buyer’s guide. Public comments in a forum should be more like a buyer’s guide than a sales pitch.

Summary: your fundamental goal is to be viewed as a valuable contributor to the community.

  • Building credibility is the result of a series of posts that allow you to be viewed as a member in good standing.
  • Good posts normally include one or more of the following
    • Objective questions aimed at a better understanding of situation and context for decision.
    • Objective statements either about your offerings shortcomings or assessments from third parties.
    • Real stories from customers that are relevant to the situation.

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