Your users may not know how to achieve the best results from their online interactions. These pointers will introduce them to best practices and help them avoid missteps like linkjacking and annoying forum behavior.
Forums, chat rooms, and discussion groups provide invaluable information (and yes, recreation) for your users. But to get the most benefit, they need to have a high degree of online credibility. If they inspire trust and confidence, their opinions will carry more weight. And when they need help, they'll be more likely to get it from those they helped previously. Share these suggestions with your users to make sure their online behavior increases their credibility.
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#1: Don't shoot the messenger
Sometimes another user will post material (for example, an article or quotation) by another person. You might disagree with the material, and that's okay. But in your reply to the post, make clear that your issue is with the material, not with the other user. Being clear on this point helps prevent online feuds.
#2: Include previous contents in your reply
If the forum software doesn't include the contents of the post you're replying to, take a second to manually copy and paste it into your reply. Others will understand your reply much more clearly.
#3: Thank people who helped you
Suppose you've posted a request for help, and people have responded with advice or suggestions. Suppose further that one or more suggestions actually solved the problem. Take a second to go back online and say thanks to the people who helped you. It sounds trite, but it goes a long way toward building up a positive impression of you, again making it more likely that they'll help you in the future.
#4: If asking for help, explain your preliminary steps
Nobody wants to get flamed. So if you're asking for help, explain the preliminary or obvious steps you've already taken. Doing so saves time for the other people. More important, it shows those other people that you really do have an issue, because the standard steps haven't worked. I probably am overcautious on this point: I'll outline the steps I've already taken and then apologize in advance if I missed one.
#5: Be clear what you already know
Similarly, when asking for help or for an explanation, be clear on what you already know. That way, others won't assume you're a newbie, and they won't flame you for asking an elementary question. For example, you might say, "I've worked a lot with the registry, but I don't understand how this particular action corrupted it."
#6: Avoid questions that Google can answer
You may have heard the saying, "There's no such thing as a stupid question." Maybe so, but some questions are better than others. On a forum, a good rule of thumb is to avoid asking a question that Google can answer for you. It's better to ask a question that involves a comparison, a contrast, or some other type of analysis.
For example, a type of question I've asked involves "reverse definition." I don't ask what the definition of a term is (because I can get it myself). Rather, I describe a concept and then ask what (if any) term defines it. For instance, instead of asking, "What is the meaning of database first normal form?" you could ask, "What's the name of the rule in database design that says don't have repeating groups?"
#7: Don't linkjack
Occasionally, I will see my TechRepublic material on someone else's blog. It may include my name and my title. Sometimes, it even has a reference to TechRepublic. However, there often isn't a URL reference or link to the original TechRepublic location. This practice, known as "linkjacking," should generally be avoided. People who read my material on someone else's blog have no reason or incentive to click through to TechRepublic. Therefore, I get no "credit" for having my material read, and TechRepublic loses that traffic. If you're posting material from another source, be sure to link to it.
#8: Add value when you post
If you post something, add value. If someone asks a question and you can answer it, that's great. But if you can't, don't just post a "Sorry, I don't know" entry, because it really helps no one. Do you have an idea of where the questioner can get help? For example, can you share your experiences with a similar task or application? These alternatives are far more helpful than just saying you don't know, and they'll be appreciated by the questioner.
#9: Preview your posts
I've often seen the sardonic comment, "Formatting is your friend," as a reply to a forum post. It's prompted by posts consisting of one huge paragraph, including bulleted lists in inline text format. Make things easy on the people who will be reading your posts. Preview them before you publish them. This is especially important if you're including HTML tags. You want to make sure the post appears the way you intended.
#10: Exercise discretion if you're new to a forum
Joining a forum is similar to joining a club or a company. There are usually conventions and customs to follow. The easiest way to be labeled a troublemaker or "troll" is to join a forum, then immediately begin initiating your own topics or threads. It's better to simply sign up and spend some time reading other posts and threads. When you do post, do so as a reply on an existing thread -- and focus more on giving information than asking for it. Only then should you think about starting your own threads.
I know this sequence is time consuming, especially if you're in a bind and need advice in a hurry. However, it illustrates the principle espoused by speaker and consultant Harvey Mackay, to "Dig your well before you're thirsty." Take time to establish yourself on a forum. After you've laid that groundwork and have assisted others, you'll be in a position to seek help.
Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.