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Writing the perfect non-annoying forum thread in 3 easy steps

Monday, 29 September 2008 — by

The demise of forums has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, if you’re in need of some kind of support for almost anything, forums are pretty much where you need to be…

If like me, you’re reluctant to pay for support, or dislike the support provided by the manufacturer or service provider, then forums are a great place to be because they’re driven almost entirely by passionate, devoted and mostly very clued-up people who really know their stuff.

What you have is the original concept of User-Generated Content all wrapped up in a searchable, familiar format, populated by a crowd of fans and Super Advocates, all eager to help you find the answers to you particular problems.

I love forums because as a support system, they work just fine.

About the only criticism that you could level against forums is that if you want the most out of them, you have to create an account. If guys like vBulletin are smart, they’ll offer support for single sign-in systems like OpenID. But I digress.

OK, so you want to get some help from a forum, but you don’t know where to start, right? There are some ground rules to forum submissions that you need to keep in mind. And over the course of this article, I’m going to list those simple, easy-to-follow rules that will help you get the answers you’re looking for without pissing everyone else off in the process.

So you’ve signed up to a forum — now what?

I’m skipping the whole sign-up thing because that’s not exactly important. You either do or don’t. The important thing is, you’ve signed up with the right forum.

RTFM!

I know, I know! You’re bustin’ to get into the forums and ask your question. However, these places have rules.

Make sure you’re in the right forum, first. Few things irritate more than seeing a thread called: “I need help with Widget X” when you’re in the forum for Y Widgets!

How do you know if you’re in the right forum? There’s nearly always a forum index, with each forum listed with a brief explanation of what you can expect to find inside.

Once you’re inside your forum of choice, you’re likely to find several threads at the top marked as locked, one of which will have a title like: “Read this first!” You want my advice? Read the thread first before you do anything else.

This thread usually outlines the rules associated with the thread. These rules are usually enforced by the Moderators, who are the people entrusted to keep the peace. Annoy them, well, you’re in trouble.

Writing the perfect forum thread

Now that you’ve got yourself in the right forum, it’s time to ask the right question. Once more, there are certain things you want to do, and others you want to avoid.

In this example, I’ll be referencing SitePoint Forums, specifically those related to the PHP programming language. Recently, I’ve had good reason to ask for some assistance regarding a number of issues I’ve been having bother with.

1. Include keywords in the title, like function names

An example would be: “Problems with fopen() or fgetcsv() functions…” and another would be: “Error with parse_url() function”. Both of which are descriptive and offer the reader a near complete overview of what to expect from the thread.

a forum thread title

another forum thread title

What you don’t want to write is total vague titles like: “Problem!!!”, “Why is this not working?!?!?!?!?”, or awful, uninformative and misspelled titles like: “My websties not woking!!!”. Do that, you may just be ignored.

Worse still, if a solution is found to your particular problem, which someone else might benefit from, your misspelling could hamper any attempts someone else makes when searching the forums for the same problem.

So good examples would be: “Netgear DG834G Router Modem not connecting to BT ADSL line”, “Widget X has a broken doodad”, “How do I block pop-up windows in Internet Explorer?”, or: “What’s the difference between error 403 and 404?”.

2. Include any links to external resources, websites, blogs et cetera

Staying with PHP, one particular problem revolved around a function that worked fine on one computer but not another. Hmm, dilemma!

Thankfully, help was at hand — but not before I’d helped everyone else first. You see, I provided a link to the function in question.

a forum thread link item

Now the process of looking up the function and figuring out the solution becomes much, much easier for everyone.

Say you’re having problems with your website, providing a link to it, or to a specific web page would be totally obvious, yes? You’d be surprised how many times I see people post a thread about a problem with their website only to not link to it .. d’uh!

Other examples would be linking to the Netgear DG834G Router Modem product page, or to photos of your broken Widget, stored on Flickr.

3. Include any error messages or examples of your problem

So your website isn’t working. In what way is it not working? More specifically, are you getting any error messages? The wrong answer would be to say:

“Oh yes! I’m getting lots of error messages.”

While the correct answer would be to say:

“Oh yes! I’m getting lots of error messages. And here’s a sample of those messages…”

Followed by a selection of copied & pasted error messages.

a forum thread quoted error message

Do this and no one has to guess. You remove all ambiguity and frustration. People can help you there & then, with few questions remaining to be asked.

Conclusion

Writing a forum thread owes a lot to common sense. Helping those that are willing to help you will be difference between lots of help from some very smart folks who’re willing to help you and no answer at all…

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