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I work for a software company. We have a number of closed-source products, one open-source product and an ecosystem of partners and application developers who use it to develop their applications.

One day, a member of our developer community might ask a question on StackOverflow, "How do I do this using your API?" What should we do: reply on StackOverflow or create a Q&A or a discussion forum elsewhere?

Here are my own thoughts: From the StackOverflow FAQ: "...if your question generally covers a specific programming problem, a software algorithm, software tools commonly used by programmers, matters that are unique to the programming profession..." Since our product is not a "software tool commonly used by developers", I'm leaning towards not using StackOverflow for such questions and taking our discussions elsewhere. It doesn't seem to me that any reputation points I might get from answering such questions would be honestly earned. On the other hand, what is so great about StackOverflow that developers dumbfounded by some obscure API can ask a question and find someone who has solved that problem before them.

ADDED: Thanks everyone for good answers! My takeaways:

  • asking such questions is OK
  • if they ask, we'll answer
  • we need to have our own forum
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7 Answers

I think it's perfectly OK for your developers to answer questions on SO about your company's products (and anything else, for that matter).

APIs generally do fall into the category of commonly used tools. In practice, an API that appeals to a small number of developers won't attract many answers. But that's not a reflection of its appropriateness to the site.

The only thing that is discouraged specifically is spammy behavior. When suggesting a product you need to divulge your association with the product. And if all you do is go around suggesting your product any time someone mentions certain keywords, you'll get downvoted, flagged, and possibly even banned. I only mention all this to clarify where the line is. Answering questions about your product is 100% OK.

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Third party closed-source add-ons and library questions don't do well at SO. Their market penetration is very small. I'm familiar with the .NET tags, JetBrains' Resharper is pretty wide-spread. Only 625 questions that have that tag. Things go down from there quickly. DevExpress is the bigger library vendor, 390 tagged questions. Infragistics, my personal pet peeve as a company that ships libraries that really seem to give their users a hard time, 220 tagged questions.

These questions don't often get answers. Create some annoyance too because the OP tags them with a major tag like [C#].

DevExpress is notable because they both sponsor this site and put some of their devs under a user name to post answers to specific questions. The effort lasted about 2 months and then just kind of died down, not really missed by many.

There is no substitute for a tool or library vendor running its own support forums. Your customer spent the money with the implicit assumption that they are going to get supported using your product. You can not count on volunteers taking over your duty. You have to staff that forum with experts from your company that help them using your product. It's been this way for as long as I can remember.

It is possible. Study Qt's business model. Or SO's.

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I very much agree with your point about Infragistics –  joshcomley Oct 28 '10 at 13:57
    
If the Dev team wants to use SO to deliver this kind of support, I don't think the 'small' user base is a problem, because they'll give the most authoritative answer you could ask for. –  Ivo Flipse Feb 23 '11 at 13:00
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I would encourage answering such answers on StackOverflow. You never know who else may benefit from the responses. Sometimes the programming ideologies which can be gleaned from the question is more important than the actual "answer."

However, I would really discourage using this site as a replacement for hosting your own support forum.

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Odds are, no one knows the product better than your company. That being said, you'll be in the best position to provide meaningful, constructive answers that others will be able to learn from as well.

As long as you don't go off on a Marketing rampage in your answers, I don't see why not.

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Since our product is not a "software tool commonly used by developers", I'm leaning towards not using StackOverflow for such questions and taking our discussions elsewhere.

This is correct.

I also answered here:

I think this idea of using Stack Overflow as an official support forum is inside-out : the community has to adopt the project, find it of interest, and talk about it on Stack Overflow. Not the other way around.

Pushing to one particular destination from inside the project feels like forcing a fit for the community rather than letting one organically evolve.

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Well put, my sentiments exactly. –  zourtney Oct 27 '10 at 23:24
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But the OP is asking about the scenario One day, a member of our developer community might ask a question on StackOverflow - how else can the community adopt a project, if not by asking questions about it? –  Pëkka Oct 28 '10 at 10:37
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Probably not. Every piece of software has a vendor in some sense and if all vendors discouraged using StackOverflow then in total we'd have exactly 0 questions, 0 answers and 0 users.

That aside, on StackOverflow one can't address a question to a specific entity or person.

Instead the question is addressed to the whole community and stumbling upon a specific one is somewhat a coincidence. Hence nobody has the obligation to answer. It's completely voluntary.

If reputation points earned by sharing first-hand knowledge make you feel uncomfortable then don't answer. Or do it so badly that you only get downvotes :)

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If I post a basic question about X on SO and don't get a good answer, I assume that X is not being used much - this may lead me to deciding not to use X

(Or I choose to use what I know I can get help using from SO.)

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