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We're developing an software product that has both a community (free) and a paying version. The paying version has some features the community has not, but it's a fully functional application.

We moved part of our support to stackoverflow (for the community questions), can we also ask customers of the paying application to use stackoverflow (no problem it's public) ?

sorry if this has been asked N times where N it's no more countable ;-)

marked as duplicate by ale, Danubian Sailor, Lucifer, gnat, Mołot Jan 24 '14 at 15:09

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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    The 'duplicate' advice could use a fresh take - I'll answer this in a few. – Tim Post Jan 24 '14 at 14:07
  • @Dante; yes indeed, but using 2 different systems is cumbersome for everybody. – user248916 Jan 24 '14 at 14:11
  • How do I? -- StackOverflow! I got this error, why? -- StackOverflow! I got this error and I'm sure it's a bug -- file an issue! I have an idea/request -- file an issue! Why do you? -- the mailing list! When will you? -- the mailing list! – user248916 Jan 24 '14 at 14:11
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    @user248916 - Stack Overflow is not suitable as a venue for general support. It is only for programming questions using your product. That is, for programmers using the product having problems programming it. – Oded Jan 24 '14 at 14:18
  • @oded, duly noted and it's fine. Thanks to all for your answers – user248916 Jan 24 '14 at 14:50
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To me the key here is who makes the decision. People ask questions about all kinds of products that cost real money - Visual Studio for example - and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, if you search MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) they include SO in the search by default. They know lots of questions about their products are asked here. But it's the askers who chose SO, not Microsoft.

In contrast, when a company or project puts on its support site "our support forum is SO" bad things happen:

  • people ask unanswerable (by SO guidelines) questions like "When is the next release?" or "Here is a great idea for a new feature, please implement it"
  • people ask offtopic questions that are not programming (the tag used to get all kinds of stuff from people wanting passwords reset or to report hacked accounts)
  • official answers from company or project reps are indistinguishable from answers by people who just have experience and opinions
  • people get angry when SO standards are applied to their question, because it's important to them and their only hope of support

If you don't want to run a support forum or mailing list, then don't. You might even suggest that SO is a great place to get programming answers. But don't announce that SO is your support forum, and understand the consequences of not having a support forum of your own.

  • we've a mailing list, it's supposed to be for programming questions and our paying customers ask 99% of the time their questions by email. The problem starts when you begin to have questions in 2 different forums, and IMHO stackoverflow is the best overall. – user248916 Jan 24 '14 at 14:33
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    you could make a rule that the mailing list is for support and non programming questions. Or, whenever someone asks on the mailing list, you could ask for them on SO and later send the mailing list a link to the question with the answers (don't send the link until answers appear) to help people get used to SO. And when you see a nonprogramming question in your tag, you could comment telling them to use the mailing list instead. It might work. – Kate Gregory Jan 24 '14 at 14:36
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This can work well if your customers are already familiar with Stack Overflow, and would simply like to ask their questions there. For best results, you'll need to commit to having some of your engineers monitoring the applicable tags and taking on the following responsibilities:

  • Helping mediocre / not so great questions become great ones
  • Contributing great answers to questions that folks ask within a reasonable amount of time

The first point is positively critical if your customer base is new to our system.

It's distinctly to your benefit to make certain that you stay involved, because your clients are going to associate their experience on the site with your image. When this fails, it's typically because a company has linked to Stack Overflow and done little else.

You also need to provide guidance to your customers on your web site, be sure to give the following:

  • Make it clear that Stack Overflow is not a dedicated to supporting your users. Let people know that we're a Q&A site for programmers where your engineers and support team participate.

  • Make it clear that bug reports and feature requests should not be asked on the site.1. Give prominent links to the appropriate places for people to enter these.

  • Make it clear that billing support should go to a specific address, and make that address / link prominent.

  • Let people know what product-specific tags they should use in addition to a language tag. YouTube API questions went unanswered for weeks because no language tag was applied to many. The same thing happened with Azure.

  • Encourage people to ask clear questions that show any problematic code, explain what they hope to accomplish, and describe everything they've done so far to find the problem.

If you'd like to have someone from our community team have a look at your support page, contact us and give us the link - but please make sure it's ready to go before asking (in particular, make sure the tags are listed).

Remember, our sites are community moderated, and that's something that you're going to need to work within. This is why it's imperative for you to have people watching for new questions on the site - it can mean the difference between a horrible and delightful experience for new or inexperienced users.

I meant to have this guidance better fleshed out in our help center, but other things happened and it got away from me. This is the gist of it, though - minus some nice examples and stuff. Give us a ping when you get something up, we're happy to look at it.

1Sometimes questions turn out to actually be bugs, and that's fine. If they know or suspect it's a bug, they should use your bug tracker instead. You do have a bug tracker, right?

  • are you going to merge these answers into the dupe? – Kate Gregory Jan 24 '14 at 16:07
  • @KateGregory I'm going to put this into the actual help center, since it keeps coming up. It'd also be nice to have a handy link to the guidance, with some illustrations and examples. – Tim Post Jan 28 '14 at 16:12
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But outsourcing your forums or support to Stack Overflow alone is abusive and definitely frowned upon.

In my honest opinion, no matter what, you should always have some form of support outside of Stack Overflow for your product. Even if it is cumbersome, your paying customers need a way to contact you for support with the product they payed for.

That being said, if you do try to outsource your support to Stack Overflow, who's to say we'll even know it? You can't force a product upon a community. In the end you'll probably just get a mess of unanswered questions and a frustrated userbase that will probably move on to a better, user-friendlier product.

I like Jeff Atwood's idea that you need to let the community adopt the product. If they know it and like it well enough, they'll begin supporting it within their community and then maybe you can begin recommending that perhaps your users seeks support there as well.

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