Community building with a Q&A vs. online forum

Working on building an online community? Here's how to choose the platform that's right for you.
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If you've ever built an online community, you know that the sheer number of options available can be daunting. Should you set up a forum, a Q&A site, or both? Would users prefer Slack, IRC, or perhaps a mailing list? Where does Telegram fit in? Maybe you should you just set up one of every available solution...

I'll discuss this topic at length during the upcoming Open Source Summit North America. But in the meantime, let's focus on one aspect to better understand the overall decision-making process.

Forum vs. Q&A

Before you decide on a platform, make sure you understand the strengths and weaknesses, design goals, and workflow of each.

Forum software

Forum software comes in many varieties, which generally fall into one of two categories: traditional options such as vBulletin, phpBB, XenForo, and UBB.threads; and newer options such as Discourse. The former tend to be more hierarchical, include fewer gamification features out of the box, and focus less on social media integrations. The latter usually have a more event stream-focused UI, include baked-in gamification, and integrate more deeply with social media. Keep in mind both can be altered by changing default settings and using add-ons, but if you find yourself fighting the product design, you may want to re-evaluate your choice.

Fora are, of course, conversational and should encourage discussion. That makes them a fantastic solution for building community, debating technical topics, and finding solutions as a group. One downside: A great solution might be buried on page 11 of a long thread, so it can be challenging for participants to find the answers they seek.

Q&A platforms

Enter Q&A platforms. By design, these are not conversational—rather, they allow users to ask questions (which can often be refined), and other users offer answers. While some discussion can take place via comments, most Q&A sites develop a culture that dissuades broad conversation in lieu of finding direct answers, which participants vote on. Answers do not appear chronologically, as in a forum, but by rank. Gamification is almost always built into the platform, usually in the form of badges or some form of reputation or karma. While a Q&A site can excel at offering quality answers quickly, the lack of conversation makes it less suited for building a community with deep roots, as such communities typically require that people get to know each other through discussion.

So, which platform should you choose—or should you have one of each?

There is no one correct answer for everyone, but here are questions to help you decide:

  • First, what are you trying to accomplish?
  • Will your community respond well to gamification, or will it encourage behavior you don't want?
  • How many people will be participating? Spreading your community too thin means an empty forum with a lot more Q's than A's.

The answer to these questions will vary significantly for each community.  As with most community decisions, understanding your community is the key.

I hope to see you in Los Angeles at the Open Source Summit to further discuss how other platforms fit into this discussion and how to decide which ones are best for you.

Jeremy Garcia is the founder of LinuxQuestions.org  and an ardent but realistic open source advocate. Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @linuxquestions

6 Comments

Very interesting topic Jeremy. I happen to be working on this exact topic for a community. We have been looking at our use of Slack, and as this is not fully open and has its limits when using the free option, we hope to move to another platform soon. So as you can see, and also state yourself, there can be many motivations/reasons to asses this question.

Great point, Robin. I've certainly been seeing an up-tick in the use of Mattermost and Rocket.Chat in open source projects for this very reason. What options are you considering? Chat (including the aforementioned Mattermost and Rocket.Chat, IRC, Slack, and others) will be included in my talk in LA. If you're attending let's catch up. If you're not, happy to discuss elsewhere.

--jeremy

In reply to by Robin Muilwijk

Our first move will be to a forum (Discourse, specifically chosen for its integrations) and also Stackoverflow as a huge part of our community is already on there. There might be one or two more steps, to adjust the entire community landscape into current needs by both the company and community.

We are carefully looking at targeted groups / users of our platforms, and also at our own core values such as openness and sharing.

In reply to by Jeremy Garcia

When you are creating a place to exchange and discuss, you are creating a knowledge base about two things: your community members, and the knowledge they share.

For this, forum are bad, because 1/ you can't find the solution, lost in the middle of a thead and 2/ this is not a chat.

That's why today, I would recommand a good Q&A (BTW, Discourse can do it too) to easily find problems, solutions, and most active members. And, then, add an online chat (Mattermost, Rocket, ...) to replace the "forum" discussion. I mean, when this is not usefull to store the answer in time.

From my perspective fora, Q&A, and chat solve different problems in different ways. Understanding what your goals are is a crucial first step in deciding which is the optimal solution. The size and participation level of the community is also an important factor. If you'd like to create "a place to exchange and discuss" I'd argue a forum is probably the best solution of the three. It offers the ability to discuss in a way a Q&A site doesn't, while still allowing you to create a lasting knowledgebase that is easily searchable; and does so in one central place. Creating both a Q&A site and a separate chat is definitely a viable option for larger projects, but does come with both pros and cons.

--jeremy

In reply to by Antoine Thomas

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