ISV asked a really good question this morning over at the Business of Software forum:

Would it be a good idea to consider using something like Ning instead of a forum? Anyone considered this?

I think a lot depends on what you’re going to build a social network around, and how much time are you prepared to spend.
Personally, I hate forum software (except Fogbugz!) because it’s too cumbersome. But if you work it consistently, it can become an excellent resource.
For example Thraex Software (they make a windows installer that doesn’t suck) uses forums as its main tech support channel:

– Only 3 forums, no confusion about where to post.
– 1452 topics got 4936 posts – in other words an average of 3 posts per topic. So the poster asks their question… and they are getting answered, either by the microISV or the community.
This is one of the few really good, effective forums I’ve seen.
A social network site is a different beast. It’s a near-tangible place with a hard-landscape of functionalities that shape what kinds of interaction/conversation participants have. No one would mistake Facebook with Second Life or with a Ning social network.
I think social networks can be the secret weapon/secret sauce for startups and microISVs if they take the time to think through their approach.
Let me cite another example, a time tracking web app I know use and like: BubbleTimer. This is one elegant app – define the things you should be doing, mark in the little bubbles 15 minutes at a time. It answers – Are you getting the time into the things you should be? – very well, and this improves your future behavior.
Once aspect of BubbleTimer is that you can share some or all of your activities with others using this web app. Buy moving the app beyond being a single user app, the creator, Sean Johnson, is a) increasing the value of what people individually are doing with the tool and b) making it damn difficult for others to imitate his app. A growing community centered on your app is the best copy protection you can imagine.
Whether you build an online community into your desktop/web app or take a more loosely coupled approach by building a community using say Ning around your startup, don’t underestimate the time and effort involved – that’s why “Community Manager” is becoming a position at more and more companies, large, small and micro.
In the last few years we’ve just started to see the rise of social networks – and whether you run a software company with 1, 100 or 10,000 employees, social networks – both those that exist and the ones you form need to be a part of your strategic thinking.


  1. The example is more relevant to web applications. It’s more of a challenge when it comes to desktop apps.
    There are a number of increasingly popular support forum providers: GetSatisfcation, UserVoice to name a couple. Do you think a MicroISV would stand a better chance for creating a successful support forum using such services?

  2. I struggled with this very question while creating BubbleTimer. Should I have a forum? (I can’t say that I thought about social networks much) In fact, I spent some time evaluating and working with the couple Ruby on Rails open source forums.
    I do feel the same way you do Bob, that forum software is generally quite clunky. One of the things that makes it so in my opinion is that you have to register and login. This is a pain and probably stops 80% of the people that would otherwise post in the forum from doing so. What I wanted to do with BubbleTimer was integrate the forum and the application’s login so there was no separate registration and no separate login. If you are using the application… then that’s your forum login and ID too. Ultimately this proved to be just a little bit more work than I could justify pre-launch however. I ultimately decided to focus the forum on support rather than community (for now) and I went with Get Satisfaction.
    Get Satisfaction is reasonably good forum software and it was easy to integrate with Bubble Timer. Claiming your company and product (they let users set up the forum if the company has not already) at Get Satisfaction was a little slower and harder than it could be but overall the experience was pretty easy and I recommend them.

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