As early adopters of the new forum platform that the Microsoft.com team is developing at Microsoft, I spend quite a bit of time giving advice and guidance to other teams that are getting started on their own forums.  Outside of the obvious technical support we give, especially about our internal tool “Answerme” (a question assignment/tracking/statistics tracking website for the forums), most of our questions are social issues around moderation in the forums.

People who work at Microsoft are very concerned with making sure that we aren’t over-moderating the forums.  I can read between the lines:  people internally want to make sure that we don’t get accused of censoring the forums.  Neither do I.  In line with this, the most common question I hear from new internal forum moderators is:  “When is it okay to delete a post?”

The scenario they present is usually something like this.  Brian, a new user of a Microsoft program, let’s just say Microsoft Bob, just found out about the forums.  Brian’s experience with the new product hasn’t been stellar.  He thinks that it’s difficult to navigate around the program, can’t figure out how to get the stupid dog helper to stop asking him if he needs help, and generally is not happy about paying $50 for this program.  He finds the forums, and posts a new thread:  “Microsoft Bob is a Waste of $50” with some text about why he doesn’t like the program and some things that he thinks are stupid in the program.

So now, on a technical support forum, monitored by the Microsoft employees who made the product (presumably in this case there’s still a Bob team), there’s a very negative post about something they’ve worked very hard on.  The post could potentially scare away new customers.  The post looks bad.  And, remember, all of us here at Microsoft are people too (contrary to the popular belief that we are all Borg) and reading something like this about a product you’ve spent two years of your life on is tough medicine to swallow sometimes.  So the question is:  Do we delete the post?

My response to this is absolutely not.  If forums are meant as a community channel in which we are providing a platform for Microsoft customers to help other Microsoft customers, and allow Microsoft employees to engage with the community, it makes no sense to delete “negative” posts.  Only leaving up posts that we think are “helpful” breeds distrust in the community, and eventually drives users to believe that we simply don’t care if they aren’t satisfied.  Sometimes those vocal customers—the ones that are so disappointed with our software that they take the time to post a long essay in a forum or on a blog—can be our best customers.  Engage with them.  Learn from them.  Get thicker skin.  Really think about what they wrote.  What points do they have that are absolutely true?  Have you heard this before?  Are you planning on doing something about it?  Will there be a service pack, a patch, or something else that will help them work around some of their frustrations?  When will you release it?  Post back to the customer—sympatheize with them as much as you can, acknowledge their concerns, and let them know what you are doing to address them.  Hundreds of other customers will read your response (on the MSDN Forums, it’s often greater than 1,000.)  Imagine how many customers that read your calm, well-thought out post can come away with the impression that we really are making progress towards making our products better (which is often the case.)

You just turned that negative post—the one you wanted to delete—into a win.  How much effort did that take?  About five minutes.  But the lasting effects of that well thought out post could last much, much longer.