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Community Hubs: Slack vs. Discourse

For the longest time I was convinced that providing a Discourse Forum is the turn key solution to communication and customer engagement problems everyone has been searching for all these years. It’s a ready to rock tool for civilised conversations around your company and the products that you offer.

While working for CircleCI I first came into contact with a Discourse Forum. My colleagues on the support team and I used it daily to communicate with customers about all kinds of things. We posted quick workarounds to issues for everyone to see or we sent out announcements about the pre installed software in our CI images just to give simple examples.
It was great to use and had a pretty high customer adoption rate. It was a very helpful tool to us managing the at times crazy amounts of inquiries came in.

When I then joined MacStadium they had already thought about hosting a Discourse Forum for their customers and I was very excited to get it setup. We paid Discourse for hosting and proudly announced that customers are more than welcome to join the conversation about Mac hosting a iOS CI stacks on dedicated hardware. Basically no one showed up and it was even very hard to motivate colleagues to use it. In hindsight they had every reason to ignore me since there wasn’t anything to do or talk about there. Months went by and we cross posted almost every blog post there for customers to leave comments underneath.
Still nothing.
Colleagues of mine really did try to make it work but we were absolutely unable to get it up and going and I eventually became so busy doing other tasks that I simply forgot to go back there and use it in order to attract others.

I had completely forgotten about all of this and how defeated I felt when we couldn’t get it to work, until I saw this tweet:


I remain convinced that a Discourse Forum is the better choice of the two options for most tech (and related) companies but I was very clearly wrong about it for MacStadium and I have the feeling that I now understand why. In most cases it will boil down to how you engage and do business with your customers.

If you require customers to talk to a Sales rep, or more general a human of any kind in order to get them to sign on and give you money for your product or service, they will naturally also always expect someone to find a solution to their issues with whatever you sold them.
If any customer can open your website though, select the service or product that they desire and leave their credit card information for it without interacting with a human at all in the process, it’s more likely that they will expect to help themselves. The only help you should provide in that case is either documentation for whatever they acquired, a community forum for customers to help each other or ideally both.
If your customer has never talked to a Sales rep or anyone else who are they supposed to contact and how, but if they have and especially if they did in order to sign up for your service you absolutely have to be prepared to deal with all those support requests.

For me personally I will always prefer a Discourse Forum over Slack for such a community place since Slack is expecting you to be there all the time in order to be part of the conversation. It’s a real time chat application after all and the conversation is always happening right now which leads to a much more hectic and fast paced single sentence posts. The Discourse Forum is much more asynchronous in that way. Customers can open the site and read much more at their own pace without sound effects playing or other indicators nagging them that the actual conversation is happening right now and that they’re not participating. Another major upside for me is the fact that each topic is siloed into it’s own thread. You may link back and forth or converse in multiple threads at the same time but it’s not one big mix of all kinds of conversations in one thread. If someone has something they’d like to talk about they’re free to open another thread. If there is interest in that thread others will join automatically, which makes it feel much more natural but still organised in comparison to Slack which will become an absolute disaster to follow after 6 or more people chat at the same time in the same thread.

In the end you’ll always have to decide for yourself and chose your own path but I absolutely applaud MacStadium for tearing the non functioning system down and trying something else.