Microsoft Technical Newsgroups Experience Unprecedented Growth

REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 9, 1999 — George Murphy works in an office with 1,000 other people. Yet when this programmer, who develops customized applications using Microsoft Excel for the Social Security Administration, gets stumped, there’s no one in his office to turn to for help. Fortunately, Murphy has at his disposal a handful of Excel gurus who can answer almost any question he throws their way. And while they may not come from the IT department down the hall, they are just next door in cyberspace–as part of the Microsoft Technical Newsgroups.

“If I’m writing VBA [Visual Basic for Applications] code for an Excel application and I have a problem, I know I can post a question on the Excel newsgroup and someone will get me where I need to go within a few hours,”
said Murphy.

Murphy is just one of thousands of developers and IT professionals who turn to Microsoft newsgroups on the Internet to get free, around-the-clock, expert support for Microsoft products. As an alternative to traditional forms of product support, more than 1,000 Microsoft newsgroups provide an avenue not just for users to get answers to specific questions, but also to participate in ongoing commentary about product-related questions with a community of experts that you often can’t find anywhere else.

But these newsgroups aren’t just for experts anymore. In the last year, traffic has increased dramatically, from 225,000 questions per month to more than 350,000. Much of that growth is attributed to newsgroups that also appeal to general users.

“Five years ago when we started the Microsoft Newsgroups, we had very little traffic on the ones that addressed questions about such general applications as Microsoft Office or any of our gaming products,”
said Ridge Ostling, Product Support Services’ online operations manager at Microsoft. But traffic in these areas has really picked up, and we’ve got a lot more participation from the international community as well.

Much of the growth in international participation can be attributed to the increased availability of Microsoft Newsgroups outside the United States, said Ostling. Local Internet service providers (ISPs) in France, Germany, Hong Kong, South Korea, Spain and Turkey, among others countries, recently began offering the Microsoft Newsgroups in their native languages to give their subscribers better access to Microsoft product support.

Rich Cantisano found the Microsoft PowerPoint Newsgroup so helpful when he began using the presentation software that he now reads the questions posted there daily so he can keep up with its invaluable expert tips. A history teacher at Ramsey High School in Ramsey, N.J., Cantisano became intrigued with PowerPoint when he realized the program allows teachers to take all kinds of media, such as video clips, music and pictures, and turn them into linear, dynamic presentations that appeal to adolescents.

But Cantisano needed help. He was having trouble inserting video clips into one of his presentations, which involved using film clips from the NASA Web site, accompanied by a Pink Floyd soundtrack. When he inserted the clips, they froze and wouldn’t play. No one at the school could answer his questions, and other forms of support weren’t working. After searching on the Internet, Cantisano discovered the Microsoft PowerPoint Technical Newsgroup. He posted his question there and waited for a reply.

“A group of experts and regulars frequent the newsgroup, and apparently they spend a part of their day every day answering people’s questions about PowerPoint,” Cantisano said. Later the same day after I posted my question, three of them took the time to help me out. There’s an amazing level of information there.”

Expertise and Community: A Winning Combination

Microsoft Technical Newsgroups are free and offer around-the-clock support–two clear advantages over standard phone support. While there’s no guarantee someone will get back to you immediately–especially when you post your question at 3 a.m.–the international appeal of Microsoft newsgroups makes it likely that someone, somewhere will be online and willing to offer advice.

But as attractive as free, around-the-clock support might be, users cite the expertise that can be found, as well as the sense of community, as the most appealing features of the Microsoft Technical Newsgroups.

This sustained level of expertise is partially due to the efforts of Microsoft Product Support Services. The division sponsors the Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program, which recognizes and awards customers who have volunteered their time and expert knowledge on an ongoing basis to help other Microsoft customers on the newsgroups.

MVPs, who now number more than 600 worldwide and actively participate in over 850 of the Microsoft Technical Newsgroups, are awarded MVP status based on the level of technical knowledge they impart to the newsgroups, their customer service skills, and their contributions in helping customers. Most MVPs are IT consultants, authors of technical books or technical instructors, who have more than 13 years of technical experience.

“It seems like the MVPs who frequent the newsgroups I visit are always out there, bouncing around ideas, giving advice, and throwing information out as fast as you can catch it,”
Murphy said.
“In my office, people think I’m an Excel guru. But on the newsgroup, the people there have already forgotten more than I’ll ever know.”

For developers and the professional community, the Microsoft Technical Newsgroups are a place where they can turn when they have complex questions. Many who frequent these sites share samples of code they’ve written, and IT consultants often advertise their services by answering posted questions.

“The great thing about the newsgroups is that when I have a question about coding, I might get answers from five different experts. And while each of them works, they are all different from one another,”
Murphy said.
“Getting this much feedback allows me some options. I can fine-tune the answer that works best for my particular situation.”

Because the newsgroups provide much more than just answers to users’ questions–participants actually discuss and debate many topics in detail–a sense of community develops that is highly valued by professionals and general users alike

“Some people post answers just to help others, others like to talk about just what it is they do with the product. But either way, you get so much by posting questions that after awhile you’re hooked, and you find yourself trying to answer questions which you have had experience with, because it’s only right to give back a little,”
Cantisano said.

George Murphy likes the collaborative atmosphere the newsgroups provide because it gives him an unending supply of ideas.
“I get so much out of just reading the posts every day. I find myself responding to someone else’s response, offering up what my experiences have been, and then that triggers an idea in my mind about a way to approach another piece of code I’ve been working on,”
he says.
“The collaboration is really stimulating.”

Product Support Services’ Role: Keeping Quality High

Product Support Services is doing its part to ensure that the quality of the Microsoft Technical Newsgroups remains high and that customers get what they need from the site. The international availability of the newsgroups keeps the level of participation high, making it likely that questions will be answered quickly, regardless of when questions are posted. And the MVP program ensures that a high level of expertise is reflected in the answers.

“We have Microsoft support professionals who spot-check answers in the newsgroups for accuracy, and our MVPs also keep an eye on things,”
said Ostling.
“And in general, the communities are very good at policing the answers themselves. Anyone who provides an answer that’s really off base will definitely hear about it from other customers who know the answer.”

To combat the proliferation of spam, Microsoft constantly monitors its newsgroups for such attacks and deletes the unwanted postings whenever possible. For example, last year the company deleted more than 20,000 unwanted postings from its newsgroups in one day. Now, because the company has a reputation for monitoring its sites and deleting unsolicited advertisements, the amount of spam has diminished significantly.

“A typically busy day now means we might delete less than 1,000 posts,”
said Ostling.
“They’ve figured out that we delete it, so many of them don’t bother posting it on our newsgroups anymore.”

Newsgroup Participation Puts High School Teacher in First Place

For Rich Cantisano, the PowerPoint Technical Newsgroup has provided much more than the right answer at the right time. One day last spring he noticed a post from one of the MVPs, which contained an announcement about an audio-visual presentation contest that would be held in June at INFOCOMM, a trade show in Orlando, Fla., for audio, video, presentation and multimedia professionals, sponsored by the International Communications Industries Association (ICIA). Cantisano decided to enter the contest for fun. He submitted two of the most recent presentations he had created and crossed his fingers.

Out of 100 other submissions, one of Cantisano’s PowerPoint presentations received first place. He was awarded a $10,000 projector for his efforts, which he donated to his high school.

“The Microsoft newsgroup was really responsible for our getting some nice things for the high school,”
he said.
“Most of what I know about PowerPoint I know from the invaluable advice I’ve gotten through them.”

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