As a web developer for the last forever and then some, I’ve had many occasions to seek additional help on tech issues from community forums. Sometimes, support forums are the only help available! And some tech communities provide outstanding help. But it’s a lot easier if you know the ropes.
When seeking assistance on tech support forums, there are some specific “dos and don’ts” that will greatly impact your chance of getting the help you need as well as impact the overall quality of your experience. If you follow these guidelines, I can promise you’ll fare better in your tech-help quest.
- Lurk a minute. If you’re visiting a new tech support forum, chances are it’s because you have a problem to solve–and the sooner, the better. There’s a temptation to just jump into the first forum you see and hit that “new thread” button. Well, don’t do it! At minimum, read a few posts. See how things are done. Look for forum rules and guidelines. Breaking the communities rules and norms makes it less likely you’ll get the help you want.
- Have you sought the answer? It’s considered rude to ask a tech question in a peer support community if you haven’t tried even minimally to locate the answer using readily available resources. It signals that you value your own time and energy over that of the folks that might help you. Before asking, look at software documentation, readme files and FAQs. Google the question. Do a search of the support forum. Many questions get asked (and answered) repeatedly. You probably aren’t the first person with your specific question, so your answer may already be waiting for you on that silver platter you’d hoped for!
- Give ‘em what they need to find you. Not everyone that frequents a forum reads every new post. Put your post in the proper topical area so people can find it. Use a descriptive subject line. “Help!!!!!!!!!!! Now!!!! Emergency!!!!!” isn’t going to cut it. Clear, descriptive subjects increase the likelihood the right people read your post, and makes it more likely others searching for the same answer can find your post in a search.
- Noobs welcome. Jerks not. Many noobs worry that their question is too elementary–particularly in a forum where there are technically advanced users–or expect to get blasted out of the water by rough regulars when exposing a limited skillset. Experts do understand everybody has to start somewhere. It’s usually not a lack of knowledge prompting chilly welcomes. It’s in the attitude. Remember that most (if not all) the people there to assist are volunteers–offering help simply because they want to be helpful. Rudeness, a sense of entitlement, arrogance, whininess or general demandingness won’t get you far. People can easily find someone more pleasant to help. Please and thank you ARE magic words.
- Say it Once, Sparky.  Posting the same question in several forum areas won’t get you faster answers. It will annoy the people who look at many areas of the forum (i.e. the most active members/aka the most able to help). It makes following the conversation confusing for others. And depending on the community, it might get you in trouble. Same goes for bumping your thread every half hour with a whiny challenge of “Doesn’t anybody know this??!?! I can’t believe no one knows this.” No one is obligated to help you. Fortunately, many are willing to help you. Give them a chance.
- Don’t DramaQueen it up.  Pleas that you’re losing kajillions of dollars a second while your business crashes around you and your dog goes without his Gravy Train because of this URGENT issue will not impress others to help you quicker. It will annoy them. Take my word for it.
- Remember whom you’re talking to. You may be furious with whatever service/software you’re seeking help with. Reconsider before you let it all hang out via venomous tirade. Frustration is understandable–but do remember the people you’re asking for help probably have at least some regard for the what you’re discussing. After all, they’re hanging out in a support forum for it, right? And save the LOLCat-speak for LOLCats.  This is no time to be cutsey. Full sentences placed in coherent paragraphs are your best bet–less likely to annoy those geeky, coder types who know the secrets of the universe.
- Give ‘em what they need to help you. Technical questions require specifics: software versions, exact error messages, detailed descriptions of the issue, and are often made clearer by images or links that illustrate the problem. Details such as when the problem appeared–and what you have tried to do to solve it–also go a long way in helping others help you. (As a bonus, other users are more likely to help you if you have honestly tried to resolve the problem yourself.)
- Read the responses carefully and fully.  I shouldn’t have to say this–let alone explain it. But do it! And if you don’t understand something, for goodness sakes, say so!
- Don’t shoot the messenger.  Not all news is good news. Even if you don’t like the answer, be gracious to those repsonding. They are still giving you info you need, even if it’s not the answer you’d hoped to hear.
- If you’ve messed up, ‘fess up.  Everybody makes mistakes, so everybody can relate. Humility (and humanity) is endearing.
- Follow up. Remember to thank your helpers, even if a proposed solution was off-base. And do be sure to follow up with the resolution–regardless of how it turns out. People like to hear how things came out, and it increases the usefulness of the discussion for others reading it later on.
- Do your part! For any forum you regularly seek help from, it’s good karma to offer the same on questions that you can help with.
Most of the time, with a little forethought and basic consideration, you can get very high quality help from peer support communities–often much faster than through official support channels. As a bonus, your contributions help others that follow. Gotta love the win-win scenarios, baby!Footnotes