By far the most efficient, cost-effective, and least onerous vehicle for supporting most software is via newsgroups.

Newsgroups are public discussion areas on the Internet, dedicated to a specific subject, in your case, your program. Access is now universal via the Web, e-mail, or dedicated programs. Subscribers post messages there and every other subscriber can see them. Your support team reads the messages and injects replies as necessary.

Newsgroups are ideally suited to supporting technical products that have mechanical problems that can be answered tangibly (for example, Which update must I be on for this program to work?). They are less suitable for answering subjective questions, such as which shade of gray is the most suitable background for cloud shots. This is because, in practice, clients will answer other clients' questions, as well. With open-ended questions, every subscriber will have his own opinion. However, with specific questions, end users really can help each other. You end up with a support team far more numerous than the one you employ. For example, Internet software that I developed in the 1990s had a formal support team of five, but we ended up with several thousand helpers. This slashed the response time dramatically and meant that very few questions were unanswered at the end of a day. The support team double-checked all answers and clarified points if required.

Newsgrouping doesn't mean the support staff does less. It simply enables them to achieve more, including giving more time to the trickier questions. Newsgroups also have an advantage in being self-logging.

Newsgroups remain a surprisingly underused Internet gem, so be prepared to educate your customers on how to use your newsgroup if you set one up.

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