Five for the Future: How to Help Out in the WordPress Support Forums

You probably remember the hullabaloo a few months ago around Matt Mullenweg’s rally to the greater WordPress community to create a more sustainable vision for the future of the open source project.

Automattic’s founder suggested that businesses revolving around WordPress (either webhosts, developers, designers, etc.) contribute 5 percent of their workforce to helping WordPress core. While some in the WordPress community criticized his sentiments, others embraced the call to action, including us to the point we’re currently trialling and training seven new support staff members, two of whom will be assigned to work full-time in the WordPress Support Forums.

For freelancers – engineers, designers, webmasters, and copywriters whose careers rely on the advancement of WordPress – there’s no better way to sharpen your skills and get to know the WordPress community than to get into the thick of it. If a regular 40-hour work week is assumed, that’s two hours a week you can spend helping others out of technical jams, learning new skills and networking, all while supporting the open source project.

So today we’re inviting you to join us in our Five for the Future. I’m going to share with you how you can spend your 5 percent – your two hours a week – hanging out in the support forums to make the software that makes your living possible even better.

WordPress Support Forums.
WordPress Support Forums.

Just in case you’ve never had reason to visit, the support forums at WordPress.org get thousands of posts every day on a vast variety of subjects. Users have a range of understanding, too, from complete beginner to developer-level. Sometimes they just need a quick CSS fix. Sometimes their site’s been compromised or they’re dealing with a critical error. The support team is all volunteer, and hop on to any question they can help with, as quickly as they can.

Getting started as a support volunteer is as simple as logging in with your WordPress.org username and password, finding a thread you can answer, and offering your genuine assistance. But before you dive in, here are some helpful tips and useful resources you’ll want in your WordPress toolbox.

When in Doubt, Consult the Handbook

The Documentation team have put together a great Support Handbook that covers the nitty gritty of being a support volunteer. In addition to having a basic familiarity with WordPress, support volunteers are expected to treat community members with respect and compassion. Forum members offering support, after all, become representative of the greater WordPress community for the users they’re helping.

No replies.
Support queries in the WordPress forums that haven’t received replies.

Searching for support requests in need of a response is as simple as making use of the forum filtering options. For quick reference, posts with no responses are found here and unresolved posts can be found here.

Spend some time on the forums, and you’ll soon start to notice that it’s the quick and easy fixes that are typically resolved first, so when you find yourself with a few extra minutes to spare, pick your favorite forum and look through the older posts to see if someone has been waiting for help with a more complex issue. It may take more brainpower and eat up more of your time to assist with these more complicated problems, but again it’s a good way to make a big impact with your volunteer contribution. If you come across a problem you think you can help with, by all means, add your two cents.

Be Thoughtful About Your Communications

Many people posting problems on the support forums are frustrated and confused at best, under deadline and losing money at worst. They may be writing in a panicked tone (or as panicked a tone as can convey across a text format), but that doesn’t mean you need to respond in-kind. In fact, you should respond with kindness instead. Show some understanding and compassion. Not only will you be putting your best foot forward on behalf of the WordPress community, you may actually help diffuse another person’s anxiety. Begin by acknowledging the problem and expressing some empathy. It’s as simple as, “Hi there! I’m sorry you’re having a hard time with this slider. Have you tried…”

When You Offer Assistance, Show and Tell

If you show a user how to resolve their problem and take the time to explain WHY this fix works, you’ll not only help in the moment, but you’re expanding the knowledge base of the original poster and anyone else who searches the forums with the same issue.

If you offer code snippets, make sure you cite any sources you used and explain why this is would work. If you find additional tutorials, tricks, or hacks the poster should know about, make sure you include those links. Reference the Codex or the Developer Resource hub if possible.

Follow Up and Make Sure the Issue is Resolved

After you’ve offered your input, don’t just vanish from the thread. Circle around on your posts to make sure everything worked out alright. This may seem like a small gesture, but it goes a long way in establishing rapport, and just because you’re offering free support, doesn’t mean it should or has to be quick and dirty or cold and impersonal. Make sure you check the option for update notification on posts you reply to or check your profile to see new activity on threads you’ve posted in.

support1
Creating a new comment in a thread.

Be Open to the Experience and Be Willing to Jump in and Try

If you’ve never worked in technical or customer support, the notion that you are even capable of pitching in may be foreign. Or perhaps you’re intimidated by more advanced users on the forums. This is a common experience. Tim Bowers, head of support here at WPMU DEV, explains:

“I remember the feeling I had on the first ticket I went to handle. I’d done this a thousand times before at WPMU DEV; in fact, more than a thousand. I’d also worked for many years on other systems and given support there, too, but yet I still felt nervous. I worried I wouldn’t be good enough. There are some pretty big names in the WordPress community and to work in their shadow can be scary regardless of your origins. But that insecurity may be exactly what keeps many bright and budding developers and enthusiasts from getting involved in the community.”

While some people may relate to Tim’s early experiences, he advises our support team tackling the WordPress forums that, “You’re going to get things wrong, but that’s important. The people you’re helping in the forums are not the only ones there to learn and grow – you are ,too.”

Other Ways to Help on the Forums

In addition to offering per case support for WordPress questions, you could spend some time perusing posts about third-party commercial themes and plugins, and kindly directing the user to the appropriate support channels.

For example, if you notice someone in the WordPress.org forums asking about a WPMU DEV plugin, you might respond that commercial plugins aren’t supported here, but they can find all the help they need by contacting our support team instead.

Flagging posts #modlook that are blatantly spammy, hostile, or otherwise inappropriate for the mods is another way you can contribute. You don’t need to respond to a post to tag it, and it helps forum moderators do their job with greater efficiency.

I’m Not a Developer. Can I Still be Helpful?

Yes, absolutely. If there is a particular plugin, theme, or topic you’re especially knowledgeable about, you can search for that tag in the forums. CSS ninjas this way and HTML 5 to the left. Do you happen to know a lot about SEO? Your skills could be useful here.

The Support Handbook also offers canned responses to common issues, as well as Break/Fix lessons that volunteers can go through in order to learn how certain common problems present and how to fix them, step by step. These in of themselves are a great learning tool for rookie developers and dabblers. If you’re relatively new to the WordPress world, there’s no better way to familiarize yourself with the product than to take it apart and put it back together.

And if helping in the forums is not at all your cup of tea, there are a ton of other ways you can get involved, including helping out with documentation and tutorials.

What NOT to Do On the Forums

Don’t be snarky. Don’t be sarcastic. Don’t be mean or belittle other users. Don’t use it as a forum for self-promotion. At all. Any of that stuff will likely get your post flagged, and the mods do a top-notch job of keeping the culture of the forums as positive as possible.

Join Us – Help Out in the WordPress Support Forums

Is is worth helping out in the forums? For the experience alone, for building WordPress community and furthering the open source agenda, my humble opinion is that yes, it is.

In terms of learning and expanding your WordPress skillset, helping on the forums will give you the experience of looking at other sites and debugging their problems.

If you can spare 5 percent of your time, your contribution should both strengthen your knowledge and advance the overarching WordPress community.

By the way, if you have a WPMU DEV membership, our support stars are happy to answer any of your questions in our forums as well, whether it’s about our plugins or themes or some other.

Are you on the WordPress Support Forums? Do you have any tips for helping out?