Monday, 3 May 2010

Microsoft, finally

Only two weeks or so late, but I've finally got the time to do a proper review of Microsoft Townhall.

Townhall is an interesting platform, aimed at creating a free flowing debate within an online environment around particular issues or campaigns.

The core of the package is the ability for the user to ask questions, vote on questions by other users, and comment on questions. For the user, this is a great opportunity to discuss issues that are of interest to them, for the operator, it gives insights into what users think about particular issues. Hot topics will rise in the rankings, boring ones will fall and so forth.

Users are rewarded for activity in much the same way they are on act.ivi.st, through a points based system. How motivating this will be, I dont know, but I have a feeling for a larger campaign it will help generate buzz. Potentially I wonder if there is the possibility that you could link points to 'unlocks', things which only certain high ranking users can do. E.g. you have to earn [X] points in order to pose your own questions.

There's not a lot here which particularly stands out for me as an original concept, but this is a very polished version of things which have come before. The Microsoft brand is, of course, a help in his case as clearly they've dedicated a significant amount of resource to the idea.

At the end of the day its all about insight for the operator. And it sounds like there are a whole host of back end tools you can use to get information about your users. You can also pull data off the site for ease of presentation, and it all promises to integrate seamlessly with existing Microsoft software.

Facebook connect is fully integrated, which reassured me that the barrier for entry would be extremely low, and the site could be folded into popular groups, or indeed serve as the stimulus for a group if needs be. It also means you can do a huge amount of data mining on your users. As a Facebook user this bothers me slightly, as I'm getting a bit bothered by Facebook's willingness to share my personal data. As a person who might find having this data useful, I'm okay with it. Doublethink at its best.

Applications are in development for all the usual suspects, iPhone, Android, etc etc, although whether people would want to get involved in Townhall site whilst on the move is open to debate. Personally I'm not convinced.

Shockingly Microsoft has released the source code for this platform however, and thats what personally interests me the most. With the source code there is a virtually unlimited amount of possibility for the platform once users get ahold of it.

The platform is tied into Microsoft Azure, so although the code might be free, using it will cost you money. Not a lot, but a reasonable monthly cost. Certainly it shouldnt be seen as something that'll break budgets.

There's a useful list of potential groups which might find this method of interaction useful on the site, it includes:
  • Customers of a brand
  • Attendees of an event
  • Customers looking for support
  • Fans of a sports team, TV show, or film
  • Fans in advertiser sponsored Q&As with celebrities
  • Voters in a political or issue campaign
  • Constituents looking to interact with government agencies
  • Disaster victims looking to connect with resources
  • Virtual teams that include internal and external resources (OEMs, partners, etc.)
It'll be interesting to see how all this works out. I'll certainly keep my eye out for opportunities to use this technology as I think its quite impressive. Take a look at the test site (linked above) and see what you think.
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