Introducing Microsoft TownHall, a New Windows Azure-hosted Engagement Platform

Today at the Politics Online Conference in Washington, D.C. Microsoft launched TownHall, a new Windows Azure-hosted engagement platform that fosters, moderates and houses conversations between groups. As you may have seen on today’s Microsoft on the Issues blog, TownHall is an ideal tool for politicians and other public officials (among others) who want to host online social experiences that drive richer discussion around top interests and concerns with the American public.

Think of TownHall as software that allows you to easily create a destination for folks to voice opinions, identify problems, offer solutions and come together around common interests and concerns.  It is also a place to ask questions, where the most popular or relevant questions bubble to the top, so all can quickly see timely topics at any given moment. It does this by letting the community decide what’s relevant, allowing folks to ‘vote up’ questions that they would like to have answered or ‘vote down’ questions that don’t interest them. Check out this site to see TownHall in action. 

One of the challenges (and opportunities) technology companies face today is delivering compelling, rich and interactive experiences across a number of devices. The cloud provides an opportunity to do just that. With TownHall, we’ve established a REST API in the cloud that enables us to deliver clients on a number of platforms and to do so quickly. Today, we’ve released source code you can use to create a great Web experience, and over the coming months, we’ll release TownHall clients that run natively on the iPhone, the iPad, Google Android and Windows Phone 7 devices. We will also release a Facebook client that allows you to extend TownHall into your Facebook fan page as an embeddable widget, and for enterprise and B2B communities using TownHall, we’ll release a SharePoint Web Part.

TownHall is designed to help you gain insight into your community. It’s optimized to collect data from each engagement, providing insight you can use for analytics and to identify opportunities. It’s also integrated with Facebook Connect, which reduces friction for your community to sign-up and provides you the opportunity to integrate social graph and demographic information into your data. All the data is stored in SQL Azure, which makes it easy to incorporate into existing systems or use with familiar tools like Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access. In TownHall, we recognize that your data is valuable and that you own it. We see our role as empowering you with software, not owning and mining your data.

Because TownHall is hosted on Windows Azure, we do the heavy lifting for you. Windows Azure provides a scalable environment which makes TownHall ideal for people who don’t want to manage bulky technical infrastructure. It’s available using a pay-only-for-usage model, so customers don’t have to pay for unnecessary hardware and bandwidth that might sit idle or worry about handling a crush of traffic around a spike in activity.

Licensing TownHall is free from Microsoft; you only pay to host TownHall on Windows Azure. With the cost benefits of the cloud, you could engage with hundreds of thousands of citizens for less than a penny each.    

Though today we’re primarily talking about the ways politicians and other advocacy organizations in can use TownHall, it isn’t limited to those groups. In the way TownHall fosters conversation between public officials and citizens, it can do the same for non-profits, associations and corporations in the private sector looking to connect with customers. Additional examples of where TownHall can be used to engage communities might include:

  • 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.)

Beginning today, Microsoft is making TownHall available to a wide variety of organizations and businesses. Visit http://code.msdn.microsoft.com/TownHall to download the necessary code to learn more and to get started.