Have you got the sound of tumbleweed blowing across your online community? Too many lurkers and too few livewires? In short, just because you’ve built that online community space doesn’t mean they will come (even if it looks beautiful).
Why won’t they talk to me?
It’s a real challenge when people feel exposed online. People perceive that there is a risk in displaying and committing to one’s thinking if they are not sure of something. In many ways, it is scarier than commenting on an issue in a meeting because it is more permanent and requires time to frame and express thinking concisely and accurately. For you, the online facilitator, it requires a re-doubling of the kind of efforts and supports you put in place when facilitating face-to-face discussion:-)
8 ideas to get started
So, how can we bridge these issues and create a safe place to chat? You have an advantage if you can leverage face-to-face contact that you have.
1. Discuss a relevant, timely issue that has already been discussed face-to-face. If you don’t see people face-to-face, contact them, send out a survey, bribe them, do whatever you can to find out their burning issues. Work from evidence if you can.
2. Co-construct a question with them to consider between posts or workshops so that they have a vested interest in it. Build the discussion into their work or interests. Target their need and build from there..
3. Give each thread a clear value: i.e. I am more likely to participate if it is a co-operative, sharing exercise (e.g. ideas/resource sharing and we all benefit from adding a comment). The most active forums I have been involved in have been the ones based on exchange of information and ideas. Marketplace rules. Supply and demand.
4. Provide online guidance for contributors: i.e. brief comments (100 words-ish), they can build on what the previous person said, they could add a useful link with a comment. And remember the all-important protocols for the ne’er-do-wells.
5. Put up something for them to critique (e.g. what’s wrong or right with this picture?)
6. If you have a captive audience, or a large group fo people already in a face-to-face community, start several threads, one for each small group of supportive peers, rather than having one thread for a large group of people. Smaller numbers = less risk for them.
7. As ‘the voice’, keep getting in there (on or off line and PRAISE, encourage, keep the positive vibes flowing, keep working on adding and reaching for the value comments and creating a safe place for people to be.)
8. Send email reminders and show them how to set up forum notifications. This slow steady stuff is an investment for further down the line.
And if in doubt, free ice-cream and party hats might just break the ice;-)