Get A Conversation Started With Forums

Farhad Chikhliwala 19 March 2015 1 comments

Our 2014 Small Membership Survey showed us that small membership organizations rank increasing member engagement as a top priority. A forum can be a great way to get your members and stakeholders engaged with each other and discussing their own or your organization’s current  issues and initiatives.

You may have many different communications channels or tools for reaching your members or supporters. For example, you may be using an e-newsletter to offer updates on activities and issues. You may even have an active blog that you use to provide information and encourage feedback. But a forum can bring the conversation down to a personal level and not only connect your members with the organization, but also connect them with their membership peers. Ideally, your forum is a virtual space where like minded individuals can discuss and share insight and information safely, with limited supervision or guidance.

So after listening to what participants had to say in our Small Membership Survey, we decided to have an Advisory session to find out how our own Small Membership Advisory Community is using forums – their challenges, successes and best practices.

We got our community to discuss the power of community.

In our Advisory Community session, members noted how easy it is to create an online community or forum. There are many software solutions out there (including Wild Apricot that offers a built-in forum gadget). With the right tools, it can literally take minutes to set up a forum. But be forewarned that getting conversations started and creating a consistently engaged online community can take much longer.

As one of our Advisory Community members noted in our session:

“Someone comes on and has a quick question for other members, and once that question is answered, that's pretty much it. The thread dies, and then it's up to us – we have a very small staff – so it's up to us to keep those going and curate information or articles or whatever that gets people talking. And so it is actually a challenge for us.”

Advisory Community Best Practices

As with any product or service offered by your organization, you’ll want to implement your forum using tried and tested industry best practices. Here are some of the best practices gathered from our Advisory Community during the call:

Established forum policies or guidelines: As with all publicly accessible sites, establishing policies that are clear to all visitors to the forum is important. Most forums have a “terms of use” or “forum rules” document that new visitors are asked to review. This outlines your organization’s guidelines on what you will or will not accept in postings on your forum. In addition, whomever is tasked with managing or acting as administer on the forum will need to have clear direction to follow regarding problem postings. If one of your moderators does need to remove or modify a post in your forum, promptly posting a notice alerting people as to why this was done, is a good idea.

Although they may be titled differently, here are some examples of effective forum policy pages:

Use a moderator: Forum moderation is essential. If you don’t moderate your forum, its rules may be violated and it can be overwhelmed with spammy comments. Forum moderation can help prevent arguments between members, stop spammers, and enforce the rules of the forum. Try assigning a moderator to monitor and enforce your rules. Alternately, you could have a group of moderators that take turns keeping an eye on the forum based on a schedule.

Ongoing Forum Management: Unfortunately, a forum doesn’t run itself. As noted above, you’ll need to identify a forum moderator or administrator (or a team) who will be responsible for regular forum monitoring and maintenance. But you may also need to initiate conversations and encourage participation to build a robust online community through your forum. 

Your members or supporters may be a little shy or reluctant to participate at first. So you need to have a moderator or forum team identify topics to engage members and get the conversation started. If you don’t have a group of contributors you can call on, consider asking your Board members to get involved – you can even make suggestions as to questions they can ask or issues they may want to raise with the membership.  Don’t forget, you can also link members with new resources, research, helpful articles, etc., and ask them to comment on the forum. 

Tips for moderating online forums

The job of a forum moderator is to create and sustain an environment  that helps promote healthy interaction. Moderators may also have to weed out people or posts that are acting out against your forum’s policy. Popular forums like Reddit moderate their forums incessantly. If anything is out of order or against their rules, they'll fix it in 15 minutes. That sort of timeline may not be practical for your organization, but some form of regular or ongoing moderation will help your forum run smoother.

Here are a few tips for moderating online forums that were raised in our Small Membership Advisory Community session:

  • Say hello: Online forums have been described as being like a dinner party. When someone comes to the door, you should greet them. Say hello and start the conversation. Like a dinner party, you don’t want to start with any probing questions. Introduce them to other users and get them comfortable and ready to participate. 
  • Watch your tone:  When responding to comments and questions in your forum, remember to use a conversational and friendly tone. While you need to maintain order, an aggressive tone may only drive your members away and reduce overall participation. Find a balance between being friendly, yet when upholding the forum’s rules – firm and professional. Setting the tone of the forum early on will help your users follow suit.
  • Discretion: You should only edit the accounts or posts of members as a last resort. If you have a problem with the content or behavior of a user, deal with them directly and discreetly. Publicly shaming them can exacerbate the problem. 
For more insight on forum management, you might want to check out this White Paper (PDF) by Vision Critical: Forum Best Practices.

Check out Wild Apricot’s built-in forum features:

If you are a Wild Apricot user, you may know that in a recent upgrade (Version 5.2) we rolled out some enhancements to our built-in forum capabilities. Have a look at the new features on our Online Help page.

Additional Resources:

Image source: people icons with colorful dialog speech bubbles - courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com

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Farhad Chikhliwala [Professor Apricot] Farhad Chikhliwala [Professor Apricot]

Posted by Farhad Chikhliwala [Professor Apricot]

Published Thursday, 19 March 2015 at 8:30 AM

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