10 tips for productive online conversations

I’ve been trying to have online conversations for a while now, in different spheres of my life, and here are my top 10 tips for running online forums and groups.  There may be more along later, but these are the ones that occur to me first.

1. Aim for an intimate public conversation

Conversational style is a hard thing to get right.  Personally, I feel that online discussion should be fairly close to natural conversation.  In other words, as an online facilitator (just as offline), you’ll get the best out of other people by being relaxed, genuine and curious.    My best examples of interviewers who do this brilliantly come from Radio 1: just listen to daytime DJs like Edith Bowman or Jo Whiley talk to their audience.  

Who does it badly? News interviewers, especially from the Today programme on Radio 4, manage to be narrow, aggressive and hectoring.  Double glazing salesmen and telephone interviewers, they all want to lead you in a direction that you’re not keen to go…

2. Get the relevant background from people

I often see people acting as if the internet was a scarce resource.  The whole point of having an online forum, say, as opposed to a questionnaire, is so that you can have a broadband conversation, not a narrowband, bounded conversation of the sort that resembles a questionnaire.  Anyway: find out what you need to know about your audience’s lives, work, habits, attitudes…it doesn’t need to be general, it can be very, very specific, but get that background.  It will serve you very well later.  You don’t ask, you won’t get.

3. Ask for stories

Where you can, ask for a whole story, not just the simple answer to a simple question.  Ask your audience to tell you something: their image of Brand X, their first experience of getting a bank account, their favourite night out…whatever.  You may need to give your own examples to get people going, but stories are rich.

4. If you have lots of questions, bundle them into conversations

I see people trying to string out the separate parts of their conversations like beads on a wire.  So, in discussing whether people would like to keep an elephant as a pet, the discussion gets split into attitudes to elephants, ease of housetraining elephants, cost of elephants, propensity to buy an elephant, when quite frankly it would save quite a lot of trouble to simply ask what people think about having an elephant as a pet.   And then follow up with some good questions, to make doubly sure that it is the elephant volume and cost of food that is really turning everyone off, and not the elephant poo.

However, you can quite cheerfully talk about elephants as pets, and then, say, about the religion symbolism of elephants.  Separate conversations.

5. Build trust

Trust is built in various ways.  It’s important to be open, to use everyday language rather than marketing language. If you can be very open about your agenda, then do so.  Share your own attitudes and opinions, if you can.

Trust also builds over time.  In planning conversations, make sure you move from simple and unthreatening questions about habits and experience, to more personal or more demanding ones.  And make sure you listen and respond.   You can’t just go for the jugular – people have to feel comfortable about the conversation or they won’t play.

6. Ask about feelings

One of the oddest difficulties I see is that people who are trained in very rational ways of thinking can struggle with the personal and emotional dimensions of an issue.   So, for example, in discussing the car I drive, a rationally-minded questioner would find out that it has many positive attributes, such as its size, acceleration and build quality.  A better researcher might also dig out the fact that I find it very dull.  (A therapist would uncover the complex reasons why I drive a Honda rather than an Audi, but we’ll leave it there).  

Asking about feelings can be as simple as saying, ‘So how do you feel about X?’   People will tell you.

7. Use projective approaches to ask tricky questions

Unless you want to be a salesman, asking ‘Would you buy this? How much would you pay?’ sounds over-personal and pushy.  In the online environment, it can feel a bit like spam.  You still can ask it, just in a more roundabout way: ‘Do you think other teachers/accountants/forklift truck drivers will be interested in this?  How much do you think they’ll be willing to pay?’

But, I hear you cry, you haven’t asked about them.  *pats you on the head*  Really, 9 times out of 10, they will assume that Other People feel exactly like them.  They project, in other words.  You can always check.  ‘How do you yourself feel?’  It will mostly be the same thing.

8. Use natural language

I used to share an office with a woman who worked in advertising, and on Mondays I’d ask her how the weekend went, and she’d typically say, ‘Well, I went out on Friday and had 5 premium lagers.’  

This is not normal language.  People buy Twixes, not ‘in-hand countlines’.  So, examine your language.  Is it normal? Would your mum know what you’re on about? (assuming she doesn’t work in marketing).  If not, drop the jargon.

9. Allow negative as well as positive opinions

People can be terribly polite online, up until the point where they become incredibly, amazingly, breathtakingly rude.  If your group is sponsored in some way and you want honesty, you have to strive for that all the way through, in authentic questions and everyday language.   Otherwise, you’ll get very bland views.

10.  Arrange time for closure and feedback

And finally: as with real-world discussions, people don’t like to be thrown into the street the minute the conversation is over, they like time to chat, swap opinions and maybe business cards, and generally talk about their experience.  Make sure you use this time, either to follow up and get some feedback, or simply to let people  comment about things that are not yet covered.

 Phew.  Those are my first 10.  There are lots more.  In the meantime, listen to great radio and TV interviewers, and work out what they do.  The kinds of questions they ask ask their subjects or their audiences will serve you well.

Late to the party

Up till now, I’ve lived most of my online life in the blogs and pseudonymous geekworlds of LiveJournal and Vox.  All very well for my burgeoning social life but less satisfactory as a way of connecting in the public world.  I decided to take steps to change that, and in under a week I am more less set up digitally.  I had WordPress of course, which I really like, but I now have Facebook (ewww), Del.icio.us (my tags are at thehumanelement), and finally Googlereader, for aggregating all those nice technology blogs. 

Things I have learned:

I hate Facebook with a passion. I don’t quite know why.  It’s pretty.  I know people on it.  It’s clearly useful for staying in touch.  Still, there is something hideously white-bread meritocratic smiling-at-the-boss about its whole ethos. 

Del.ici.ous is rather useful.  Bit of a revelation.  Oh, I know all the good tech people have had them for years but I never quite saw the point until I realised my Favourites folder was going crazy.  Terribly useful.  I hadn’t predicted the social/networking element at all, but that part’s rather compulsive.  Mm, I have tags.

Googlereader is boring but effective. I dabbled with Netvibes orignally, because it promised to aggregate everything, but I disliked the presentation.  What I really wanted was the LiveJournal Friends page, only for all the work-related blogs.  Googlereader is dead simple and rather nice, and delivers feeds in date order. 

Things to consider or reject:

  • I would have a Flickr account like a shot if I ever took photos.  Sadly, it’s one step too far.
  • Linked In?  Ooh, I dunno, that’s proper self-marketing.  *shivers*
  • Twitter.  Understand it.  Hate it hate it hate it, unless it’s from someone like Britney Spears or the Queen, in which case, hook me up, brothers and sisters.

ETA: I post this THE VERY DAY I start joining groups on Facebook. *waves*

ETA 2: Stuff my enthusiasm for Google Reader.  If you have multiple Google Mail accounts for your various personas *cough* (see my upcoming post on Identity Management in the modern age), it will crash when you’re logged into a different mail account. Repeatedly. I take back what I said about Netvibes.

Building online communities, 2: Tools of social presence

Ah, summer.  My writing ambitions got squashed under a pile of family holidays and back-to-school frenzy, but here we are again. 

In my previous post, I discussed the need to establish social presence online: in other words, to communicate a sense of personality and individuality within the online medium. This is true for both the community creator/sponsor and the individual community user. 

What do we have to work with and how can we move from bare-bones to an active, connected group? I think we have three basic things: language, images and functions; and two general communication goals, to allow people to personalise the space, and to aim for authenticity.

Language can obviously communicate social presence all by itself.  There are pared-down bulletin boards which look ugly but are highly rated by their users.   This is usually because the site is providing something – a resource, a conversation – that its users really want; and the site is set up in such a way that people find it easy to join in.

What are the cues to social presence in language?  I think it’s the nature and quality  of the content, and in particular, the kinds of conversations that new users discover.  The best online conversations are direct and friendly and are peer-to-peer. The power relationships within a corporate-to-consumer website, a research forum, or an internal corporate site, are a bit different.  There is usually some inequality, at the very least because the sponsor controls the agenda.   Corporate approaches can fall very flat indeed, either because managers are asking the wrong questions in the wrong way, or because the customer wants to say something quite different. 

Bespoke communities cannot always rely on users to dive in and start contributing: in many cases, the site creators will have to get things started and facilitate the conversation.  Good questions, which allow open answers, begin to establish the conditions for dialogue.

Visual elements and tools/widgets also provide props for social presence.   These can be quite literal, Bulletin boards use avatars; lots of social networking sites use mug shots.   On Facebook, for example, it’s possible to use lots of little games and schemes to talk to those old classmates that you friended on a whim late one night…  On other blogs, the colour scheme, the photos and linked videos all help to establish an atmosphere.   

Personalisation is not an essential part of social presence, but it helps.  By personalisation, I mean personalising the options that blogs and other software provide.  Many social networks request answers to questions, or give the opportunity of adding a profile that explains you, the user: why you are here, what you are looking for and (incidentally) what your values are.  

Bulletin boards often offer lots of personalisation such as signatures, avatars, and points systems for number of posts: this communicates values and indeed seniority or prestige in a medium where at first site it would seem to be lacking. (On the other hand, they can encourage unhelpful hierarchies to emerge).

Negotiating site personalisation provides both an initiation into the site and some safe practice with software.  You fill in the questions, go back, edit, and hone your online self-presentation.   At the same time, all this stuff, the tedious questions to be answered, the debates about whether to put your age or admit you’re looking for a date, are socialising you into that site. 

Authenticity.  The hardest element to communicate (but probably the single most effective thing to do) is a genuine interest in what other people might be saying, based on a realistic understanding of their lives.  Think about bad market research questionnaires.  You fill them in, anxious to share your opinions of Product X , but, as you work your way through the questions, you realise that actually, you cannot give your opinion because either the questions or the system did not anticipate that you might feel this way.   Bad online social spaces are the same.  Good spaces talk to you as an equal, and they allow you to feel as happy or sad as you feel.

Personally, I think this is the hardest skill to crack, for those creating communities or seeking to engage with customers online.  You have to be prepared for an open, no-holds -barred conversation.  Not everyone is prepared for that.  Translating the managerialist language of marketing objectives into an actual conversation with a customer requires a fair degree of skill and confidence.

Part 3 will look at online dialogue and engagement.