7 ways to promote peer support in your online community

So you’ve set up your online support community. You know the benefits of peer support. It helps people feel more understood and less alone in their experience.  It builds self-esteem in those able to help others.

But how do you encourage and promote positive and helpful peer support? These are some of my suggestions.

1) Train your moderators

Are your moderators there just to ‘police’ the community – to approve and reject posts? Consider training them in online support as well. Trained moderators can encourage community members by giving helpful responses and adding signposts. They can highlight and promote existing peer support and encourage other members to add their experiences.

2) Give the right guidance to community members

Providing the same online support training to members as you do to moderators can change the nature of their use of the community. Members may start to feel a moderator’s responsibility – and worry about posting their experience, replies and support in case they ‘get it wrong’. Instead consider light touch guidance focussed on how members can look after themselves and get the most of the community. This can be combined with a ‘good manners guide’ (develop these with the community if possible). Make sure new users feel welcome.

Peer support builds community

3) Post moderation is often a long-term investment in peer support

Pre-moderation can feel less risky – you see everything before it goes public. But unless you have a moderator available to approve posts 24/7 then peer support is stifled. People will find other places to exchange messages in real time. Allowing post moderation is playing the long game. Yes, it is initially a riskier proposal. You need to invest time in the community to help people understand what is acceptable and report what is not. But ultimately the interactions and discussion that post moderation enables means you’ll see greater engagement, ownership and peer support.

4) Make your community a fun place to be

People will return regularly and give support to others if they enjoy their experience. Consider sections with lighthearted discussions, quizzes and photos. The better community members know each other, the more personal the support they can provide when it’s needed.

5) Clarify responsibilities

People are more likely to stay involved if they feel safe.  Who should people contact if they are worried? How should they deal with things that make them uncomfortable? Make it clear. Without this clarification things can sometimes get out of control as people try to resolve things themselves that should be managed by a moderator.

6) Create a journey for long-term users

Having moderators who are also members can sometimes cause problems in terms of their own boundaries and how the community views them. This really depends on the nature of the support offered by your community. Either way, creating welcoming, buddying or spam management roles for long-term users who might otherwise leave can help keep them engaged and supportive.

7) Ask the community

 What do they like? What don’t they like? Why are they here? People like to be asked for their opinions. You can use a survey or, for more in depth engagement and results, an online focus group or workshop. Not only will you get lots of information and ideas but it is also a chance to help members feel involved and invested in the future of your support community.

Of course, every community is different and things that work brilliantly in one place might not suit another. What is your experience? It would be great to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

Clare Foster

About Clare Foster

Clare has been working in online advice, communities, youth work and volunteer management for six years. She writes about relationships, mental health and digital support on her own website and for a range of charities and publications. Clare spends most of her time online on Twitter, Wordpress, Facebook and her craft blog Patchwork Pea.

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