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.

Author Archive | Clare Foster

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.

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Your charity Facebook page – a marketing space or a support forum?

Online support communities are growing organically in social media spaces all over the Internet. We’re not only seeing them develop in spaces set up specifically for support but also in spaces originally intended for marketing or advertising. Sane – the mental health charity – say that people contact them for support through any space where text can be submitted on their website, regardless of its original purpose.

An obvious example is on Facebook. Many charity Facebook pages are initially set up as a marketing tool. Yet administrators soon find that those who like the page will write on the wall looking for expert support from the charity and peer support from others on the page. Someone who feels alone in their experience and who connects online with a charity that could help them, suddenly finds a group who understands or shares their needs, all gathered around the charity logo. Most people who like a marketing page do so because they have some personal experience.

Mind’s Elefriends community initially started as a campaign profile and grew so fast that Mind chose to invest in the development of an entirely separate community platform for online peer support.

An online support space usually thrives with a different kind of moderation to your marketing approach. It’s no longer just about speaking directly to your audience and them back to you. It’s not enough to simply delete upsetting, argumentative or negative posts. A good online support community is created through members speaking to each other, with the page admin there to facilitate and encourage this discussion. Your page admin needs to be comfortable providing support or signposting. They need to be able to explain to a distressed user why their post has been removed and mediate disagreements.

Figurines holding hands

Some organisations choose to separate these spaces as they develop. Users looking for support on the marketing page are directed to a group set up specifically for support. You can direct people to an entirely separate platform – perhaps a forum – but in general, a different space on the same platform works better. Let people access support where they look for it. That’s probably where they feel most comfortable.

If you’re just getting started, creating distinct spaces from day 1 can help. On Facebook, a page for marketing and a group for support are common. While people tend to be more comfortable posting about sensitive issues online than they used to be, you might find that a private Facebook group can help people feel more able to post. Bear in mind that, unlike a public Facebook group, people won’t find a private group organically. They will have to be invited.

Think about creating guidelines and ‘About’ info that helps people know what to expect in each space. Make sure your page admin or moderators feel comfortable dealing with the issues they might come across. A number of charities have been forced to re-examine their organisation and training as their marketing team unexpectedly finds themselves becoming responsible for a support community as well.

Many people choose to involve volunteers in moderation. My next post will explore how you can encourage peer support in your community and the issues to bear in mind when training community members.

Feel free to share you experiences of managing a charity Facebook page or any examples of good practice by leaving a comment below.

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