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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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What’s wrong with face-to-face?

Originally written for the YouthNet blog.

So, YouthNet’s launched a new report today: a study by Professor Michael Hulme into how young people communicate, interact and seek information online.  It’s a really interesting read, encompassing the results of quantitative online research undertaken with 994 young people by The Futures Company, quotes from young people, and comments on the implications for website design and development.  It’s also too much to cover in one blog entry.  So I can only encourage you to go and read it yourself, blog about yourself, discuss the findings and debate the conclusions.

75% of the young people surveyed said that ‘they couldn’t live without the internet’.  That’s probabaly an exaggeration, but I don’t find it surprising.  I’d say the same thing.  Then again, I spend at least eight hours a week-day in front of a computer, I studied multimedia, and I work for an online charity.  I’m going away for a week in the country at the end of the month, and the fact that I’ve been told that there’s no internet or mobile access is already weighing heavily on my mind.  Being such an online advocate, I’m often asked ‘what’s wrong with face-to-face?’

After all, the very nature of online communication is that it’s mediated by a machine such as a computer or hand-held device.  With the lack of body-language and eye contact, and the possibilities for deception, it’s possible to see the internet as cold, impersonal and isolating.  However, what that assumption ignores is the way young people live what Professor Hulme calls ‘hybrid lives’ – their onlines and their offlines are blurred.  Their friends on Facebook may or may not be friends from school or work; status updates on Twitter may become conversation starters in the classroom.  80% of young people surveyed said they use social networking sites to talk to friends or family they see a lot; 22% said that they use them to communicate with someone they don’t know.

So, while it’s impossible to generalise the experience of every young person, it seems that for many these online tools aren’t replacing face-to-face communication methods – they’re complimenting them.  As Professor Hulme says, “The more we can communicate, the more we will, and do, communicate.”  What’s changing is the amount of communication tools available, and people’s ability to choose a communication tool which is appropriate for a particular situation: broadcasting their thoughts in blogs or vlogs, updating a selected group of friends on Facebook, texting or calling an individual, or having a face-to-face conversation.

I don’t have a problem with face-to-face conversation.  In fact, it’s often quite useful.  I do have more of a problem with the assumption that it’s absolutely-always-without-a-doubt the best form of communication.  The internet can be a great way to make first contact with communities of interest, for example.   After all, it’s easy to search online for groups of fellow social media geeks – in my case – than try and spot them during my morning commute.  Once contact is made, a mix of face-to-face and online interactions often result.  The internet also allows us to reach out beyond the restrictions of geographic proximity.  And, as the report goes on to say, the internet can also be a great way to source information about issues young people may feel less comfortable talking about face-to-face, with websites like allowing young people to access trustworthy advice on a range of topics.

While it’s important to realise that there are issues or dangers around communicating on the internet – the possibilities of online bullying, the possibilities of abuse and so on – it’s also important to realise that, in many cases, these are either reflected or replaced by alternative issues or dangers when communication occurs offline.  Moreover, just as I was taught not to give out my name on the phone by my cautious parents, today young people have learned similar lessons about the internet.  77% of the young people surveyed agreed that: ‘On the internet you can never know if someone is who they say they are.’

The past century has seen huge developments in the way we communicate: from telephone calls, through radio and television broadcasts, to the development of mobile phones, faxes and the internet.  While it’s not my place to predict what will come next, it seems obvious that there’s a lot more communication to do, and for each new generation, there’ll be more and more new communication tools as the years progress.

Today, 86% of the young people surveyed loved how new technology helps them communicate with people. Let’s keep creating technology, creating websites and online services, that will help us communicate with people.  Face-to-face, hands-to-keyboard, in the twittersphere and in the blog comments below, let’s ensure this conversation continues.

First published on the YouthNet blog

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Reflections on the #moonwalk

Originally written for the YouthNet blog

Last Friday, after work, a group of us from YouthNet walked down to Liverpool Street station for a twitter-organised moonwalk in memory of Michael Jackson. Given the instantaneous nature of the Internet, I’m almost too late to blog about the event itself. All over the web, you can read about how a tweeted idea became an exercise in mass participation, involving the police and Network Rail, announcements over the loud speakers at the station, and thousands of people bobbing up and down to Jackson classics. There are plenty of photos on Flickr, videos on YouTube, and a twitter stream using the #moonwalk hashtag where you can see how it all came together.

However, what’s more interesting, from my point of view, is the questions it raises for charity marketers, campaigners, press people and others who spread the word about a cause. It’s too easy for social media campaigns to fail – despite the best planning and the most inspiring causes – because they just don’t catch on. For all that we may believe that re-tweeting a message about one of our causes doesn’t take much effort, I’m beginning to wonder if it actually does. People have to be logged into Twitter to see the message in the first place, they have to pick it out of all the other tweets they’re receiving, they have to understand it, engage with it, and choose to pass it on. And that’s only one social networking tool.

It’s also easy to be impressed that the event went from concept to implementation in one day. And while the moonwalk wasn’t actually held in Liverpool Street Station in the end, and while there wasn’t actually room for much moonwalking in such a large crowd, the fact that it happened at all is testament to the power of social media to turn buzz into action. As charities, do we have the ability to be this spontaneous? If the mood of the public was to turn in the direction of our cause on a particular day, would we be able and ready to react? And, would it be appropriate for us to do so?

Finally, when you’re pressed up against people, it’s easy to overhear their conversations. A woman behind me was asked why she was there. “I’m actually more a fan of Twitter than Michael Jackson”, she said. And while, like many children of the 80s, I did bop around my room to Billie Jean, the same applied to me. What we had then was a crowd of people who used Twitter or who know people who used Twitter or read reports of people who used Twitter. While there were some real fans, I’d guess that a significant amount of people had come along to see what was happening and be part of it. If we were going to organise a charity event via social media, would that matter? Raising awareness is a goal in itself sometimes, but if some people are ‘there for the sake of being there’, is that enough?

Would be great to hear your thoughts.

First published on the YouthNet blog

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