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.
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.
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.