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How to work with online communities

Of all the projects I worked on at DIUS/BIS, the one I am still most proud of is still going strong, if quietly, today: the Mature Students partnership with The Student Room and Directgov. When I wrote about it in February 2009, I explained:

There have been some good examples of ministers engaging with online communities as part of consultations, notably Lord Darzi and Netmums as part his Review, as well as the semi-formal partnerships for discussion we set up alongside the New Opportunities white paper. But more sustained engagement with these forums is still a rarity, despite the fact that communities’ interests and those of government are often very well aligned.

Nearly 18 months later, I’m not sure much has changed, and that’s a huge missed opportunity. These big, interest-based communities are the yellow brick road to the Big Society – the epitome of cognitive surplus put to good use – demonstrating the kindness of strangers, the warmth and passion of human beings and the magnetic pull of experience every bit as strong as that of place. Dave Briggs, as ever, got there before me:

Those spaces which include forum-type elements are pretty much always the most popular. Think about the Ning sites you belong to, or the Communities of Practice. Try as you like to get people to blog, or contribute to wikis, it’s the forums they always gravitate to first.

It’s not that government doesn’t want to engage with online forums, but rather that the different models of engagement aren’t very well understood yet. The Netmums ministerial webchat is almost a cliché now, but direct engagement with forum administrators to achieve something longer term, or as a source of insight or feedback, isn’t very widespread or sophisticated, at least from what I can see.

So it was lovely to catch up  yesterday with Jamie O’Connell, Marketing Director of The Student Room at his funky Brighton HQ (pool table – check; dartboard – check; guitar – check) to chew the fat about how the relationship between government and big forums like his can be deepened. And let’s be clear, it is big. This is no hyperlocal forum – the site has 2.8m unique visitors a month, with 500,000 registered members and around 27,000 new forum posts each day. To describe it as a forum is a bit misleading, as there’s a whole load more functionality including wiki pages of high quality user-generated advice on everything from homework to relationships, and a fully fledged social networking platform and insight service (@TSR_Insight on Twitter) in the pipeline for later this year.

Why try to rival Facebook though? Interestingly, The Student Room’s members have told the team that when they want to collaborate with classmates who aren’t necessarily friends, they’re forced to create duplicate profiles to separate the friends-only pictures from the more career-safe stuff. Conversely, in a forum on the scale of The Student Room with its team of volunteer moderators, the anonymity of abstract handles like bunty64 and doughboy actually allow for more frankness about personal experience, and willingess to engage constructively with strangers, and in fact don’t tend to lead to systematic trolling. There are dozens of these kinds of insights, drawn from the team’s willingness to engage with users when designing the platform. They’re also a fascinating bit of good PR for yoof in general.

There’s more in the slideshow podcast below that I recorded with Jamie:

But anyway. What really interested me was the kind of models that Government in particular might adopt to work more sustainably with big communities like The Student Room, Netmums, Patient Opinion, Army Rumour Service, BusinessZone, Pistonheads, Horsesmouth and the many others. Here are some:

  • One-off webchat with a senior figure/expert (e.g. swine flu webchat with DH expert on Netmums)
  • Asychronous Q&A by video (e.g. Yoosk.com on Army Rumour Service)
  • Policy team watching a forum thread to get insight into issues (e.g. BIS Credit Card consultation)
  • On-site sponsorship/display advertising (e.g. UCAS, Red Bull on The Student Room)
  • Identifying key communities members and ‘sponsoring’ them to be ambassadors (e.g. Apprenticeships on Horsesmouth)
  • Commission community platform, with some tweaks, to deliver a key policy programme (e.g. Patient Opinion Trust feedback, School of Everything directory of learning opportunities for BIS)
  • Establishing online community as a distinct space for peer discussion at arms-length from government, but with reciprocal links to official information (e.g. financial support for mature students BIS/The Student Room)

but there could also be:

  • Recruiting community members to tell their stories as bloggers
  • Analysing data on topics discussed/anonymised member profiles as a source of customer insight/trends
  • Using forum moderators’ expert skills to moderate other projects at low cost, e.g. government crowdsourcing websites
  • Tapping into technical skills of online community teams, to create platforms and tools for government campaigns/projects
  • Working with communities to host widgets encouraging feedback on government policymaking initiatives
  • Getting moderators to kick off well-signposted discussion threads about new government strategy launches or proposals
  • Recruiting community members to low-cost online focus groups or audience panels to help road test or co-design new services or policy options
  • Running competitions to source stories, images, films, ideas or whatever from target audiences
  • Equipping community members to become peer-supporters or buddies, e.g. about mental health issues
  • Recruiting new staff via communities, getting existing staff to engage online with potential recruits to answer questions

… and so on. In short, there are as many ways to tap into and use these incredibly precious resources as there are facets to human nature. And it’s because of this humanity – and hopefully goes without saying – that communities need to be treated with respect. On the one hand, there is a strong current of volunteering and willingness to help good causes. On the other, there’s the need to eat. Sure, Government is strapped for cash, but there are lots of ways Government can help without spending much money:

  • Reciprocal linking should be the basic minimum, ensuring communities who work with you get a prominent link and/or badge on your site back to theirs, sending them helpful Google juice
  • Connecting front line staff or policy officials to the community so they become actively involved with the site and listening to discussions helps to cement the relationship and keep the feedback loop working
  • Inviting community admins to government events and launches, Q&As with the Minister, press conferences and so on, helps demonstrate that they’re taken seriously as a route to important audiences
  • Offering prizes for competitions, showcasing the creative work of members on a national platform, offering work experience, internships etc
  • Making sure agencies are clear that you want to deliver campaigns/policies via existing online communities – they’re probably less constrained procurement-wise, but don’t necessarily have those community relationships
  • Keeping in touch is often overlooked, but is the basis for keeping each other updated about potential opportunities you might not hear about otherwise

The next step: Meet The Communities

But there are many other ways to build relationships, and lots more experience to share. To help explore this further, I’m helping to convene Meet The Communities, a free, one-off event probably in Central London during September, bringing together some of the leading online communities with the government clients, PR & digital agencies for an afternoon of storytelling and speednetworking. It will be a chance to put faces to names, hear how other organisations work with online communities, and make some personal connections.

If you’re interested in taking part either as an online community owner, potential government client or agency, leave a comment below or send me a private message via the contact form and I’ll put you on the list.

21 Comments

  1. Great post Steph, as always. Working with communities, and doing it well is going to be really exciting – and necessary – as long as govt can provide something of worth in return, as you’ve outlined. Would love to be at the event.

    As for the bit about Facebook, and students not being able to use it to collaborate because they don’t want to share certain things with certain people – this guide on how to set up Facebook lists and put specific privacy settings on them, should get round that:

    http://www.engadget.com/2010/07/13/how-to-effectively-manage-your-facebook-privacy-settings-with-l/

    So, no need for TSR after all (just kidding.)

  2. Great post, great idea. Let me know if I can help, and if Learning Pool can support you in some way.

    This is kinda getting into the territory of an idea I had for the Building Democracy competition, craply called ‘Communicosm‘.

  3. Hi Steph – thanks for this interesting post. At Patient Opinion we definitely feel there is plenty of scope for sharing across the govt-civil society boundary in all kinds of ways.
    For example, we make sure all our public data can be accessed via an API for reuse (as NHS Choices is doing), and we’ve recently launched a free email alerting service for MPs.
    But the relationship between online communities and govt can’t ever be a simple and straightforward one since, after all, the value of such communities to their members may be precisely that they are nothing to do with formal authority.
    If a member of govt “dropped in” in person to a local mums meeting, I suspect the topic of conversation might alter somewhat. Might the same be true of online communities if they felt govt was listening in? Who knows?
    But this is clearly an emerging area that needs discussion and debate, and we’d love to be part of your Sept event if we can be.

Comments are closed.

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