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Online Discussions: Benton's Lessons Learned
 
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Benton Foundation 2001

Online Discussions: Benton's Lessons Learned

As part of our commitment to practice what we preach -- in this case our belief in the value of sharing lessons learned from direct experience -- we share with you our experience hosting online discussions at Helping.org.

by Our first Helping.org online discussion took place in August 2000. We sought to create a place online where nonprofit professionals could ask questions of experts and share ideas, experiences and resources. Our discussions, which lasted a week, were moderated by an expert in the field of nonprofits and technology, and designed around one of the topics of our Web site (enhance the way you work, communicate online, fundraise online, organize and advocate, etc.). After one week, we closed the discussion and archived the content on Helping.org. Here's what we've learned so far about using the Internet to build community, (in our case a network of learners) with online discussions:
 
Selecting Web-based discussion boards over a mailing list Choosing time-limited events over open-ended discussions If you build it, you have to let people know It takes a good moderator to build a community

Selecting Web-based discussion boards over a mailing list
We considered different options for how to host our online discussions: electronic mailing lists; newsgroups or Web-based bulletin boards that would reside on our own server; and Web-based discussion boards hosted remotely on a third-party site. Each approach has its benefits and downsides. We chose a remotely-hosted bulletin board service for the following reasons:
  Remotely-hosted systems are inexpensive, or even free. The forum was quick and easy to set up, not requiring us to install or maintain any software on our own system. Web-based discussion boards allowed us to open the discussion to anyone with Internet access without requiring subscribing to a mailing list, or registering personal information. We believed we could provide an important service by testing many of the free services available and reporting on our experience.

We researched a variety of discussion board services and decided to try out two different services. For our first three discussions, we used ezboard (www.ezboard.com); then we tried out Coolboard (www.coolboard.com) for our last (and upcoming) discussions. Like most free services, both use banner advertisements to cover their costs. Here's a quick comparison of the two sites' free versions:

Feature Ezboard CoolBoard Easy to use Yes Yes, very Allows customization of the discussion page to resemble your own Web site Yes, very good Yes, but limited options for including images Supports multiple discussion boards within a given "community" Yes, users can easily visit many discussions within community Yes, but not obvious to user Provides usage statistics on visitors, readers, posters and other usage Logs site visits and number of posts, calculates daily averages Logs only number of posts Offers acceptable server speed Yes, average Slow at first, improved after first day Option to receive email alerts when new messages are posted Yes Yes Additional user features Spell check, search, ability to edit or delete your own messages Spell check, search, ability to delete your own messages

Our biggest disappointment with the free services was the lack of access to the usage statistics. We don't know exactly how many people came to the discussions, how often they came back, or how much time they spent there. This is valuable information for evaluating the success of past discussions and planning for future events. The fee-based versions of both these services offer more robust usage reporting.

In addition, we did not have the level of customer support we would have received with a paid version. When the system was not working smoothly, we sent an email and hoped the problem would be fixed before negatively affecting our discussion. These are the "costs" of "free."

Starting in February 2001, we will test the fee-based version of Coolboard, and assess how the added services impact the discussions.

Choosing time-limited events over open-ended discussions
Past experience with online dialogues in other projects and other venues has taught us that focused, scheduled events draw greater, higher quality participation than open-ended, broader discussion boards. Out of this experience, we chose to host one week-long discussion each month. By limiting discussion to one week, we felt that we could create a sense of urgency to participate while at the same time avoid over-burdening our guest speakers.

In some cases, we found that one week may not be enough time to have a complete and productive discussion. Participation in our discussions picked up toward the middle of the week, just as we began summing up and winding down. A two-week period may be a better time frame for our purposes.

To include people who might not be able to participate during our chosen week, we encouraged people to email questions to us that we would then post for them. They could then read the answer in the discussion archives at a more convenient time. Although only a few questions came in this way, it made the short time frame work for more people.

For some of the topics we chose, electronic mailing lists exist to support ongoing conversation. For example, the Gilbert Center hosts an ongoing discussion about online fundraising. In retrospect, we could have partnered to share the responsibility of hosting the discussions or passed the one-time event to an existing (and willing) community after the week with our expert moderator has passed. We are launching such an arrangement with TechSoup and their new community discussion boards starting in February.

If you build it, you have to let people know
Our outreach strategy has been a work in progress, and perhaps our greatest challenge. We knew going in that we'd need to publicize the events effectively if we wanted anyone to show up.

Starting one month out, we identified relevant mailing lists and Web sites and publicized the upcoming forum on them once a week, then again on the first day of the discussion. We also sent out personal invitations to organizations that we thought might be interested in the particular topic. Midway through the discussion, we posted an update letting people know what issues were being discussed and what kinds of people or organizations were participating. This encouraged people who had checked out the discussion early in the week to return.

And we really learned the power of outreach. By the time we hosted our fourth forum, we relaxed -- perhaps a bit TOO much. We didn't follow our aggressive schedule of announcements that month, letting some things slide. And we saw the results: lower attendance and lower participation.

It takes a moderator to build a community
Our past experience with our own as well as other online discussions revealed the importance of strong facilitation -- someone to be responsible for the "care and feeding" of the online discussion. We identified guest speakers and worked closely with them in the planning of each discussion, leaving the structure flexible enough to allow our guest expert to change course as the needs of the audience changed. In most cases, the structure was part Q-and-A with the moderator, part sharing specific experiences and resources, and part open-ended discussion on topics set by the moderators. Participants could also add new topics. Were were pleased that in this latter case, no one added topics that were unrelated to the overall content.

We chose our guest speakers based on their expertise in the subject matter, not because they were expert moderators of online discussions. Each moderator had a different style and needed a different level of input from our staff. Through working with different moderators we learned that:
  We (as "managing editors" of the site) must also be active facilitators to support those guests who were less experienced in online facilitation; We could not tell how a discussion would flow until it started and we had to be flexible and ready to jump in to help if necessary; and We must prepare our moderators by making our expectations clear, and understanding theirs.

Our most successful moderators kept conversation flowing throughout the week. These moderators:
  Engaged participants personally by using their name and addressing their question directly; Related an individual question or shared experience to a broader issue to effectively encourage discussion; Asked participants specific questions and requested experiences with a particular issue; Shared their own success and challenges with technology and encouraged participants to follow suit; Maintained a casual and conversational tone and avoided "techie" jargon to create a friendly space for nonprofits new to technology; and Seeded the discussion with a few known colleagues who had a valuable story to share, helping spark conversation.

Additional Resources
For more information on hosting online communities check out these resources:
  "Building Online Communities: Transforming Assumptions Into Success" by Victoria Bernal, outlines four common assumptions that nonprofits make when building online communities and provides questions that can help nonprofits avoid falling prey to these assumptions. http://www.benton.org/Practice/Community/assumptions.html
  "Building and Managing Online Communities," Helping.org discussion forum, October 23 - November 3, 2000. Guest moderator Nancy White answered questions about building, managing and promoting online communities. This forum is no longer active, but the complete discussion archives can be viewed at: http://pub20.ezboard.com/fresourcesfornonprofitsfrm2
  Online Community Toolkit from Full Circle Associates covers the what, how and why of building online communities and includes inspiring case studies. http://www.fullcirc.com/community/communitymanual.htm
  Online Community Report is a twice-monthly email report on what's new in online communities. http://www.onlinecommunityreport.com
  30 Features to Consider When Choosing Forum Software, from the Online Community Report, can help you decide what kind of system will work best for your purposes. http://www.onlinecommunityreport.com/features/30/index.htm
  Once you decide what type of forum you need, check out Remotely Hosted Applications: Bulletin Boards, for a list of free forums. http://kresch.com/resources/Remotely_Hosted_Applications/Bulletin_Boards
  Resources for Facilitators and Moderators of Online Discussion is an annotated list of articles and other materials to help you set up, maintain, and have a successful experience with online dialogue. http://www.emoderators.com/moderators.shtml

Helping.org discussions are made possible by a generous grant from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. We also want to thank ezboard and CoolBoard for making their online discussion software available, ad-free!
 

Last updated: 2 May 2001 mlw
www.benton.org/Practice/Lessons/forumlessons.html