Hosting better forum discussions for online engagement

Using forum discussions is a great tool for online engagement. Forums can be used to discuss and debate issues, deliberate over decisions, ideate solutions to problems and provide feedback on proposals.

However, forums can sometimes be a tricky engagement method to pull off and there are some important things to be aware of when conducting a forum, which will greatly improve the outcomes of your discussions.

This article looks at some of the most important aspects of hosting better forum discussions for online engagement.

Know when to use forums

There’s nothing worse than falling into the trap of a discussion that no one takes part in. Knowing when to use an online forum as part of your online engagement methodology is crucial to the success of your engagement program.

One of the first things to consider about online forums, is they are not a self-fulfilling exercise. Just because you decide to set up a discussion doesn’t mean your community is going to take part. From our experience, we find the main driver of good engagement with forums are when the issues being discussed are directly relevant to the communities daily lives. The more concrete the impact, and the more emotional connection to the issue, the more likely the community is to participate.

With this in mind, it’s important to identify these opportunities before setting up an online forum discussion. Issues such as the removal of loved community facilities and places, policies which directly effect people’s habits and routines and proposals which could change someones experience of a place or thing, are all areas where forum discussions can add value. By identifying the issues that will resonate with people, you can get better results and have more meaningful discussions.

EHQ Tools Spectrum

EHQ Tools Spectrum showing forums as the most open environment tool.

You should also consider using forums based on types of information you’re trying to gather from your community. Forums are considered an “open environment” tool on our online engagement tools spectrum, with community members able to instantly share their views, reply to other participants as well as like and dislike other comments. Before selecting a forum for your next consultation you must feel comfortable with our moderation guidelines and have confidence we will support you through the process. (Read our moderation guidelines here) You also need to consider how your organisation will deal with any risks associated with open discussion environments. This should include thinking through how you will deal with problematic participants, points of view and what to do if your conversation gets away from you.

The information captured using forums is generally free text, and is best thought of as a way to capture the arguments and rationale behind a range of different views. Forums can be used throughout the entire duration of an online engagement but are particularly well suited to early-on in your methodology, to capture a wide ranges of views, as well as in later stages when trying to learn peoples reactions for and against to your proposals.

In summary, using forums in online engagement is best used when there is a “plausible promise” to your process and a genuine interest in the topic presented.

Frame your discussion effectively

The next most important item is thinking about how you are framing your forum topics. Asking the right questions is a key driver of participation, as your community can only respond to the proposition your place before them. Generally speaking, forums are most effective when they focus on singular issues. By concentrating your discussion on a single theme you allow people to think more clearly about their relationship to it and provide an easier path to engaging in the discussion. You can read more about making your discussion topics more concrete in “Drive More Traffic to Online Forums.”

By encouraging discussion on broad topics, there is greater potential for your forum to move in all sorts of directions and make analysing your data all the more difficult. In framing your forum discussions we recommend; being targeted and specific about what you want to discuss, be open and clear about your proposals and ask for rationale. Be brief, honest and provide context about your issues to help you frame your discussions.

We have published a fantastic resource on “Writing engaging forum questions for forum discussions which will help you with this exercise and we highly recommend you take a look. forum discussions for online engagement

Understand your role as a facilitator

Preparing to facilitate and monitor online discussion forums takes a little bit of thought and preparation. Our Chief Practice Officer, Crispin Butteris has written about “Six intervention models for facilitating online forums outlining some useful ways of involving yourself in discussions. These include;

  • no intervention and allowing your community to run their own show
  • endorsing and encouraging community facilitation, to lead and steer conversations
  • correcting and answering questions and mis-information
  • deep immersion and active involvement in the discussion itself.

Before you can decide on how you will handle your online forums, you need to identify who is going to oversee them, and set some rules around each of these areas.

One of the most important things to avoid as a facilitator of an online forum, is killing the conversation. This is easily done by thanking every participant for each comment and injecting yourself too frequently into the conversations. Another thing to remember is that you need to be cognisant of the views and opinions of your participants and help steer and shape conversations. A great thing to do as a facilitator is to ask follow up questions and clarifications to seek rationale from participants.

As a facilitator you should also be prepared to code your forum responses, using EHQ’s Comment Analysis Tool. Doing this throughout the duration of your online discussion will make the job of analysing your forum conversations much easier when it comes time to reporting and allow you to give accurate updates along the way.

For some excellent tips on facilitating deliberation in forums check out “Deliberative Forums Management written by our CEO, Matt Crozier.

Identify the different types of forum behaviour

Broadly speaking, there are 3 different types of conversation behaviour which happen in online discussion forums. As a facilitator you should always be aware of how your discussions are progressing and look our for these behaviours as each requires different facilitation and management. Forum conversations should never be thought of as “set and forget” and by looking out for some of these types of behaviours you will be better placed to achieve good engagement outcomes.

Example of linear commenting.

The first type of behaviour to look out for is considered linear commenting, which has no apparent debate and the discourse is one of general agreement. This type of forum indicates the issue, challenge or opportunity presented is already resolved or lacks an interesting angle for your participants to engage with. When all participants agree it can be very difficult to draw new insights from forum discussions. If you notice this happening, you might want to take a step back and think about ways to reframe your discussion. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing if everyone is agrees with your discussion topic, but there are always other things to learn using forum discussions. The best thing to do is accept the agreement and reframe your discussion to learn something new.

The second type of behaviour to look out for is white-hot debate. Particularly when the issue is presented as a dichotomous zero sum game. What this means, is the community have a raft of different views and opinions on a topic, however it appears that no-one in the conversation is willing to empathise with another’s view. This environment can often lead to missed opportunities for compromise and the development of a potentially better solution to the problem being presented.

This behaviour is evident when you see participants defending their position against other participants.  Not steering and intervening in this kind of debate can be risky, and you might find yourself overseeing an aggressive forum atmosphere. If you see this happening in your discussions, you might consider reinforcing your commitment to negotiating an outcome, ask those who are being staunchly defensive to consider alternatives and invite participants to share the rationale behind their decisions/views/opinions. You might even ask a better question.

One example of how you might avoid these types of behaviours through rewriting your question might be;

Instead of, “Discuss whether we should amend our parks and open spaces policy to allow dogs on beaches” which might result in discussion about the merits of dogs on beaches from a yes or no perspective,  you might instead ask “If we were to allow dogs on beaches as part of our parks and open spaces policy, which times of day do yo think would be most appropriate and why?”

As you can see, the second question allows for people to discuss not only the merit of dogs on beaches but also prompts them to consider time and their rationale for their decision.

Finally, the third type of discussion behaviour is considered dialogic, when the issue is presented as a problem looking for a solution. The behaviour being displayed in these situations is generally a solutions focussed dialogue, which is positive in nature. This type of behaviour often allows facilitators to let the discussions take their own course. However it can be useful to dig deeper and find out more about participant suggestions by asking follow up questions. In essence, these behaviours are the ones we all love to see in online forum discussions. They have momentum and the discourse is positive. This can lead to better solutions and suggestion to help inform your projects.

These discussion behaviours very rarely happen by accident and are usually the result of good planning, topic choice, question framing and facilitation.

Example of Dialogic Discussion Behaviour

By considering these practices you should be able to better plan for forum discussions in your consultations and host more engaging conversations. Clearly understanding your role in a forum conversation and how to respond to different forum behaviours will greatly help you implement successful online engagement forums into your practice.

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