This is a guest blog from Joe Freeman. He is the Social Media Manager at Sue Ryder, overseeing the charity’s use of social as well as managing their online community project. Before that he worked at Diabetes UK, also managing their social media – amongst a few other roles in fundraising and membership marketing. When he eventually switches off from the digital world, he can mostly be found entertaining his two small children at various locations around London. Twitter: @JosephFreeman

Digital has clearly opened up channels of communications for charities. Websites, social media, Google+ Hangouts – it’s a long list. But there’s one aspect of digital communication that I’m quite keen on, and conveniently was asked to write about. The humble online community.

Photo credit: Light Brigading / Foter / CC BY-NC

Photo credit: Light Brigading / Foter / CC BY-NC

Before structured communities, chat rooms were the place to go to interact online. Picture, if you will, a pre-teen Joe typing “a/s/l?” into various Yahoo! chat rooms with the vague hope of having a two minute conversation with God only knows who, before my Mum needed me to get off the internet so she could make a phone call. What was I doing? I have no idea – but the potential of virtually meeting someone to chat about something you’re both interested in kind of excited me. I mean, I had friends (honestly), but this was different.

Fast forward a few years and the words ‘chat room’ are only muttered by people who were around at the dawn of the internet (which makes me feel old). Now it’s all social media. And whilst social networks can bring supporters together and provide an element of peer support, it’s not always used for that purpose. Arguably the best place for this is a good old forum, or online community.

There are lots out there. I used to manage Diabetes UK’s support forum. CRUK’s Cancer Chat seems to be going strong and Macmillan’s online community is – in my eyes – the pinnacle of a well-managed, active community. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. But how can you help make your community run smoothly?

Communities need guidelines – although there’s a fine line between being too controlling and too liberal (the latter being a problem when it comes to moderation…). So what do you need to consider when writing community guidelines?

  • Tone. No one likes being dictated to, and no one likes being confused with jargon. There’s a risk that community guidelines can be seen as a lengthy, boring, irrelevant document. You need people to read them for their own safety and for those of others – and also to protect your organisation from any potential issues. Just be conversational, using simple language that honestly outlines the importance of everyone getting on nicely. If any moderation issues arise, you’ll need to direct people back to your guidelines, so make sure there’s no room for uncertainty.
  • Be fair. There will be occasions within your community when things get ugly. You might have to hit people with your banning stick, but everyone deserves a second chance. When you’re dealing with sensitive issues emotions can run high, which can lead to disagreements or misunderstandings. Tell people that you understand this, and give them a chance to rectify what they’ve done. Your guidelines should also state that you’ll always give people an explanation for your actions, should you have to remove any posts or block them from using the site. You should also provide people with an email address so that they can get in touch outside of the community if they’ve got questions.
  • Involve the community. Things online can develop a life of their own. All your research and planning can go out the window once people actually start using something online, and it’s a good idea to recognise this. Your users should be the ones to ultimately determine what’s discussed online, and you may need to adapt to this. With that in mind, there might be things your community want included in your guidelines based on their experiences of using your site. Embrace this. If users contribute and feel like their wishes are being taken into account, they’ll be more likely to adhere to the guidelines and also be empowered to speak out if anyone contravenes them. You’ll find that self-moderation (which for me is one of the most positive things that can happen within a community) will become more apparent. And this then makes your Community Manager’s job that little bit easier too.
  • Make them visible. Your guidelines should be easy to find wherever users are on the site. Not only will this help keep them front of mind, but it’s then easy for you to direct people to them when necessary. It’s also a good idea to get people to read them before they can fully register on your site. Reading – and thus adhering to – your guidelines must be a condition that everyone should accept before posting for the first time.
  • Do some research. Read the guidelines from other charity communities as this might help you recognise something that you’re missing from your own. Who does guidelines well? I had a look around to see exactly how charities present their community guidelines, and what struck me immediately was that in a lot of instances they were quite hard to find. Tucked away in the footer or not apparent until you actually register or join. Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Chat have theirs listed in the left-hand menu at all levels within the site so they’re permanently visible wherever you are. They’ve also got a nice “meet the team” section so you know who from CRUK you’ll possibly be talking too (although personally I’m not sure about the cartoon avatars – I’d much rather see the real person because after all, this is about real people with real problems).

A few sites have “Forum Rules” which to me sounds very officious and off-putting, and whilst some display these “rules” before you can register (being up-front is good), they’re presented in tiny boxes you have to scroll through – and let’s face it, who is actually going to read these? There’s also a lot of jargon in those I found – one example talks about IP addresses, HTML tags and states “The site administrator does not want to be bothered unless vital”. How’s that for a happy, warm welcome…? I think across the sector there’s generally a lot of room for improvement – but I do like Scope’s approach where they have guidelines around what to keep in mind that then links to a fuller, more detailed set of “Blog and Community Rules”. I like this way of doing it – and despite my writing that guidelines need to be readable and welcoming, we do all need to legally ensure we’re looking after our users as well as the charities we represent.

Coincidentally, this is all very relevant for me in my current job at Sue Ryder as we look to launch our own online community in the coming months. It’s going to help people who are coping with the news that a loved one is going to die, and those whose loved ones have passed away too. We’re quite good at providing incredible care for those we help in and around our hospices and neurological centres, so this community will enable us to help more people across the country.

Excitingly, our dev work is finished, and we’re agonisingly close to going live. Our next job is to write our own community guidelines, and obviously I’ll be heeding all my own advice… But what have I missed? I’d love to hear about your experiences and any tips you’ve got for helping your own community run as smoothly as possible.