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You Gotta Have Heart -
The Human Touch in Online Community

By Nancy White

Bytes are bytes, and people are people. When it comes to building and maintaining strong conversations and relationships with your clients, vendors, and associates through online interactions, you gotta have "heart" -- the people. In an online community or interaction space, this means the person or people who moderate or facilitate the space. So how do you learn to have heart, or train others to have it? How do you help people grow into facilitation wizards? Read on!

Define Your Facilitation Needs

First, online relationships are as varied as offline relationships. You treat your best customer in a different way than you treat an occasional vendor -- particularly when you are thinking about the amount of time spent on each of these relationships. So one size does not fit all. You tailor your online interaction space moderation to the target audience. Here are some things to think about:

  • What type of hosting or facilitation will your online interaction space require? Will the interactions be focused and business-only? Social? A mixture of both?
  • What will the parameters be for the facilitators? Will they be there to nurture the interactions? Just keep the joint "cleaned up"? Be an expert resource, or function as a help desk?
  • Will your hosts and moderators be paid employees or volunteers? If volunteers, how will you reward them?
  • Will you moderate by yourself?
  • What type of experience should you expect from a paid or volunteer moderator?
  • How large is the interaction space, and how much time will you need to devote to it?

Define Your Training Needs

Once you have defined your facilitation needs, think about training and support. These issues apply whether you do this alone or bring in help.

  • What kind of training will your moderators need?
  • Where can they get training?
  • How can you provide other ongoing learning resources?
  • How can you set up mentor or buddy opportunities?
  • How can you provide feedback to your moderators?

If your online interaction space is large and active, you may want to have a more experienced facilitator or to provide some basic facilitation training. This can be delivered through formal courses or through a combination of reading and taking "field trips" to active online interaction sites to observe experienced hosts and moderators.

You can also look at my online facilitation intensive course catalog.

Provide the Opportunity to Practice

The next step is to provide the opportunity to practice moderating. This can be in a private forum, on a public board that has slots for volunteer hosts, or in a co-host situation with an experienced host. The latter is often the most productive option, because it allows for both active learning and coaching from the experienced co-host. The advantage of a private forum is that you can role-play difficult situations to give the person a taste of some of the tougher moments of online facilitation (flame wars, insults, difficult people, and so on -- all realities of online interaction spaces!).

Provide Resources

Point your facilitators to the wealth of information available on the Net. There are rich resources, such as The Well.com's Host Manual and many others. Have them sign up for lists about online community and online facilitation. See the links below for just a tip of the iceberg.

Observe Your Facilitators

And finally, make sure you check in and observe your facilitators. Give them feedback. Encourage and provide mechanisms for the participants in the interaction space to provide feedback -- positive and negative. This is the best gift we can give each other to become better at communicating in the text-centric world of online interactions.


FaciliTips: Some quick online facilitation tips

Hosts on Hosting

Facilitator Qualities: Thoughts on facilitator qualities

eGroups' onlinefacilitation: A free listserv for online facilitators

My online facilitation intensive course catalog

Hosting Online Conferences: Links to a variety online hosting resources

Moderator Guidelines from Lisa Kimball

The Well's Host Manual for conversational spaces

The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online from Howard Rheingold

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