Conference and Topic Structures

By Sue Boetcher

Updated 10/00

By now, your head is swimming with decisions to be made: chat vs. conferencing? public vs. private? threaded vs. linear? newsletters, publicity, invitations.

But before you get too far in your plans, be certain that your sense of purpose is clear, for it will drive all your other decisions.

Purpose drives structure

“A community by women, for women, about women.”

“A place for my family to keep in touch.”

“Somewhere for my business workgroup to share files and ideas.”

“A place for people in my organization to keep contact between meetings.”

If your purpose to create a large public chat community like Talk City you’ll have entirely different goals than someone who creates a small private community for their relatives to keep in touch. And different goals mean different tools and procedures, and a different structure for your communications.

The key is your target audience. Who are they? How many of them are there, and what kind of traffic do you anticipate through your site? What kind of internet access will they have? What browser and operating system will they be likely to be using? What do they like to do? Will you have a need to host large, synchronous events (many people online at your site at the same time), or is the asynchronous mode of conferencing (people come online and read at their leisure) more what you need, perhaps because of geographic or time-zone issues?

Asking – and answering – these kinds of questions which will help you decide your structure.

Growing organically

Except in very rare instances, your community is going to start small and build larger. Overbuilding your community space is much like buying a fifteen-bedroom mansion when you have no children. You just don’t need that much space, and the rooms will get musty from disuse. A visitor could come in, wander around for half an hour, and never stumble onto any of the people who live there. If, at some future date, you were to invite your whole extended family to live with you there, those fifteen bedrooms would start to look lived in.

The same thing is true of VCs. Plan to start small, and build as you grow. You don’t need more than one chat room to begin with, and you may not need one at all until your community is better-established. If your goals are modest, you probably don’t need more than one conference. Within that, you’ll start a few topics which will interest and intrigue your target audience. Not too many, because too many topics is nearly as bad as creating 5 or 6 empty conferences. A good rule of thumb is to begin with one conference containing perhaps 8 to a dozen topics. No more, unless your situation is very unusual. ( the IBM/Electric Minds ‘Kasparov v. Deep Blue Chess Match’ is an example of an exception.)

For example: If you have a community of gardeners, you might be tempted to start a whole conference called “Perennials” and another called “Annuals.” You choose a dozen common perennials and name topics after them. You do the same in the annuals conference. Neither conference gets many posts, just one here, and one there, and no real conversations – and you wonder why nobody’s interested in annuals and perennials.

There’s a better way. Create one conference for your whole community. Have just one topic called Perennials and another called Annuals, in with a few others. Anybody who has anything at all to say about perennials will do so in your Perennials topics. Dialogue and conversations will ensue. When, after a few months, your Perennials topic is threatening to burst at the seams, you can consider breaking out a number of different Perennials topics. And the breakdown may not be as you envisioned first, either. Maybe division by names of plants isn’t the way to go. Maybe there’s a more logical way that is becoming evident as you read your members’ posts. Maybe southern perennials, northern perennials. Maybe perennial reproduction, and perennial pests. The point is that your expansion should be organic – no pun intended – according to what your community shows you it wants and needs.

Conference structure – start with the basics

Flexibility aside, there are certain basics that you’ll want for any conferencing area. As your community grows, you’ll find that a certain crowd of your users tends to hang out in one area, and another crowd hangs out in another. It’s almost like having two sub-communities sometimes. Like churches which have more than one Sunday service. The “early service” people may or may not even recognize the “late service” people.

As a result, you want to have a consistent conference structure within each conference you have, and include such topics as Introductions (where new people can stop in and introduce themselves and be welcomed); Help (where people who are lost and confused can ask for directions); Announcements (where you can let everyone know about important events in a read-only topic). If you include these three topics in every conferencing area within your community, people won’t miss anything and will know where to go for help.

Adding topics of interest

If you’re going to start with 8 to 12 initial topics, and you’ve already used up three of those with Intros, Help, and Announcements, you’re left with creating 5 to 9 topics of interest to your target audience.

How do you create items of interest? Ask yourself what you would be interested in talking about. Visit other similar communities and see what the “hot” discussion topics are. Ask potential community-members to help you brainstorm on possible topics.

Don’t be surprised, though, if it you don’t come up with winners every time. Sometimes topics you were sure would be duds turn out to have great discussions. Sometimes it depends a great deal on luck – who shows up to catalyze the discussion at just the right time. Sometimes it’s due to hosting skills (or lack thereof.) Don’t be afraid to try something different if your initial topic choices don’t fly.

Organizing and growing a larger area

Your purpose is defined. Your target audience is clear in your mind, and you have an intimate connection with what makes them tick and what interests them. You’ve created one conferencing area with the three basic topics and you’ve thought up another half dozen topics designed to wow your audience and draw in their attention. Then what?

Once your community has grown past the “one conference with a dozen topics” stage, there are various ways to organize your material.

The IBM chess match organized chronologically: one conference for each new match. CNN’s forums organize around late-breaking news as fodder for discussion.’s Tabletalk community provides articles for users to comment on and sometimes the authors participate in discussions. Other groups may cluster around language groups or geographic concerns. You can add chat rooms, newsletter groups, or other community activities in the same kind of structural clusters.

The basic points, as we’ve said, are to start small and grow organically, taking the community’s needs into account. If you do that, you can be creative about how you organize once you grow a little.

Where next?

So you’ve got a few choice topics outlined, and you know you aren’t going to overbuild. What next? Open the doors? Not quite. There’s a bit more to learn about hosting and facilitating discussions – and seeding them with the posts of experienced users to set the tone and behavioral expectations – before you open the doors. Facilitating and Hosting a Virtual Community

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