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  Spurring Discussion?
How do I encourage discussions on my community boards?

Thank you for your question, one which is faced by many a site owner, webmaster and community manager. To hopefully assist you with your question, we would like to offer the following suggestions:

On your site in general:

1) Use content from your site to prompt discussions. For example, you could post links from articles on the site to the message boards for discussion. This is extremely helpful in spurring conversation, as participants are able to debate articles or share their insights and tips. Plus, it encourages participants to read the articles and utilize the site offerings.

2) Ensure that a link to your boards is highly visible and easy to access. Ensuring that your boards are easy to access from highly trafficked areas of your site will help encourage people to join in the conversation.

3) Spotlight a participant's post on the front page of the site. In doing so, not only are your placing a participant in the spotlight, encouraging them to continue to post, but you are also providing a means for others to want to jump into the conversation.

On your community boards, there are many means and methods of encouraging discussions, ranging from how your boards are set up, how enticing your topics are and how involved you or your staff are in moderating them. There are in fact a great many methods, but we would like to offer the following key ones to consider:

1) Use open-ended questions to activate discussions. Asking participants this kind of question will help keep the conversation flowing, and encourage activity. Open-ended question styles include invites to participate ("What do you think?") and choice-based questions ("Which do you prefer?") as well as stimulating statements. Watch out for what mediators call closure questions, i.e. those that are phrased in such a way as to form decision. This will prematurely act as an end to the discussion. Open-ended questions are especially helpful when there is a lull in a particular thread of discussion. Be sure to make your post engaging so that participants feel inclined to share their thoughts.

2) Use follow-up techniques to perpetuate discussions. Another key method of discussion management and encouragement is to follow-up replies with further questions or encouragements. A moderator with experience will do this almost naturally, since they are accustomed to always seeing scope for expanding a set of discussions. They are rather like a chat show interviewer, always seeking ways to have their guest speak further, and always prepared with a question or two in advance. Such tactics to employ include but are not limited to:

Personal follow-up:"That is interesting and I think you have made a good point. I also would add..."
Lateral follow-up: "Thanks for your message.. you might also want to take a look at this other discussion on our board..."
Direct follow-up: "I was interested in what you said about x. I wonder if you could tell us more..."
Informative follow-up: "I found something which may be of interest to you on this topic..."

3) Recognise and react to the changing dynamics of discussions. Sometimes it has to be acknowledged that a thread of discussions has run the course of its natural life or it has reached an arbitrary end for other reasons. No amount of encouragement will restart it. In such instances it is best left alone and/or ultimately archived.

Similarly, a trained moderator will be able to watch a discussion and understand when and how they need to contribute to it. Sometimes a discussion will run at its own pace and moderator activity might actually do more harm than good, but other times a post from a moderator can re-ignite it or direct it appropriately so that it doesn't "stall". Well-trained and knowledgeable moderators make these judgements all the time, and can "read" the dynamics of the discussion so that their presence is positive and encouraging rather than interventionist or even irritating.

Please feel free to visit some of the past Community Answers' questions and answers:

How Do I Get People to Post?
Turning Visits into Participation?

We wish you the very best luck with your community, and if we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to let us know.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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