Who doesn’t want to speak to me? Methods for engaging with the disengaged in online communities.

Working with groups online is hard work. Some people want to engage fully, others are apparently disinterested or won’t engage at all. This is often particularly evident in Forums or community spaces, where a small part of the population tend to be particularly active, with a sizeable majority keeping quiet.

There are a range of factors that can drive this behaviour, but it’s worth taking some time to explore them, to understand the reasons why people engage and, particularly, the reasons why they fail to engage. Sometimes effective learning design is less about understanding how people learn, but more understanding what the barriers are that prevent them from learning.

To drive engagement, there needs to be something in it for everyone. Look at how people engage with free Competitions: the company wants to generate data, lists of people with contact and demographic details, which they can use or sell, whilst the individuals want to win a prize and don’t mind giving away personal information to do so. This is a model where there is something in it for everyone (although whether everyone would agree when the subsequent mountain of junk mail arrives is another matter).

Doing your tax return is less exciting. There’s nothing particularly positive involved in doing it, but you do avoid the penalty. This is another reason why people will engage; because there is some penalty or negative connotation for not doing so. Interestingly though, some people won’t bother engaging in the early stages. Maybe £100 fine is not sufficient deterrent to ensure you free up the time to get the tax return in!

The ‘penalty’ doesn’t need to be financial, it might be reputational. If i’m invited to join a company wide group that focuses on learning, i might not get paid for it, but if i’m not in it, the risk is that i’m not seen at the ‘centre’ of things. My reputation might be at risk, so it might be worth me investing time in engaging.

There are things that we can do to engage with the disenfranchised majority. Sometimes it’s worth starting small and working up to the large. If you have a population of 100 learners, start by trying to engage with everyone, to discover who your engaged minority are. Then, actively reach out to smaller groups, maybe a dozen at a time, with targeted invitations and activities. One simple thing to do is to start with a learning questionnaire. Invite people to complete a short (ten question) questionnaire about their learning preferences. The survey itself is irrelevant, it’s the activity of getting them to engage that counts. Follow this up to people who don’t participate, maybe by saying that you value the views and results from people who haven’t responded.

The reasons that people don’t engage can be many and varied, but sometimes very mundane. Just within the last week i’ve worked with people who didn’t engage because: (a) Their computer was unable to read the format of materials, (b) The emails from the learning community were going to their junk mail and (c) they were simply not confident online. All of these issues are easily addressed, and none of them relate to a fundamental desire not to engage.

Occasionally, when we look at online communities, we talk about people being unable or unwilling to engage, but sometimes they would be willing if we could walk them through it or if we can make the relevance clearer. Working with small groups can get through one of the first hurdles; taking your first step.

People who post once in a forum are likely to post again. People who don’t post at the start of a debate are unlikely to step in later, as they feel excluded. Actively driving engagement in the early stages pays dividends later. Allocating different individuals or groups different specialities also helps. For example, have a forum debate, but get one group to talk about marketing, one about Comms, one about content and so on. Small groups and competition can drive engagement up.

The main thing to remember is, once you know the baseline of engagement, the first question should be ‘how do i link up with the silent majority?’, not, ‘how do i engage further with the already converted’

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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5 Responses to Who doesn’t want to speak to me? Methods for engaging with the disengaged in online communities.

  1. You’re on to something here. Here in Hong Kong, it’s pretty evident even to laymen that preaching to the converted is often the rule rather than the exception among Hong Kong educators. The lack of engagement is even worse among trainee teachers here, as they often regard engagement exercises as either as a formal assignment or (worse, I think) with a high level of suspicion (for what, I don’t exactly know). My own experience is that the situation in Hong Kong gets worse when things are conducted in a foreign language (English in our case). I don’t have to look too far: just on a social networking site, a thread literally gets cut off midway if someone posts something in English (when the rest is in Chinese) – and this is from people whom I know are actually quite proficient in both languages. The picture isn’t so bad among non-teachers, but the pattern is there nonetheless. But teachers and trainee teachers are by far the most obvious in this behaviour.

  2. julianstodd says:

    Interesting – we do notice that there are cultural differences in engagement and attitudes to things like social networks and forums. In some cultures, it’s considered less polite to question or challenge authority or views. In some cultures, the views of women are viewed with less importance than the views of men, and, as you say, sometimes the language itself can be a blocker. I have worked on multi language forums, but they are in a minority and very hard to make work.

    That being said, one of the easiest ways to drive engagement with e-learning is to translate it – there is often a view that imported english learning is something that the organisation is trying to make you do, whilst localised versions are better received.

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