At Work: Finance and IT - IT intelligence

Sue Fidler explains that you must look before you leap into discussion forums.

For the past couple of years, the buzz word for voluntary sector websites has been forum. A discussion forum is essentially a website composed of a number of member-written topics or 'threads'. Each thread entails a discussion in the form of a series of member-written posts.

Forums are normally moderated, most have a 'netiquette' to define what is allowed and many have a pre-defined list of topics to write about.

Unlike mailing lists, the discussion forum postings are held on the website for users to visit and read.

It sounds like a great idea for community-building - giving supporters, members or beneficiaries their say and encouraging users to share their experiences. But life is never that simple. Many charities have launched forums and then found that the expected 'community' does not materialise.

The software for discussion boards is cheap and easy to use. Once you have a discussion forum, however, the hard work begins. First, you need a community interested enough in your subject to want to discuss it on a regular basis. Then you need something to discuss - content in each thread to launch the conversation. Most importantly, you need the resources to moderate the forum - if postings aren't listed fairly quickly the users will soon lose interest.

So you need enough content to start a discussion, enough regular users to respond and the time to read everything before it goes live. Before jumping on the bandwagon, think about whether you have what it takes.

An empty discussion forum is a complete turn-off. As somebody said to me recently, when you invite strangers to a party, you need to spend time getting them to talk to each other, and a discussion forum takes at least as much management on a continuing basis.

- Sue Fidler is director of communications and solutions at the Charity Technology Trust.

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