online behaviour

Empty seats in a stadium

Empty seats. Photo: Nina Matthews Photography, via flickr.

There was a period in my life where I was a full-time qualitative researcher. I used to moderate focus groups. The projects were about anything and everything: soup, fizzy drinks, shampoo, insurance, you name it. I usually moderated two evening sessions back-to-back, and I would drive out to some far-flung venue in the London suburbs through rush-hour traffic.

It turns out that the worst part of facilitating a focus group is waiting for everyone to show up.

Your first session starts at 6.30 maybe, and from 6.15 you are pacing around wondering whether everyone will show. There are empty seats arranged in a circle. Bowls of crisps, notepads and pens, stacks of non-disclosure agreements. The show’s supposed to start – but where is everybody?

Ten minutes feel like ten hours.

Then they start to arrive, one and two and finally the whole contingent. Eight women bustling with their bags and coats and glasses of wine. The worry’s over. You’re ready to start. You sit down in your own seat at the front, smile and start talking.

Those nerves never go away. Indeed, I’ve learned to love those nerves, as a sign that I’m truly engaged in that early process of bringing people into to the room.

But the truth is that the project itself stands or falls on what happens in the room once we are all gathered. How I frame the discussions, the questions asked, the tasks assigned, the quality of the conversation that unfolds and is recorded.

Those first few minutes of worrying about whether anyone would turn up? Meaningless.

(In the scheme of things).

Which brings me to online classes. I tend to see a whole lot of emotional energy expended in discussing how to bring people in, how to sell the class, how much to charge, and how to make sure there are enough participants to make a profit. It matters a lot: no people, no viable class.

But from the participant’s point of view, their moment of truth is when they show up for that first lesson. How they feel about coming to the second lesson.

For you, the class is sold. Sold out, even. Worry over.

But for them, it’s just unfolding.

What actually happens in the class matters a lot. If people love it, they will feel that their money was truly well spent. They will be happy. They will feel wise. And they will tell their friends and sign up for the next thing that you do. Get it right and you have a nicely rolling snowball. Get it wrong, and they fade away again.

Example: I did a face-to-face language class recently (I do lots of classes :) ). I went for a term and I definitely improved, but I didn’t really look forward to the classes. They felt like really hard work and not a lot of fun. I learned a lot about the correct terms required to discuss central heating, but I still can’t order a ham sandwich. So I didn’t sign up for the second term. Perhaps it was me (I mean, they never actually promised to cover the restaurant experience in detail).

This is the learner experience in a nutshell.

It’s unusual to have people run up and demand a refund if they are a bit disappointed (if it was billed appropriately and they didn’t have to sell their grandmother to attend). People will feel that it was them, not the class.

So how can you make a great online learning experience?

What makes it different from running a regular face-to-face course?

Here’s my initial list of stuff to discuss.

Motivation and goals: why you need to understand what drives your participants
Lesson structure and course structure: building a core that leads to success
Online dynamics: the hidden rules of interaction
Assignments: homework for stretching, rehearsing and playing
Classmates and social needs: the need to talk, versus the distraction of socialising and teacher burnout
Time and Space In Relative Dimensions: live versus canned, video, audio, webcasts, phone-ins and what do we mean by live anyway?
Price: Because you’re worth it..?

What interests you most?

I’m going to be writing a series of posts on this, interspersed with web design discussions.

You can sign up for updates – right now, there’s nothing to tempt you apart from the subscription, but I’m planning to bring back my Website Check Up and Cure guide, plus some other resources on training, online behaviour, and understanding customers.

And in the meantime here are some other posts I wrote about classes and communities.

Do you have a flock, a convoy or a sidecar?

Plotting your customer’s emotional journey.




Starlings, by t.klick on flickr

I want to write more about online communities, in all their different guises.  I just wrote a neat overview of the mistakes I see people make when they create new communities, but I realised I was probably going too fast for everyone.   I adore communities and at any one time, I’m a member of all kinds of online groups.   I can’t stop looking at them even while I’m in them, always fascinated by what makes them tick.

I believe that there are two main types of online community, and one interesting add-on.

Some communities are flocks.

They flock around a single compelling subject that brings everyone together, whether it’s motorbikes, pregnancy, My Chemical Romance or triathlons. Flocks can stick together over a long period of time, even as older members fade out and new members fade in.

There’s no central narrative to a flocking community, although there may be lots of sub-themes.  There usually ends up being some kind of member hierarchy, whether it’s time served or quantity of opinion expressed.  Senior members may resent newbies.

Other communities are convoys.

In a convoy, everyone starts at the same time, and they move through a common process.  Community content may largely consist of their visible, public reaction to their experience.  Most e-learning and digital workshop communities are convoys.  Many branded research communities are convoys.

The members of a convoy may bond together very tightly through working together, or their connection to each other may remain quite minimal.  Convoys typically have a beginning, a middle and an end.  There’s a story here, a natural life cycle and starting point.

Then there’s the Sidecar.

The Sidecar is the self-managed group, typically set up as an unregulated space for people who don’t have an ‘official’ space.  The methods and approaches are constantly changing, depending on costs.   At the time of writing, I’m seeing lots of Facebook groups being created by women for events that they are part of.  In the past, these have been Ning groups, Yahoo groups and listservs.

Sidecars are often unofficial and self-managed, but they can be official spaces spaces too, when event owners don’t want the time, cost and hassle of creating their own community.

Recognise your community?

They all have their own internal dynamics, their own foibles.  Flocks usually do have a lifespan, but it’s a lot longer than a convoy.  Convoys often think they are flocks, and everyone is surprised when they run out of things to talk about.  And people thrown out of convoys often set up sidecars.

Thoughts?  Does this match your experience, or have I missed something out? Let me know in comments. I want to write more about the business of communities, and I want to make sure that I’ve captured the main types.

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Online lions and offline lambs

February 28, 2011 Contexts

I’ve been thinking about personality, and how it differs between our online  and offline selves.  There is a hope, expressed by all sorts of people, that the internet represents an easy way to understand exactly what people think. According to this argument, if we listen to internet conversations (scrape them, analyse them, Google-alert them) then […]

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