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Leading the debate - advice for quality moderation

Matthew Hornsby -

Principles for good moderation

This article builds on the principles laid out in our 'success guide', and on our article describing the practicalities of moderating within Dialogue.

Share the work

It's important to think about who will moderate your challenges and properly allocate responsibility for doing so. It doesn't just have to be one person - you can set up a team of moderators to make sure someone is always keeping an eye on the conversation.

If you do have more than one moderator, it's a good idea to assign a rota so that any incoming ideas and comments can be quickly approved.  If you have more than one challenge, then setting up a moderating team for each challenge also means more ground is covered.

How it worked for them: Forestry Commission has challenge on its Dialogue spread across the UK and run by the individual teams in its woodland areas. A pioneering discussion used a team of moderators/community managers from one forest, but who in some cases worked in different sites. They arranged regular catch-up meetings and a post-dialogue retrospective to learn from the process and have passed on their learnings to other teams running challenges within Forestry Commission.

Choose an appropriate moderation setting 

It's up to you what kind of moderation policy you will want to have. You also have to decide whether to pre- or post-moderate your Dialogue. There are various things to consider with both options - which is most suitable for you will be dependent on the kind of challenges you want to create, your topic and your audience.

Post-moderation

  • Ideas and comments appear on the site as soon as they are posted
  • Users can engage in a more 'real-time' challenge on the site, as their inputs will be visible to each other quickly and without a moderator having to check it before it is live
  • The risk of post-moderation is that inappropriate posts could be live on the website until a moderator checks them

Pre-moderation

  • Ideas and comments will not go live on the site until they are approved by a moderator
  • The challenge may be more stilted as new posts are blocked until they are approved
  • All posts must be moderated before going live, so it is unlikely anything inappropriate would get through the net.

With both options, the more attentive you are to your moderation, the better the discussion will flow.

 

An example of a good moderation policy

In terms of a moderation policy - i.e. what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, we usually direct people towards the BBC's editorial guidelines. These are comprehensive and accepted by most as a good model.

Also, it's key to ensure that your users know that they themselves can report malicious content to you. There is a 'report' option next to each comment and idea - you can highlight this in your moderation policy. The site's moderation policy is part of the 'static content' that is entirely editable by you. You can read our set-up guide for more about this.

Note: It's not possible for users to remove or edit comments after they have submitted them. You may also want to make them aware of this in your editable pages, good places would be your moderation policy or 'how to use this site' pages. Moderators can remove posts by 'rejecting' them in moderation - we suggest you ask users to contact you if they want to remove contact they have submitted themselves.

 

Moderate for better challenges and better analysis

Moderation is about more than just protecting your site's content - it can be a tool for shaping and leading challenges to encourage positive and high-quality contributions. You can choose ideas to highlight and promote, you can discuss directly with your respondents, and you can tag those ideas to help organise the debate and your analysis.

Creating and using moderator accounts

When you create a moderator's account, it is a good idea to give them a name that both references your organisation, but also makes it clear that they are a real person. For example, Chris-CityCouncil, Jenny-CityCouncil, etc. Adding a profile picture to the accounts - such as your organisation's logo - can make it seem more official.

This article describes how to create and manage users in Dialogue.

It's important to remember that once you start getting a good quantity of responses, community management can be time-consuming. You should make sure that you always have at least one moderator 'on duty' and looking at the site. If you are post-moderating your site, you can set up an RSS feed to be notified when new ideas arrive on the site.

Tagging and commenting

The tagging function in Dialogue can be very useful when moderating. Adding tags allows you to organise the debate into themes - if you realise that there are two areas that your respondents focus on heavily, tagging can be a way of creating two 'groups' of ideas, and then breaking those down even further.

The tags will be visible to all, so you can aid other members' interpretation of ideas and comments by adding tags. It also helps your visitors to search via themes that interest them. This also makes your analysis process more efficient, as you won't have to go through tagging responses again when analysing the discussion at its end.

How it worked for them: Big Lottery Fund had a large-scale challenge and discussion on its strategic direction as a funder for the next few years. It expected ideas to come from across the UK and set up a moderation team in each country to manage them. The teams tagged each idea with the country the idea came from; this helped visitors to find ideas coming from their area and Big Lottery Fund to identify where respondents were based for its own analysis.

Note: To save effort, unless you have key themes you are looking for, you may want to wait until the challenge has got going a bit before you start tagging. This will give you a better sense of what the key themes and groups of ideas are coming from the challenge organically, meaning you won't have to go back and tweak your earlier tags.

See this article for how to tag ideas.

Community management

As mentioned above, the quality of the moderation can make the difference between an average and a really good dialogue. Below are some tips for how to manage your online community well.

  • Add a few ideas to get things started: People are generally nervous about being the first to put their hands up. Adding a few ideas at the dialogue's beginning, especially ones that are original and thought-provoking (although this may be easier said than done!) can help get people talking. You don't have to add these from the moderator or admin account - create a new one as a 'private citizen' and post in that way. There's nothing illegitimate about this - in fact, in many cases, especially if its local issues that are being talked about, it's likely that you could be a stakeholder in the topic both professionally and personally!
  • Tone: Try to get a consistent tone to your moderator comments. Even if you need to sanction people or reject comments, remain light-hearted and human - people shouldn't get the impression they are being moderated by a machine or a bureaucratic committee. Using a bit of humour, where appropriate, can go a long way. However, you shouldn't be shy to take leadership of the challenge - remind people if their comments are going off-topic, and take a firm line on inappropriate comments or ideas. The content may be harmless, but if it is not at all relevant to your challenge, it gives others scope to keep veering away from the central question(s).
  • Support your respondents: People can be tempted to submit comments to an online discussion in a half-hearted way, if they have the impression they will not really be read or considered worthwhile. If ideas are basic or poorly worded, but contain something of interest, as a moderator you can help draw some higher quality discussion out of it, either by asking questions, or a simple 'really interesting - would be great to hear more!' This immediately lets the respondent know they are being listened to and that it is worth adding further detail to their idea if they feel strongly about it.
  • Help organise: If a respondent submits an idea that is similar to another already posted, then you as a moderator can highlight this and provide links between the ideas.  It's likely that, as an organisation, you have done a lot of things that your respondents don't know about and you may get some ideas and comments asking for or suggesting things that you already do or are planning to do.  As a community manager, you can direct them to examples of these and show your visitors the work you are already doing. This not only a great win for that user, but also for you and all of the other visitors who can see that response you have given and therefore know more about your work.
  • Offer rewards for the best contributions: Some of the most successful dialogues offer some kind of incentive to submit quality ideas. This might be the opportunity to present their idea at an event, or the offer for that idea to be professionally worked up into a proper proposal - or even a plain old material reward. As hinted at above, just commenting positively on an idea already rewards respondents. If an idea is good and you want to know more - ask the user via the comments section.
  • Get to know individual users:  Keep track of individual respondents - this requires additional work if you have multiple moderators and a high response rate. If you notice that particular individuals are consistently posting on the same theme, or making the same point, it may be worth exploring their particular concern in this area by mentioning that in a comment. You will also be able to notice faster if a respondent is posting identical comments on several ideas - in this case you may decide to sanction the user.
  • Cross-fertilise:  You can really boost the level of engagement with your discussion by 'cross-fertilising' with other media. For example, in your moderator comments, you can link to external websites with interesting and relevant content (although make sure that they are really interesting and relevant - if not you are leading your respondents off-course!) If you use social media tools, like Twitter, you can lead people to the Dialogue site through tweets. You should make sure that comms managers in your organisation know about your site and are directing the right people towards it whenever they can.
  • Measure success: Strictly speaking, this might go beyond the remit of moderation, but it is useful for your challenge to have some targets to work towards. Before you launch the challenge, you should think about what you want it to look like. How many participants do you want? How many ideas do you want? How many comments and ratings do you expect per idea?

 

A lot of the principles of good moderation are not particularly unique to digital or online forums - as much as possible, you should approach the online discussion in the same way as you would if you were moderating a meeting in a church hall, a classroom or a boardroom.

Good luck, and happy moderating!

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