Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Tips for creating online “water cooler moments”

With Agrilinks and its associated social media platforms, we want to create online “water cooler moments” where people can share their experiences around agriculture and food security as well as learn from others. Social media is of course a key part of this. I have a broad definition of social media as any online communications tool we use to share information and to develop, strengthen and maintain our social and professional networks. To me this covers blogs, webinars, Twitter, YouTube and others. I even throw email in there too.

As we approach the second anniversary of Agrilinks, I want to reflect on some of the lessons learned around building “water cooler moments” that have come from working on the various social media platforms that feed into Agrilinks.

What are some of the key lessons?

Introductions are the first step
For Ag Sector Council webinars and #AskAg Twitter chats, we ask participants to tell us where they are joining us from. In The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right, Atul Gawande described how Johns Hopkins “…surgical staff members were expected to stop and make sure that everyone knew one another’s names,” because “…people who don’t know one another’s names don’t work together nearly as well as those who do.”

Recognize those joining the conversation
You might ask: Isn’t this the same as the previous point? I argue no. I think it represents the next step: The validation of the people introducing themselves. “Hi, Jim Bellis. Thank you for joining us today. Where are you joining us from?” An introduction without the recognition is like a one-sided handshake.

Q&A
This has many layers. You can use this to draw people into the conversation and share their knowledge as well as seek answers to their questions. This point depends on the two above to help build trust in the forum. This means not only making sure to relay questions from participants and readers to presenters and posters but also to pose questions to them. Ending blog posts with questions, polls via Adobe Connect webinars, guiding questions in Twitter chats–these provide frameworks for a conversation where participants have better understanding of where they can contribute knowledge.

Follow up
If someone comments on your blog post, write a response. If you manage a website and someone comments on a resource, get the contributor to respond. If you have unanswered questions from a webinar, contact the presenter(s) to provide an answer then post the answer online associated with the recorded event. This applies the same for Twitter chats. Let people know they have been heard. (Originally, I had this as part of Q&A, but I think it deserves separate attention because it feeds back into Recognition and Q&A. It also helps to build the community such that Introductions and Recognition also work more seamlessly over time.)

You might say, “Well all of this sounds just like good facilitation.” Not surprising right? I agree but I do not think we always remain cognizant of this when dealing with various types of online media and facilitation. I think we need to remain aware and apply these ideas when engaging audiences through social media.

This becomes especially important where we have joint in-person and online events. At times an in-person facilitator can lose sight of the online audience because it is hard to remain aware of an audience not sitting in front of you. Or we might assume that if an online conversation via a chat box or Twitter or Yammer does not happen or scrolls by like movie credits on fast forward, it is not worth repeating. If online interactions do not flow effortlessly without assistance, we might assume that the audience has no interest in engaging in knowledge sharing or learning. But like any community, in-person or otherwise, it takes effort to nurture and strengthen online knowledge sharing enabling environments. The benefits come from how social media adds new dimensions to the ways in which we can connect and engage people in conversation.

What have you found that helps to make the tools of social media fade into the background and the knowledge sharing take center stage? How do you facilitate these online interactions?