The do’s and don’ts of online discussion groups

Published On: July 1, 2013Categories: Management

So why bother to join one of those online discussion groups? If you think a group is just one more dreaded task, you’re mistaken. Think for a moment about the insight and ideas you gleaned from your last professional conference. Or the practical tips colleagues give you on the telephone every once in a while. Or the information about emerging customer attitudes and trends provided by the last great business book you read.

A good online discussion group gives you all these benefits—and more. Through these groups, you’ll connect with like-minded peers, and share ideas and information that can help you grow and succeed.

Online groups come in many forms and flavors. Some are simply organized around “posts” that members make on topics of interest. Others appear as “lists” or “bulletin boards.” Sometimes all posts and replies on a given topic are accessible on a single attractive screen, and sometimes you access posts individually by clicking on text links. Some groups accommodate web links, pictures and other graphics, while others permit only plain-text posts. In most cases, groups are organized around “discussion threads”—arrays of posts, replies and related comments. Common to all groups is that content comes from members.

Online groups can be focused on personal or business interests, hobbies, issues, geographical areas or goals. Use your favorite search engine as a starting point. Enter terms describing your interests into your engine and couple the terms with the phrase “online discussion group,” “online forum” or “groups.”

So, how do you make the most of your online experience?

Here are a few suggestions:

Read the rules. Most discussion groups contain participation guidelines. They’ll usually address permissible content, group etiquette, and procedures for complaints and violations.

Gain perspective. A great way to become familiar with your group’s history and style is to review the group’s archives. You’ll learn about the group’s membership, preferred length and style of posts, and issues that concern the group.

Lurk. Sounds ominous, but used in your new group’s context, lurking means learning. Before you begin to make your posts or replies, read what others are saying. You’ll get a feel for preferred language and length, and better understand the members who already belong.

Stay on point. When you’d like to respond to someone else’s question or thoughts, or you’d like to stimulate discussion on a new topic of interest, the most important thing to remember is to stay focused and relevant. Good online discussion, while informal, is not random. Be sure your post fits the purpose of the group and is targeted to a specific topic. If you want to focus group attention on multiple topics, use multiple posts.

Note your subject. Most discussion groups make provision for subject lines. Insert a precise one-line description that summarizes the purpose or content of the post. Again, it’s a matter of courtesy to busy group members. And subject lines help members organize their reading by priority.

Signal new topics. When members discuss a topic, it’s common for someone to reference a related—but different—topic in the thread. Rule of thumb: If it’s worth pursuing the new idea, it’s time for a new thread. Post a note referencing the new thread’s name.

Acknowledge others. When you’re amplifying on someone else’s comment, or simply referring to a passage of text contributed by another member, acknowledge the member by name. This is an act of courtesy. It also helps group members follow the line of discussion in the thread.

Be yourself. When posting, speak in your own voice and your own style. And if group rules require you to use your full name, use it. If group etiquette favors screen names, that’s acceptable, but always remember to use your screen name consistently.

Offer value. Whenever possible, enrich threads of interest by posting references to related books, websites or media covering the topic. If you can offer other resources that might help members, do so. Many groups develop a culture of sharing.

Remember that time is money. Be brief.

No flaming. Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. You might encounter text or tone that you disagree with, or even angers you. But resist the temptation to insult or criticize, and always maintain a respectful tone.

Seek clarification. When a post jumps out at you as being ambiguous or inappropriate, it’s usually wise to pose thoughtful and gracious questions that give the offending member the opportunity to clarify what he or she meant. More often than not, the clarification will ease your concerns and get positive discussion back on track.

Include a signature file. Your signature file should contain your real name (or screen name, if permitted), contact information (email address, physical address, telephone number, or website as appropriate), company name or affiliation, title and perhaps a one-line motto, slogan or descriptive phrase.

Don’t spam. Discussion groups might seem like an idea venue for e-blasts promoting your products or services. But don’t. Unless your group specifically permits this, any type of blanket promotion will be frowned upon by other members—and might even get you kicked out of the group.

Avoid side conversations. Discussion threads exist for the benefit of all members, and all members should see all posts related to the topic at hand. So, while you might occasionally be tempted to correspond privately with other members about posts in a thread, don’t.

Use emoticons sparingly. Emoticons are widely accepted, and experienced group members can translate emoticons into the proverbial expressions on your face. Remember, though, that overuse can be irritating; after all, no one smiles, frowns or laughs all the time. You can find a quick review of commonly accepted Internet emoticons online.

Be gentle. When initiating a topic, posting a comment, or responding to criticism, imagine the world’s eyes and ears are trained upon you. Speak simply and graciously, remembering that feelings can be hurt and emotions aroused online just as they are in the carbon-based world. Remember, too, that the Internet—and its tens of thousands of groups—do span the world. Indeed, many eyes and ears are trained on you. Strive for a good impression.