In the original theory of ‘Participation Inequality’ Jakob Nielsen claimed that ‘in most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.’
While there are a number of issues with the ratios he uses, the implications are profound.
Essentially, in an unrestricted setting not everyone will participate equally – in quantity terms. This means that such exchanges cannot claim to be democratic nor representative of stakeholder groups.
Rather, they are spaces for ‘comparing experiences of the issue in hand, sharing perspectives about forces at play, and relating strategies / tactics for making future changes’.
The more interesting questions are: why do some people participate more or less, and what can the project team do to incentivise the ‘most important’ participants (as it views them)?
Here we’ll focus more on the first question, but will touch on the second.
IDS-supported online discussions have a much less extreme participation inequality than that described by Nielsen. For a typical group of around 50 individuals we’d expect around two thirds of individuals to contribute at least once. In some cases this rises to around nine in ten.
However, in each case we still expect a group of ‘core participants’ emerge. Many of these people will have been targeted by the project team during the 10-12 weeks leading-in to the event.
They not only tend to participate more than other people, but as they often share the project’s agenda they are more likely to play an active role in down-stream activities after the event, including sharing any event outputs, participating in future events and collaborating in future project activities. But they may never receive financial remuneration for any of their time or expertise.
So how do project teams convert invitees into event and project champions?
- Treat them like VIPs
- Give them a sense of decision-making power
- Present them with opportunities for greater visibility
- Reward them with other private gains that matter to them
How and when is this done?
- Building the participant wishlist –Testing the rationale and proposition statements
The project team uses their own knowledge of ‘who’s out there’ to develop an initial list of invitees, including those who they know personally and those who they don’t
- Initial outreach activities
The team make 10-12 phone calls or send personalised emails to the ‘critical friends’ they know on the list, with a request for feedback. Questions like ‘Does this speak to your interests? Are we presenting good entry points into the debates as you see it? Where would you like to see the discussion end up?’ are powerful devices for sense-checking the proposition but also give the critical friend a sense that things are being tailored to suit them
- Follow-up conversations and checking-in
Generally, it makes sense to wait to ask critical friends about their availability to participate in an event until after they have shared their thinking. Although it is really important that they commit to being involved early on, they are more likely to agree (and to shift other commitments around the event) once they are on-board with the agenda.
Keeping in touch after they agree to participate with updates about who else is also taking part, details of down-stream outputs and activities that are planned and even examples of thread questions all help to keep the event in their minds
- Requests for ‘kick-starter’ contributions
Project teams invite some individuals to produce messages weeks before the discussion starts. This is an opportunity for people to ‘have first say’ on the question, thereby having early enjoyment of the limelight and an opportunity to shape the conversation that follows.
For the uninitiated: kick-starter messages help generate momentum in each new discussion thread and are ‘ghost-posted’ by the project team, depending on the platform being used, so that they appear to be posted in the moment by the author.
- Back-channel dialogue
During the event itself the team tries to keep in touch with a handful of key participants (using off-list tools e.g. skype text messaging), as a way to keep a line of real-time feedback and dialogue open. Again, this enables key individuals to inform the project team about politics at play, about who should be prompted for contributions, and about tactical decisions to move things forwards
- Post-event mobilisation
Once the dust has settled on an event the work begins to realise the ‘lever’ effect of the vibrancy of the discussion. Follow-up discussions with champions about next steps / output dissemination, advocacy efforts etc may be open to all participants, but individuals who have been in touch with the project team in any of the above activities are more likely to be part of what happens next.