Communication

Fans are often bad about communication. We tend to be rubbish about talking to other people, and even worse about understanding them when they talk back. That’s a bit strange for a subculture that is largely based around forms of communication, from letters to fanzines to films to blogs to conversations and panels at conventions. Historically though, the record of fans communicating, misunderstanding each other, followed by “all Fandom plunged into war” is pretty consistent. So it’s no surprise that here we are in 2015 and the results from our questionnaire show that we’re still doing a lousy job. I’d like to understand why, though the folly of doing this through the act of communicating via yet another written medium has not escaped me.

Conventions do try and communicate with their members. We talk to them when we see them in person, we send them emails and printed PRs, we even have desks at other conventions where our members can come and talk to us. Mostly though, they don’t. Back in the dim distant past of 1999, Reconvene experimented with an email auto-responder/AI that replied to every single email with helpful information and advice about the convention. We didn’t manage to persuade everyone to contact us via email, even though they were guaranteed a meaningful response that way. We’ve put lots of stuff about Eastercons on the internet, nobody seems to read it. There’s a wiki at Eastercon.org that I’m currently trying to update with useful information about what should go on your convention website. There’s no evidence that people look at it for answers to their questions though.

On the one hand, we apparently need to get a lot better at what businesses call stakeholder relationship management. On the other, our current attempts at communicating with our stakeholders (that would be everyone involved in the convention from the members, to other committee members, to the hotel, to programme participants, authors, dealers, artists etc. etc.) are what we can manage to do. We don’t have the ability to phone every single member of the convention, every time something happens. Perhaps we could do more than we are doing at the moment. We could, for instance, send out a weekly or monthly email to every convention member, telling them what’s changed, what deadlines are coming up, and so on. This wouldn’t be hard, though we might run the risk of ending up on various anti-spam lists. We could also pledge to post to places like Facebook and Twitter at least once a week. We could send text messages, run a Google Group, start up a forum on any site you care to mention. Should we do this?

If we were to set up a continuing Eastercon organisation, we could at least provide a single point of contact where anyone could come and get a response to their questions from the current committee, or from someone else who knew what they were talking about. Does this seem like a reasonable thing to do? What would we need to do to make everyone aware of the existence of such a forum and encourage them to make use of it (without being overrun by spammers, self-publicising authors and people with an axe to grind)?

Part of our problem is that we don’t really know what our members want, and in fact they probably all want different things. Do they want a continuing drip of information, a reassurance that yes, we are still here, we still have their money and we’re still planning to run a convention in eighteen months? Or are they happy to look at our website, proclaiming six months after the fact that we have just won the bid, and just assume that we are still alive and kicking? Some people have been to countless Eastercons and will know that committees go quiet for a year while they get their act together. So they won’t expect much in the way of communication until the last few months before the con. Others may get worried by the lack of contact. Of course, if you haven’t heard anything about the programme and it’s eight weeks out, then you can probably assume that disaster has struck and the committee are running around like headless chickens. Not everyone knows that though, especially the first-time members who are more used to the constant communication model that the internet has made common.

I think what I’m saying here is that we may need to talk to people more, unless they have explicitly told us that they only want to hear from us when it’s really important. We have the technology to do this, and we could do it; provided we had some confidence that we wouldn’t get reported as spammers, just because we happened to mention the hot-button topic of the week. In reality, the only question would be just how many times we got blacklisted, so perhaps we should be concentrating on the quality of our communications rather than the quantity.

Could we improve the quality of our communication? At the moment, we send out a progress report twice a year, containing a whole lot of information and we expect our members to dig through it looking for anything relevant to them. If we’ve done it properly, most of the PR should be relevant to everybody, but in practice that’s very rarely the case. Perhaps we could structure the PR differently, or send it out in electronic format so it could be easily searched. Actually, we do now send out PR’s in electronic format and if anything people seem less inclined to read them or search them for relevant information, preferring to go to the website instead. We might take a pointer from online businesses and provide realtime chat sessions – though I suspect this would be expensive. Publicising a convention Skype ID (or IRC channel, or eChat room) or organising regular chat sessions might work, but would be a lot of additional overhead for the committee, especially if people started treating it as a conversation rather than just a way of getting information.

Any other suggestions?

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2 thoughts on “Communication

  1. There is a definite need for better communications between successive conventions. It would be worth while coming up with some sort of “pass forward pack” concept, defining what sort of information should be handed over: membership number breakdown by date and type, assets lists, code of conduct violations lists, overviews of the hotel contracts, finances, access requirements and so on — not naming names or specifying every detail in most cases, but giving rough numbers so the next two committees know what to expect.

    One resource that is definitely worth exploiting is the Wikipedia page (note to self: update Sat4 page with archived website link). The only limitation it has is its public nature, so some of the above items couldn’t be published there, but I can see no reason not to put the membership curves and similar data in semi-permanent public view.

    I’m not so sure what’s needed for communications with members, but I wouldn’t go down the route of live chat — we don’t have the personnel for it. Satellite conventions have done well using our Facebook page as a Q&A forum: people get answers pretty quickly, and they can either ask publicly or in private. Occasional news posts (make sure you have an RSS feed that copies to Twitter and Facebook, Facebook alerts were much more useful before they changed the reach algorithm) keep people reminded that the convention is still alive: they don’t just have to be actual status updates; things like apropos news posts and the occasional photo album also keep you near the top of people’s minds. As for PRs… print them for those who want them, send them electronically, publish them on the website, and duplicate most of the information on the website as well. There’s no point in not using every version of that: some people prefer the booklet to read cover-to-cover, others prefer the information items to be available in sensible places.

    Also: set up on your convention’s domain name several email addresses available for specific convention areas (including general enquiries, and several different versions eg. info@, enquiries@, programme@, program@, though only one canonical for each), and name them by function (ie. publicity@satellite5.org.uk, not mad_elf@maranelda.org), and make sure that each of them redirects to at least two people. Most recent Eastercons have done this fine, but there have been occasional issues where email for a con function was only going to one person’s personal mail box, and hence getting lost.

    If we had an over-arching Eastercon organisation (which I’m not in favour of, though I’m open to being convinced) and people used it as their first point of contact for the current convention, would it not just introduce an extra level of abstraction — and an extra point of failure — between the enquirer and the responder? I don’t think you’re implying that one possibility is to set up a set of catch-all addresses like “programme@eastercon.org”, but that would definitely be a bad idea; I’ll go into detail if needed.

    (One point on communication with fans: I would advise avoiding business terms and phrases like “as we say in the consulting business”, because my own knee-jerk reaction is to think “stop trying to turn our conventions into a business”, and I know I’m not alone in that. Intellectually I know that’s not what the plan is, and other people may not have the same way, but gut reactions can colour discussions a lot. Restrict any depersonalising polysyllabic obfuscations and cutesy catch-phrases to direct communications between specific committee members and their business contacts (eg. hotels), and use plain English with all the rest of the fen.)

    Thanks for the work that you’ve put into getting the ball rolling on these topics.

    Like

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