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?