No discussions anymore on AEGEE-L? The CD wants to foster the use of AEGEE-Europe’s forum page, which has been neglected for many years. “A forum has great advantages compared to discussions on a mailing list,” is Michael Makowiecki, Communications Director of AEGEE-Europe, convinced. “However, we won’t abolish AEGEE-L, because it is part of AEGEE’s culture.” The Golden Oldie asked him, how he wants to make the forum more popular – and how this is just the first step to a much wider communication strategy.

Golden Oldie: Michael, you announced a “small revolution in internal communication”. How does it look like?

Michael Makowiecki; For years AEGEE members have been communicating with each other mainly on various mailing lists. AEGEE-L has been the main platform for internal communication. Not only discussions have been taking place on this list, but also announcements and open calls. Creating a forum and moving all discussions away from this mailing list to this new platform is quite a big change and basically a small revolution.

Golden Oldie: What are the advantages of a forum compared to a list?

Michael Makowiecki; A list has the advantage that whatever is being send to it, it will always appear in the mailbox of all subscribers. In the case of big lists this can be quite a problem, as not every subscriber is interested in every possible topic. This disadvantage does not exist in an online forum! It comes already with a structure and helps people to order the discussions. The most important point is the fact that no one can consider too many posts as spam. People that are interested in a particular and maybe very specific topic can discuss it as long as they wish without the existing risk that other subscribers will be overwhelmed by the amount of emails and simply unsubscribe themselves. This was until now a major and serious problem in our internal communication. The forum can overcome it.

Golden Oldie: Quite a lot of people are using programmes like Thunderbird or Outlook that offer a clear folder structure. Why don’t you promote this solution?

Michael Makowiecki; Also Gmail is being used by a significant amount of our members and it offers the very handy conversation view which puts all emails on the same topic together. But even the help of a very well-configured mail software will not reduce the amount of emails in the mailbox. E-mails on AEGEE-L do not follow any specific structure or theme. In order not to miss anything important, the reader is usually forced to check at least briefly the content of the email. On the other hand in a forum the discussions are structured. If a certain member is not interested in a particular topic, he or she is just not checking that category. In the case of e-mail software it is still in the hands of the recipient to categorise his or her e-mails.

Golden Oldie: A big advantage of a list compared to a forum is that people don’t have to go on a webpage actively. They just have to check their mails. Aren’t you afraid to lose a lot of less active members?

Michael Makowiecki; First of all the less active members that were not interested in discussions on AEGEE-L were kind of forced to read them, as these discussions were simply arriving in their mailbox. Information is never perceived as valuable, if the recipient has the feeling to be forced to read it. Indeed there were maybe some members that did not take part in AEGEE-L discussions, but still they were following them. But most of the passive subscribers simply didn’t pay attention. Of course it is an additional step to go to the forum and check what is going on. Fortunately there are many possibilities on how to remain informed about the latest discussions without the need of constantly checking the forum.

Golden Oldie: For example?

Michael Makowiecki; First of all there are RSS feeds implemented. They can be accessed in the footer of the forum. With the right RSS reader it is possible to be automatically informed about the newest topics and also the most active topics. Furthermore we are planning to implement a weekly digest e-mail that will be send to the list and inform everyone about the most interesting forum discussion.

Golden Oldie: AEGEE as already a forum for quite some years. Why hasn’t it been used?

Michael Makowiecki; When the forum was originally activated, it was created as an additional place for discussions that existed next to the main mailing lists. Without any specific interest, most members simply remained on the mailing list. The list itself remained as it was and no particular changes were implemented. The forum and the list were competing with each other and the list simply won. Furthermore the forum did not have a well developed structure and the design was also made out of the default template. This did not give the members the impression that the platform is well developed.

Golden Oldie: What will be different this time?

Michael Makowiecki; A parallel existence of the forum and the list on equal rights is not possible and will only harm both of the platforms. The plan is to limit the conversations on AEGEE-L and implement a moderation. In this way the messages will not be lost, but all senders will be informed that they should start the topic also on the forum. Significant topics would be simply announced on AEGEE-L, but only with a link to the forum itself. In this way members could be from time to time be informed about important discussions without receiving the actual answers in their mailbox.

Golden Oldie: You mentioned that in the past the forum was not used because of the competition with AEGEE-L. Did you consider to pull the plug and just move everything to the forum? Or would there be too much resistance?

Michael Makowiecki; Pulling the plug totally is for now not the right solution, as we need a fluent transition. This is very important, because we are basically talking about changing a tradition that was established over the years. Using AEGEE-L is drawn into the mentality of many AEGEE members. A very strict and rapid change may cause a strong resistance. That is why the list will remain open to announcements of the newest discussions. The subscribers will stay informed, but will learn that the actual discussion should take place on the forum. Further steps can only be planned and taken, when we will have more knowledge about how the forum activity is developing.

Golden Oldie: As you know from the discussion about the AEGEE-Europe logo, a lot depends on the communication strategy. How will that look like?

Michael Makowiecki; Basically we have to use all possible channels and opportunities in order to promote the forum in the right way. An official announcement e-mail has been sent to the Network. The forum was also promoted on Twitter and on Facebook. Furthermore I have created a special button on our website that leads directly to the forum. Definitely it will be needed to present the concept of the forum at statutory events – especially in Riga, as it is the soonest one – and also on Network Meetings. Quite many people have already subscribed to the forum. They can use their intranet accounts for this. But this is definitely not enough. Personal promotion will be needed in order to achieve a multiplication of this message. The more people start writing on the forum, the more people will follow. Also I was thinking about creating a short movie that will promote the new platform.

Golden Oldie: A film? How will that look like?

Michael Makowiecki; It should be something short, dynamic and funny that will raise curiosity and explain briefly the advantages of the forum. But it should also be a surprise, so I will not share too many details. I just hope that the production of that short film will be possible soon.

Golden Oldie: What will happen at the EBM in Riga?

Michael Makowiecki; The presentation of the forum at the EBM is the best way to actually catch the attention of the present members. The forum will also be one of the main tools to collect input for the new Strategic Plan 2012-2014. Possible topics should be discussed there, which will be much more user-friendly than on a mailing list. Particularly because of that the EBM is the right place to officially present it.

Golden Oldie: You are also planning an off-topic section for the forum. Why and what do you have in mind for that?

Michael Makowiecki; Being a member of AEGEE does not only mean to work in an NGO, but also to have friends all around Europe. Members are eagerly travelling to many events, especially to statutory meetings in order to also meet their friends and spend some time with them. Having an off-topic section in the forum will allow people to share their interests with other members. I believe that this will create a stronger bond between our members, if they will have the chance to discuss with others also non-AEGEE matters. Basically it is a free space for any kind of topics and we can already see in the forum that some new ideas are being born in this section.

Golden Oldie: Forums require quite some administrative effort: list moderations, taking care that people use their real names, banning aggressive avatars and signatures and dealing with personal attacks that are more frequent in forums than on lists. How do you want to deal with this?

Michael Makowiecki; In order to log-in into the forum the members have to use their intranet accounts. It is impossible for them to use fake names because of it. Changing the name in the profile is disabled. Furthermore avatars and signatures are disabled as well, so any kind of problems with these will simply not occur. Currently all CD members have moderator status. After the testing period when the forum will be fully established, we are planning to install more moderators. Depending on the amount of posts, this should be the right task force to maintain the forum.

Golden Oldie: On the long run, do you want to replace all lists by a forum? Or do you want to offer a choice to locals, WGs and project teams?

Michael Makowiecki; The aim is to replace only few major mailing lists by the forum. Basically we are talking here about AEGEE-L and Statutory-Reforms-L, with an emphasis on the first one. The forum should be the platform for all public and open discussions in AEGEE. Mailing lists are still fine for working in groups like Working Groups and Project teams. These are closed for team members anyway.

Golden Oldie: The forum can only be one step with a bigger and wider coherent communication strategy that makes full use of Web 2.0. Basically you’ll have a website, lists, blog, forum, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube… How much does AEGEE-Europe use the channels?

Michael Makowiecki; Being present an all possible Web 2.0 platforms does not mean that this presence is really effective. When I started my term as Communications Director, it was one of my priorities to bring some order into our digital presence. Social media platforms may be an incredibly effective tool in order to get attention and visibility if used in the right way. I have reactivated the Twitter account and also cleaned up the AEGEE Facebook page. This should be our main space on Facebook. It is important to clearly define the role of these various channels. In order to effectively show presence on these channels, also involvement from the side of the Network is required. Multiplication is the key feature of social networks and neither Twitter of Facebook are effective, if the followers are not contributing, commenting, liking and retweeting.

Golden Oldie: After the tools are set up, you now have to find the right channel for each message?

Michael Makowiecki; Generally I started to make a division between the various channels and am trying to establish our Twitter channel as a tool for professional communication with other entities working in a similar field, while Facebook is rather a tool to inform members and potential members about the developments in AEGEE. That is also why I have disabled the cross-posting.

Golden Oldie: So how do you make a differentiation between social media and classic channels?

Michael Makowiecki; Every communication channel should have a clearly defined purpose and target group. For example our mailing lists are used for our internal communication in closed circles and they are usually connected to a specific topic. It gets more blurry when it comes to the wide field of social media. In our strategy Twitter is used mainly to promote the recent developments in AEGEE among stakeholders, while the Facebook page is used to inform the members about the activities of AEGEE-Europe. Furthermore we have the blog that aims to present overall CD activities better to the Network, but also some personal opinions and suggestions coming from CD members. Successful communication simply needs rules and structure. A chaotic way of publishing information will only confuse the recipients and eventually not transfer any information at all.

Golden Oldie: How do you communicate this coherent strategy?

Michael Makowiecki; I have written a document called “Communication Guidelines”. It is not yet officially published, but will be soon. It contains a description of all the main channels that AEGEE-Europe is using and guidelines on how to use them in a proper way. I hope that this document will bring more structure in the way we are communicating internally and externally. Of course there will be a lot of work needed in order to promote this document in the right way and to motivate people to read it and to take it seriously. At the EBM Riga will already be a workshop about the visibility of AEGEE and communication. This will be the right place to discuss the Communication Guidelines and to promote them. Quite often I could observe that there is a big need in the Network for a document that will explain how to communicate in AEGEE. It is basically ready and can be published as soon as it has been extended with a part explaining the concept of the forum. I hope that the members will take the Guidelines serious enough to widely implement them. Fortunately there is also the Public Relations Committee to help me with the implementation of the Guidelines.