A woman moderates online comments.

Moderation: An online health community tool for understanding, not just responding

For people living with chronic health conditions, Health Union’s online health communities help people live better by providing the information, connection and validation they want. But, how do we know what people want and how does Health Union deliver it in a scalable, yet personal way that benefits the patients we serve and our partners?

To kick off the year, our marketing team sat down with some of the leaders from Health Union’s Community Development team. We wanted to hear first-hand from the people who are immersed in our communities and why Health Union’s approach works. In this series, we will focus on three critical components of our model.

This interview with Kristine Zerkowski, Vice President of Community Development, is the first in a three-part series.

Kristine Zerkowski

Kristine Zerkowski, Vice President of Community Development at Health Union

Moderation is a key component to Health Union’s approach for community development. What is moderation, in Health Union terms?

Within online communities, moderation takes on many different forms and definitions. At Health Union, we view it as a tool to engage with and better understand our communities. We are committed to creating real connections with real people who live with chronic health conditions, and moderation is a way we demonstrate this commitment in our online health communities.

How does Health Union’s approach to moderation compare to industry moderation practices, in general?

Over the years, we’ve learned how to apply moderation practices that help us not only to engage actively with what the community is saying and doing, but also moves us to understand the “why” behind their behaviors. We listen to understand, not to respond, which has proven to be a key tenet in building lasting relationships.

As part of Health Union’s moderation practices, we enforce rules of engagement that create a safe and supportive environment for the community, which includes taking a very conservative approach to policing behavior in our communities. We have learned to be comfortable with content that makes us squirm, and this is really a key differentiating factor for us. We are very hesitant to delete comments, and even more hesitant to ban community members. It’s important that we don’t shy away from uncomfortable questions and conversations, and rather address things publicly. The strong presence of our skilled moderators keeps community members feeling comfortable, willing to share, and more likely to return.

Arguably what’s most unique is that our moderators are real people, not robots, and our responses are not canned. We have people who respond to comments and interactions as individuals, acknowledging their feelings and emotions, and providing them with what they are looking for whether it be information, support, or just someone to lend an ear. Hearing from real, genuine people has an incredible impact on the individual and on that community as a whole and increases the value of the engagement.

How have Health Union’s moderation practices evolved in the past nine years?

You might expect that there has been a lot of change; however, Health Union’s moderation principles have actually remained fairly consistent since our first community, Migraine.com, launched in 2010. Maintaining trust and transparency has always been at the heart of our moderation practices. Of course, as established communities grow and new communities launch, we make adjustments as issues arise, so some of the rules of engagement have evolved; but the commitment to maintaining a safe, supportive environment that our communities trust is paramount. Further, as concerns around privacy and posting publicly on social media have increased in recent years, we’ve started offering other, more anonymous, venues for members to communicate with us, and with each other.

How does moderation fit within the rest of Health Union’s community model?

Our purpose on the Community Team is to make people feel better by meeting them “where they are”at that moment in time – mentally, emotionally, and physically. Moderation is our tool for ensuring that we are truly engaging with the people in our communities – we are here for the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s critical that we never become “those people in the ivory tower” — disconnected from reality. To do so, we must truly immerse ourselves in their experiences, and we are able to do this through the triangulation of content, engagement and moderation. Moderation is a key component that strings it all together as it makes people feel heard and safe in this environment. Each component of the model reinforces the other.

What are the results? How can Health Union partners benefit from our unique approach?

I think one of the most valuable things we provide our external partners through our approach is real, candid insight into what patients who live with these unique, often misunderstood conditions experience every day. There is only so much you can learn about a condition from a focus group, and we help others understand all aspects of living with these conditions, even the silent ones, that can often go unnoticed.