A couple months ago Kent “the fastest thumbs on Twitter” Wyatt asked me to describe the ‘nitty gritty’ of creating a community engagement website. My initial reaction was “what on earth does he mean?”
Having spent the past several months working with communities across the US on this exact topic I think I now have an idea of what he means:
How does a community successfully build and deploy an online engagement presence?
Jumping right into it – here are five tips that can help make online engagement work in your community.
1) Don’t get bogged down in what to call your program
I was once part of a team that was tasked with developing a program around engagement. We spent the better part of an afternoon debating the merits of engagement versus outreach, don’t make the same mistake. What it is called is not as important as what it does and what your objectives are. Look for tools that will help you build your online community over time and are attractive enough, in terms of design, that would make you want to use the platform.
2) Be nimble
Be nimble in your use of these (and other) tools; don’t get bogged down in making it perfect. Creating a space that allows people to comment on important community issues, on their own time, is a very important step in expanding your community engagement. As long as you act on the feedback you are receiving and adjust your program as needed (updating questions and creatively using tools) your community/ies will respond in kind. To quote The Great One, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Keeping anything behind the curtain because your organization doesn’t think it’s perfect is the fast track to mediocrity. Publish, reflect, update, and republish and you will have a successful program.
3) Create content you would read and acknowledge input
There is no question that content is one of the most important parts of any online or public engagement strategy. You only get one opportunity to clearly articulate why someone should want to take time away from their family or life to provide you with feedback. If an individual can’t quickly diagnose the what and the why on any particular project, your program will be short lived. For a great example of how to develop a comprehensive engagement strategy check out the City of Sydney’s approach.
A few things to consider when developing your project engagements; have a clear timeline for the project and make sure to have this on the project page, outline stages of the project and seek specific relevant feedback for each step. Develop a feedback window to create some urgency and more importantly to keep the project moving – have the council session or board meeting date that this will be considered on the page as well. Use videos. Have your online engagement available during your in-person engagement sessions and create multiple channels for providing feedback.
4) Acknowledge feedback
It is imperative to acknowledge feedback and appreciate your community’s input. If a submission goes off into a black hole I promise you it will cause as much harm as good. One way to avoid the never ending cycle of engagement is to keep everyone who has expressed interest or participated in the process updated with what you have heard. Part of your initial strategy should be setting up automated acknowledgements and creating a protocol around project/policy announcements.
5) Create targets and KPI’s that reflect your original mission
How do you know if you were successful? I often tell clients that the most important thing you can do is get out of the idea that click rates and comments is the best way to judge whether or not you’re successful in your online engagement effort. Yes, at the end of the day, you may be tasked with gathering feedback on a very important issue but the idea that these data points are the real success indicators totally overshoots what you are hopefully looking to accomplish. If you’re looking to bring more people into the democratic and decision making process by making the process more open, transparent and accessible than you need to consider other important factors. Think about targeting underrepresented groups, areas of rapid change in the community, and demographic groups that don’t commonly show up to your public meetings. To this end, it is important to use a product that will help your team diagnose user activity and collect relevant participant data to help you point to your success.
We often suggest to clients to think about an engagement strategy that runs multiple consultations on wide ranging projects, things that are front and center in a particular neighborhood or in the local media, along with more nuanced projects that have a specific following. This way you can achieve a dual purpose mission (if you have one) of bringing new faces to the table and gathering large amounts of feedback on a variety of issues.
6) Use a variety of tools
Last year our clients published almost 3,000 project pages. Of those, the data suggest that consultations created with multiple feedback tools are the most engaging. Particularly, when an organization creates and engagement strategy that brings in community mapping, ideation and forums we have seen the highest rates of engagement. Tools like surveys and storytelling can be powerful and necessary at different times, let your desired outcomes drive the tool selection.
If you are struggling to get people involved in the democratic process, ask them for their ideas and give them a space to discuss topics. Throwing out half baked or already accepted ideas in a survey may not attract the audience you are hoping for.