Popularity Contests

The Buzz with Kirsten Wyatt

A friend of ELGL leaned toward me and said, “…but it’s just a popularity contest, right?” We were talking about #ELGLKnope and last year’s focus on city halls, and this year’s focus on libraries. Like so many of us, she’s focused on performance statistics, accreditation, and professional credibility. She wanted to know: was ELGL running a popularity contest?

And I readily admitted that yes, #ELGLKnope is all about popularity. From the start, when we first solicited community nominations for the “best library,” we didn’t ask about circulation numbers or average weekly visits. We just asked for people to nominate their favorite library.

Later on, we asked people why they loved their local library and we received hundreds of responses. At the finale, we had 37,000 votes in the Pueblo-Williamsburg matchup.

I mention all of this because this wasn’t just an awesome exercise (brush our shoulders off) for ELGL to celebrate our local government and libraries; it was also an illustration of how “popularity contests” are excellent ways to engage your community.

If you don’t believe me – take a quick break from reading this blog and do this:

Go to your city Facebook page and Twitter feed. Post the following, “Where’s the best lunch spot in ___[insert city name]___?”

Wait about 10 minutes and then see the type of response you get. I bet it’s at least in double digits. Why? People love to share their opinions, and they also love to share their community knowledge. (Plus, lunch is a hot topic regardless of your political preference, age, race, gender, or religion.)

So often, when we talk about local government community engagement or citizen participation, we get wrapped around the axel of meaty policy issues. We forget that the best way to engage our community is on the easiest topics.

We only ask our community members to engage with us when stakes are high, and we forget to talk to them like fellow neighbors.

Everyday engagement builds a foundation that allows us to later on tackle those meaty issues with more credibility and personality than if we only reach out when we’re required by law to do so.

Here are a few more reasons to hold your own local popularity contest:

  1. Build your email list
    Asking people for feedback on benign issues is a really simple and cheap way to grow your email list. If you have a city e-newsletter, growing this list with the most community members as possible is an important way to ensure that your digital outreach is successful.
  2. Connect with your business community
    Going back to the above question about “best lunch spot.” Asking that question doesn’t mean that your local government is endorsing one restaurant over another. But it does highlight the local restaurants in your city. And when you do that, the word of mouth benefit to those local businesses is something that will make your economic development director very happy. Nothing says “shop local” like engaging your Facebook followers in a knock down, drag out fight over which local restaurant has the best sammies.
  3. Show your personality
    If the only time you engage with your community members is on “agenda item 45-3094,” you’re going to look like a giant nerd. It’s like in high school: no one wants to hang out with the kids from debate (note: I was a debater so I can say this with confidence). Your community members don’t want to feel like they’re getting hit over the head with tough topics every time they engage with your city or county. Generally, their main interaction with you is to pay you a substantial chunk of money in property taxes. Throw them a bone and make their other interactions with you pleasant, engaging, and delightful.
  4. Enhance your image library
    Nothing irks me more than when a local government uses stock imagery on their website or social media pages. Communities are chock full o’ awesome pictures for a local government to use! An easy way to build out your image library is to simply ask your community members to share their pictures with you. In an age when everyone has a high res digital camera phone glued to their hand, you’ll get some amazing pictures you can use (just ensure that you clarify that when you ask for photos). Here are some prompts you can use:

    1. Share a picture of your favorite park!
    2. Take a picture of the book you just checked out!
    3. Going to the fair this weekend? Share your parade pics with us!

What are your favorite questions to ask your community? What has your response rate been when you’ve asked those questions? Share your success stories with us at @ELGL50!


  • Angelica Wedell

    Love this article so much! Our society often knocks the value of “popularity,” but I feel that’s a mistake. When it comes to compelling humans to engage with other humans in a positive way, there must be a degree of “Liking” involved. And all of these tips are great ways to build that sense of “Liking.” For people using images gathered from the public, I would also remind you to ask permission from the photographer to use their photo for other purposes :). Thanks for a great article!