Today is the day! Your online engagement site is going live, a culmination of months, perhaps years of work to foster internal buy-in, secure funding, identify projects, create content, gather images and finally launch your site. Congratulations!
Now the real work begins.
In my experience, driving traffic to your online engagement site is harder than all of the aforementioned work, because it involves daily thought and attention for 3-6 months in order to build any sort of meaningful audience, and ongoing attention over time to keep them coming back for more. What daily attention looked like for me was a post-it note on my monitor that said Imagine Lakewood?, so I’d stop to think about whether I could include public-facing information about our online engagement site in every single deliverable of my job, from writing press releases to coordinating the printing of our arts and culture magazine. A post-it note isn’t rocket science, but it was effective. Among hundreds of other touchpoints, I put calls to action in our ticket mailings for the Cultural Center, ordered yard signs to plant in the lawn at our Summer Concert Series, and designed sunglasses and new business cards for city staff.
I wish I could tell you that launching an online engagement site will immediately transport you to a cornfield in Iowa, where you will hear a gentle but purposeful voice say, “If you build it, they will come” but the internet is not Iowa. The internet is a vast, crowded, hot and often smelly place full of competing information, content, and interests. What can you do to set your community engagement work apart from the misinformation masses?
The good news is this – you have something your community wants. Your residents desperately want to understand what is going on around them, and also want to learn, share ideas, and give feedback on projects and issues that are important to them. If you live in the headspace of “Our residents just love to complain,” perhaps you need to spend some time in the headspace of your residents who rely deeply on your services in order to do the most basic of daily tasks – get to work, heat their homes, pay their bills, feed their families. Meeting these typically underserved residents where they are, by offering them a chance to engage with you online, is a critical step in building trust. And trust is the starting line of any collaborative and productive relationship.
The great news is this – there is a tried and true method for fostering meaningful online community engagement. The work involves a mix of marketing, communications and content strategy, and also asks you to be very flexible and a bit vulnerable. Being flexible means, you have to be prepared to shift and iterate – you can’t build a conversation (or community) with the same approach as you would use to build a new water treatment plant. Plans for online engagement should be viewed as a North Star to guide your way, not a strict treatise.
The vulnerability piece asks you to lean into tough conversations. I’ve seen plenty of fantastic people try to do this good work, only to get scared of what their community response might be and back away fully from any conversation of substance. These wonderful, well-meaning people then circle back to ask how to get participation numbers up. The answer is always the same – ask the questions you know your community wants to answer. There is no amount of marketing that will drive hordes of participants to a site when all you’re doing is asking the municipal equivalent of “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?”
If you’re interested in hearing a bit more about how to find success in this space, I invite you to join me for a free webinar later this month Marketing Your Online Engagement Site. At 1 p.m. MST on Wednesday, February 19th, we will take a dive into flexibility and vulnerability, as well as developing effective content, marketing and communication strategies to support your online community engagement work. You can register with the link below, and feel free to send any questions or situations you’d like me to address during our hour together to [email protected] I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve seen a lot!
Existing Business Manager at Bang the Table
Meghan Ruble, Existing Business Manager for Bang the Table and former Marketing Supervisor for City of Lakewood. Meghan joined the Bang the Table team after five years working at the local government level. Her experience managing a municipal marketing and communications team left her very familiar with the challenges agencies face when planning and running community engagement projects. She is based in New York City.