If you want to have a great online engagement campaign, you need to have a solid plan. This plan will be the blueprint for success for your team, so make sure that you sit down and think strategically as early as possible.

Whether you’re a veteran of the practice or just starting out – don’t be intimidated by the task at hand. After learning from the hundreds of projects for clients that have used our software to engage their communities online, we’ve created a list of steps to follow when crafting an engagement plan that will lead to great results.

1. Define the Scope of Your Project

To begin – it’s critical to get agreement on several guiding questions. What decisions will be made at the end of the project? Who will be affected? What role will stakeholders play in the decision making process? What are the timelines?

Answering and getting internal agreement on these questions will help to align your team and guide your engagement process.

2. Know Your Limitations

Establish your constraints at the outset. Common limitations include topics or decisions that are off limits, out of scope or already made, budget, time, available resources and legislative or jurisdictional barriers. You are bound to be asked these questions by the public. It’s best to prepare responses in advance to ensure that your team is ready and able to provide consistent information.

3. Identify Stakeholders

Who will be affected by the decisions made for your project? Individuals in specific geographic areas, community groups, business associations, special interest organizations, all levels of government, schools, major employers … the list goes on.

Consider the interests of each of these groups and how your project will impact them. Each group will have key issues of interest and priorities, and a good understanding of them will assist in the development of your online engagement content and the promotional material to attract participation.

4. Create Objectives

Start at the end and work backwards. What is the best possible outcome? What are your objectives for the public involvement process?

Keep in mind that a successful engagement process doesn’t simply mean the highest amount of feedback – quality of feedback is crucial, as is the breadth of participation that you receive. For example, it might be more important for you to hear from particular rural communities than simply the maximum number of people possible.

5. Choose Metrics and Targets

Based on your objectives, create quantifiable metrics that you can monitor throughout the engagement process. These should be simple, easily tracked, and tied directly to your objectives. Possible metrics include number of participants, demographic and geographic diversity of participants, or number of data points collected (votes on alternatives, comments, map markers, etc.).

6. Create Your Timeline with Milestones

It’s now time to lay out a timeline with milestones and dates tied in to your project metrics. Consider project phases, time required to build up awareness and participation for key audiences, data processing time, and deliverables needed for post-project reporting.

Try using a Gantt chart with all of these important milestones in order to keep your process on track.

7. Choose Your Channels

Make it easy for people to participate on the web and on the go with mobile devices. It’s also important to accommodate people without access to devices of their own. This can be done by providing kiosks at community centers, tablets at special community events or paper-based input options.

As you develop your engagement strategy it’s useful to consider how best to combine face-to-face public meetings with your online outreach to leverage the strengths of each.

8. Craft a Promotional Strategy

In the online world, many people think if they launch a web tool, everyone will come flocking. Veterans in the business know that it isn’t that easy. Developing a great online experience is only half the battle. Creating an effective promotional strategy is the other half and it’s best to begin defining it as early as possible.

9. Allow for Flexibility within the Process

While it’s important to have a well-defined plan, it’s best to leave some flexibility to allow you to adjust midstream. Monitor engagement results early on, and be prepared to adjust your strategies to fill in any demographic gaps. Don’t plan all events and activities and commit all of your budget in advance. Anticipate the need for “boots on the ground” or other promotional efforts to reach specific groups in your community.

10. Have a Post-Engagement Plan

The best time to think about how you will report back on the results of your engagement process is before you begin, as it will guide your choice of questions and a host of other elements of your process. Then, when your engagement process is over and you have collected a large amount of high-quality data to support your project, you’ll be prepared to analyze the results and create insightful reports for the project team, proponents and the community.

Remember that you have two very different audiences for reporting: internal and external groups. For internal purposes, an in-depth report is likely required. For external audiences, creating easy-to-digest infographics and shorter summaries will allow the general public to see the results of the engagement process without wading through 50 pages of detailed text.