Engaging people online can be one of the fastest, easiest and most cost-efficient methods for collecting community input. Unfortunately a few missteps in the process can negate any benefit. Knowing “best practice” for engaging online is only half the battle. You also need to watch out for some common misconceptions that can steer you wrong. So without further ado, here are our top 10.
1. Only young people engage online
Many believe that they will get an over representation from the younger demographic when collecting information online. Teenagers and young adults seem to always have their heads buried in their phones so they must be easily accessible online, right? Wrong. While it is true that young people use the internet in massive numbers they are a fickle group and frequently abandon mainstream networks for trendy new sites. It’s important to make sure that your engagement strategies leverage the latest networks.
2. It’s hard to get seniors to participate
A survey by “Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project” showed that social networking among internet users 50+ doubled from April 2009 to May 2010. The figures were even higher for older users over the age of 65. More recently Pew Research stats tell us that 59% of adults 65+ use the internet. Once online it becomes a regular part of their routine with 71% using social networks daily. In one recent MetroQuest project which involved engaging the public on the development of a cycling plan for a city, seniors were actually over represented in the online participation when the demographics were compared with the census.
3. All online tools do the same thing
Online engagement tools are quite varied in the roles they play in online engagement. There are tools for crowdsourcing, surveying, stakeholder management etc. Each tool has its own strengths. It’s critical to define your goals for online engagement and use them to seek out and evaluate the best tools for your needs.
4. It’s the same audience online as at public meetings
If your online tool is easy and fast to use, you’ll be able to attract a very different audience than those willing to attend a public meeting. The folks that make the effort to attend a town hall session typically fall into one of three categories: NIMBY folks who are angry or scared about the project, stakeholders that are required to be there, and those with lots of free time. Together these folks represent a very small, and often hostile, portion of the population. The vast majority of residents don’t have the time and/or motivation to make it out to a town hall meeting. Making the engagement process fast and easy for them is the only way they’ll end up participating. We have consistently found that these less motivated folks are more moderate in their views and are more likely to provide constructive and supportive input.
5. It has to be simple
The engagement process has to be easy and fast BUT that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be simple. We’ve found that most participants are smart and can easily understand the information laid out to them if you provide it in a clear and accessible format. Most surveys shy away from any attempt to present tradeoffs. It’s a shame since any planner knows that when presented with alternative options, it’s all about tradeoffs. A dynamic and graphical interface can address this. For example, with MetroQuest, we show people the pros and cons of each alternative using simple red and green arrows so they can understand and visualize the tradeoffs. As long as the information is presented in a way that is fast and easy to understand, participants appreciated it and will use the information to inform their input.
6. Build it and they will come
This misconception seems to be pervasive and has been proven wrong time and time again. If you build a great, engaging site and follow best practices in its design but simply post the link on a distant page of your agency website and wait…and wait… your engagement tool is unlikely attract a crowd. If, however, you are savvy about how you leverage your brand, community groups, bloggers, social media as well as local and offline media you can bring them out in droves.
7. Ladies & Gentlemen: While I have your attention …
Organizations seeking community engagement have a tendency to pack too much into their online experience. They feel that while they have the attention of a participant they might as well seek out as much information as they can. Unchecked, you may end up with a lengthy survey that only the most motivated (aka angry NIMBY folks) will suffer through. Here is the irony: the shorter you make it the more information you’ll gather.
8. Including a sign up at the beginning won’t hurt participation if it’s fast
When you require people to register before they participate most will run shrieking in the other direction. Here’s the trick that we use: ask for people’s demographic information and emails at the end. At this point, when they are most invested in the survey, most will provide it. People who are invested are curious. A simple promise of a copy of the results when it’s hot off the press is often enough motivation. A chance to win an iPad doesn’t hurt either!
9. Open-ended questions are best
If you have too many open ended questions it becomes a mammoth feat to categorize them and make meaningful conclusions about trends and overall findings. It’s not uncommon for us to gather 50,000+ pieces of input for a single project. At that volume it’s critical that the majority of the information you gather can be analyzed digitally. For example, we’ve found it best to allow people to rank priorities from a predefined list with an option at the end to add anything that they felt was missing from the list.
10. Face to face engagement is obsolete
Here is the kicker. Face to face engagement still has its place in the whole process. Some things are simply done better and more in depth face to face, such as developing alternatives or debating the merits of a certain direction. The best overall engagement strategy leverages the unique strengths of both face to face and online engagement.
If you’d like to more about best practices for online engagement check out this short video and this list of tips.