Let’s take a look at what’s working best in online community engagement

In the early days of online community engagement tools there were plenty of experiments happening and not enough information to allow any meaningful pattern analysis. With those early days behind us, it’s finally possible to tease out best practices and evaluate critical success factors. After looking across hundreds of outreach project that used online tools as a key source of public input, here are 6 of the most common characteristics of the most successful case studies.

1. Target a 5-Minute Experience

Attention spans are shorter than ever. In order to engage people who are in a rush or those who are less motivated, aim for a 5-minute experience. It may seem counter-intuitive but shorter you make it, the more information you’ll collect. The funny thing is that it only needs to seem like it’s going to take 5-minutes when people arrive. Visitors will look around and do some quick math to estimate how long it will take before deciding to engage. Interactive elements like putting comments on a map have a way of looking fast and then sucking people in because they are so engaging. They might spend a great deal more than 5 minutes after they get hooked. A boring 35-question survey will likely scare most people away but 3 or 4 interactive exercises that allow people to engage briefly or deeply will allow people to engage at whatever level they feel comfortable.

The pattern of participation suggests that a 5-minute experience is the sweet spot.

The pattern of participation suggests that a 5-minute experience is the sweet spot.

2. Avoid Mandatory Registration

When you require people to register before they participate most will run shrieking in the other direction. In fact the comparative analysis we did suggests that only one in ten would-be participants will be willing to register before beginning. Some of the best case studies examined used a simple twist on registration: ask for people’s demographic information and email addresses at the end. This is the point when they are most invested in the process and, as a result, most will provide it. People who are invested are curious. A simple promise of a copy of the results when they are hot off the press is often enough motivation to collect this information. Some will choose to participate anonymously which is fine as long as your online tool has mechanisms for weeding out potential abusers. Others will want to keep in track of the process and will offer their information.

3. Fun & Visual Interfaces Pay Off

There are many benefits of having a tool that is fun. With online engagement, you’re competing with Facebook, Twitter, funny cat videos and everything else out there.

Anything you can do to make the experience more enjoyable will pay off. This includes interactive elements (dragging items into priority order, coin games, visual preference surveys, making comments on a map) and visually attractive colors and layouts. Plain, complicated, or unattractive sites will cause participants to wander away.

We all know the saying, a picture is worth a thousand words. That’s true and, as an added benefit, they are also fast! Images communicate information 60,000 times faster than text. Visuals also stir emotions incredibly effectively, so if you want people to feel something, use pictures. They make it more memorable as well since pictures are stored in a person’s long-term memory while text goes into short-term memory. So if you want something to be engaging and memorable, put a picture on it.

Providing a range of visual and interactive screens to choose from has always been a focus of MetroQuest

4. Educate Before Asking

The responses to simplistic multiple choice questions are easy to discount by critics. Look for ways to educate people about their choices. Help people understand the tradeoffs associated with each of the options before asking people to weigh in to assure the critics that the responses are meaningful.
At the same time, it’s important to avoid biased alternatives. If an option is presented that appears to have no negative consequences, it can skew the results unfairly. People are very adept at sensing bias. There are always pros and cons with any alternative and it’s critical to be transparent about them.
Having people vote in favor of a scenario when they’re educated and aware of the tradeoffs makes their vote more meaningful.

5. Focus on Quantifiable Input

Imagine if you engaged 10,000 people from a broad demographic of your overall community – huge success, right? But what would you do with all of that information if the data you collected was just sticky notes or text comments? What are the trends? How do you summarize it on a graph? Now you’ve got a huge headache.

It’s important to plan carefully how you will handle the results when they come streaming in. The most successful projects select screens and ask questions that produce quantifiable results that can be tabulated and analyzed easily. It’s always good to include open-ended questions to allow people to add their own ideas but these should be secondary (e.g. do you have anything you’d like to add?).

6. Promote Like Mad Men

The movie ‘Field of Dreams’ got one thing wrong. When it comes to public participation, the adage “if you build it they will come” is terribly naïve. 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. In order to compete with the clutter of information that bombards people every day, there are many strategies to keep in mind to kick start your participation and keep the momentum going throughout the engagement period.

A key to this is promotion – getting your message out to as many people as possible and compelling them to participate. We’ve compiled a list of 10 tips to consider when promoting your next project.

Sometimes project leaders need to think like the advertising executives depicted in TV's Mad Men

That’s our list of top 6 common characteristics of the most successful projects we’ve looked at. We’d be curious to hear from others in the field. What patterns have you noticed?