Getting big numbers of participants in community engagement for planning has historically been difficult. In 2019, the general consensus was that public meetings were struggling, with some reporting only 94 attendees over 7 meetings, with an average cost of $1,500 per participant!
In 2020, circumstances forced the hand of many planning teams, increasing a push towards virtual meetings and online engagement that quickly showed its efficiency. Several planners actually saw increased engagement over the year!
How can you increase community engagement online? We’ve put together tips from community engagement superstars and identified 3 core concepts:
- Build trust with the community
- Use software that supports your goals
- Innovate and identify a good promotional strategy
Building Community Trust is a Cornerstone of Public Engagement
Asking your community to provide their input every handful of years isn’t enough. It’s vital to build that relationship and trust over time, so that the public feels both listened to and considered. This will make your community valued stakeholders in the processes, helping them to feel that providing input is worth their effort.
Use these tips to build community trust:
1. Reach out to community groups and group leaders
Diverse engagement has always been a critical topic. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance.” Planners have to find ways to reach the commonly underrepresented groups that are, oftentimes, disengaged and mistrustful. Reaching out to community groups, instead of only promoting or working with mainstream groups, can help build trust and create mutually beneficial working relationships.
2. Provide the community with safe, secure places to provide input
Oftentimes, public forums such as public meetings become echo chambers for the loudest voices in the room—which isn’t always the majority. Regardless, it’s vital to gather representative input from as many in the community as possible. Using online software such as MetroQuest anonymizes the process of ‘putting up your hand’ to say something in front of dissenters, instead creating safe spaces which encourage the public to be as honest and uninfluenced as possible.
3. Close the feedback loop to show participants their input has an impact
Something as simple as an infographic showing the collected data from community engagement surveys will show participants that their input is being considered. Rather than leaving participants in the dark about what is done with their opinion data—which can lead to feelings of futility—use your channels to show the results of your study. It can do double duty by reaching community members who were not aware of the input opportunity and will now be on the lookout for future opportunities!
Community Engagement Software Needs to Suit Your Goals
Community engagement software has become a must-have with the movement towards virtual engagement. Many of the engagement experts we have spoken to suggest a toolbox, with 3 types of tools, to best support your online engagement goals: a virtual meeting platform (to host video or live streamed townhalls), an online survey tool (to cleanly gather input) and social media (to build a presence/brand and promote engagement opportunities).
In addition, planners need to:
4. Reduce barriers to participation across demographics
When looking to increase the number of people who participate in your community engagement campaigns, first ask the question: why aren’t they already participating? It may be as simple as lack of awareness (see the promotional strategy section below) or abundance of apathy (see the building trust section above), but there could be other factors at play. Your participants may be stuck at work during the public meeting times; or not be able to find childcare; or not feel safe sharing their opinions. Talk to your community to identify barriers to engagement and use software or other tools to mitigate.
5. Isolate the ‘must haves’ and do your research to find the best software
While we have identified 3 elements of the essential public engagement toolbox for planners, not all tools within are one-size-fits-all. For each plan or study, you will have different goals, and what you need out of your tools will differ. Do your research and find the tools that suit each project and its goals.
6. Nominate a team member to become an expert
Software has learning curves, and the ability the use the software will have a major impact on your ability to use it to meet your goals. Lean on the software’s support team, but also make a member of your team a subject matter expert. Empower someone to be the ‘go-to’, learning the ins and outs of the software. This is especially important when you’re first starting to use a software or expect that you’ll need to use it more widely. Once they’re comfortable with the software, ask them to share their knowledge with the rest of the team!
Good Promotional Strategy is Worth the Time
‘Make it and they will come’ no longer applies in our modern era, where content production rapidly outstrips our ability to see it! Promoting the engagement opportunities that you’ve worked so hard on is vital.
Try these methods to get your online survey, virtual meeting, or other engagement opportunity into the eyes of the community:
7. Go where they already are
Simply put, when you know where your audience already spends their time, you can reach them more easily. Perhaps Nextdoor is popular and widely used in the neighborhood; perhaps there is a really active Facebook group. Identify these areas and use them as the starting point. Build a presence there with a page for your agency, and use it to share content, promoting your engagement opportunities when they come up. At that point, you will already have a following that knows where to look!
8. Use paid promotions and target strategically
Paid promotions can be very effective, and usually don’t cost much—especially on social media. Use well-designed, eye-catching ads to drive people to your online survey, or invite them to visit the project page to learn more and share their thoughts. These ads are most effective when you have a strong CTA, or “call to action”. For example, if you’re working on a new bikeway study, invite people to give their opinions on bike lanes in the city, rather than reading about bike lanes. A more active ‘hook’ like that pushes participants to the survey directly, rather than relying on them to read articles and then find the correct link on their own!
9. Get creative! Use old and new methods
Mailers still work. Some of the planners we’ve spoken to have even repurposed real estate ‘post boxes’ at bus stops, using them as one-stop shops where locals can pick up flyers and updates about their community plans! Even though online engagement is picking up traction, getting creative and using a mix of techniques will help you to cast a wide net and get more participants.
Do you have tips for increasing community engagement online? What’s been working for your organization? Let us know in the comments!