Traditional public participation has been around for as long as anyone can remember. Organizations spend considerable time and money on consultation methods to ensure they meet regulatory standards and they are starting to realize the real benefits of community engagement are far greater than only complying with regulations. This leads to the question of how organizations can use online engagement strategies to effectively compliment their traditional consultation methods.
This article will focus on six benefits of online community engagement including:
- Reaching a broader audience
- Cost effective
- Deeper engagement
- Data-driven outcomes
- Building trust
- Using a safer option for online engagement
1. Reaching a broader audience
Reaching a broad audience is a common goal no matter what level of engagement an organization is undertaking and this is why successful projects use a combination of online and offline community engagement methods. Here are some of the main reasons online engagement platforms that can help reach a broader audience:
- Majority of people are online: 2017 research by Statista suggestions there is now 3.58 billion online users and this is expected to continually grow meaning digital engagement has become one of the most effective methods to engage the most community members possible.
- Reach more people and diverse voices: During an interview earlier this year, Merryn Spencer, community engagement practitioner with the Sutherland Shire Council, spoke about the importance of listening to diverse opinions. "It's really important to have that diverse view so you don't just talk to the vocal minority, you want to talk to the silent majority as well," said Merryn.
- Reaching more people leads to higher participation, more data and knowledge: "Online participation is a welcome opportunity for community members fearful of public meeting formats, offering a medium for broader, more moderate views than those characteristics of traditional planning meetings attended primarily by passionate activists," says Mike Saunders in his article six benefits of online community engagement.
- Public involvement brings more information to the decision and can make the difference between a good and poor decision on a project.
- The community can participate anytime anywhere - as long as they have internet access. Many people simply don't have the time to participate in engagement activities. Online engagement platforms solve this issue by allowing access to the tool at virtually any time.
2. Cost effective
Solely using traditional public participation often neglects a large portion of the community. Its important to understand that there are three members of the community you might be missing out on by simply using traditional engagement strategies. By adding online engagement to your consultation methods, you are able to cost effectively target many more members of the community and encourage them to participate more than ever before.
Community consultation has become a necessary part of most planning projects. "Community Leaders are elected to lead. But they are also elected to represent the views of their constituents and to act in their best interests and that means communicating with their members or the local community in which they operate," - Our Community. Some projects only require informing the community of project details whereas other projects engage or collaborate with the public and stakeholders on more than one occasion.
Using solely traditional engagement methods to update and involve the community in decisions can get very costly, quickly - think, printing costs, postage and hiring venues for public meetings. Using online consultation methods alongside traditional methods allows organizations to easily update and monitor information and reach a larger audience to increase the value of the time they put into consultation. Previous research in the article, seven common internal engagement road blocks suggests, "Online engagement tools and social media provide a platform for project information to be provided to the wider community, while allowing content to be managed. Feedback can be provided to the community in real time, reducing the risk of misinformation. Unlike some traditional forms of engagement, these methods can reduce the instances of costly negotiations with a vocal minority, which can often lead to time delays and budget blowouts."
3. Allows for Deeper Engagement
Online engagement methods have opened many opportunities for both organizations and community participants. Digital engagement can:
- Provide a better participant experience:
- Interactive content: For example interactive mapping can help visualize a proposed plan and provide a more fun, quick and clickable experience.
- Video: The rise of technology and digital platforms means organizations have the ability to quickly get their messages out to the community.Its likely that you won't look back once you fully understand how video engagement can help improve community participation
- Virtual and augmented reality: Engaging online doesn't necessarily mean you need to be at home. You can be at a venue and experience a project from a different angle with the help of online technology. Lake Macquarie City Council used a combination of virtual reality, traditional and digital engagement methods for it's award-winning 'Shape Your Future,' project.
- Helps uncover hidden/peripheral issues or ideas: Early inclusion of the community can add significant value to a project – "it enables you to use stakeholder opinions to shape the scope and vision of the project, gain early support, be aware of, and address the community's issues at the start so they do not derail the project at a later stage, gain an appreciation of the community's reaction and minimise the risks by identifying threats and problems early." Why it is important to engage right from the start, further outlines the significance of why it's beneficial to bring the community along for the journey.
4. Data driven outcomes
Online platforms mean you can create a report, evaluate or give feedback at any given time. This allows your team to spend more time on finalizing reports and getting them approved.
Digital engagement methods allow organizations to quickly produce hard data: "Online engagement has the capacity to combine data collection tools with an educational process. This way the input that is gathered is as informed as possible. Rich choices with education lead to higher-quality feedback," says Dave Biggs in his article, "6 benefits of Community Engagement". Asking someone an open-ended or multiple-choice question is easy, but it can be uninformed or low-quality data. When using a specific engagement platform, you set the rules, guide conversations and this is what leads to more quality data.
5. Builds trust and community
Organizations who haven't previously engaged online may find they spend more on marketing resources but, after a few consultations people know where to go to engage online and therefore marketing costs decrease overtime. Here are a few more reasons online engagement helps build trust in the community.
- Creating a place to engage online sets the stage for sustained participation. People become generally trusting when they understand how to participate, where to locate information and how to access the project end results. “Successful online communities don’t just happen by themselves. They’re the result of a carefully executed strategy, solid design and patient nurturing," say Anna Buss and Nancy Strauss, authors of the online community handbook.
- Having support from the local community and stakeholders decrease costs in the long-run. "You need community and stakeholder buy-in to support your plans through to implementation. Nothing creates buy-in more than a transparent process that allows your community to have their say. The more people that you can engage in an inclusive way, the more support your project will have in the community," says Dave Biggs from MetroQuest.
6. A safe option
People expect to be able to engage online - if organizations don't create a place for engagement to happen, then it is common for the public to create their own space. Read Four risks of not creating a place for communities to engage online if you are currently not engaging with the community about projects online.
One of the main differences between social media engagement and a specific engagement platform is anyone can post on social media and posts can go viral, whereas dedicated engagement platforms create a secure environment where feedback is monitored and the conversation is guided.
Another common reason organizations invest in digital engagement is because of its ability to create a controlled and moderated environment. "I think it is really important leaders and decision makers have courage and are willing to listen to the feedback. At the end of the day, you have to make a decision which you think is in the best interests of the community based on the feedback - and that can be really challenging," said Darius Turner during a Coffee and Cake sit down.