It doesn't matter if you're consulting with a single neighborhood or an entire country, online community engagement projects need to break through the background noise and reach the right audience to be effective. There are some quick and easy steps you can take to make sure that your next consultation gets noticed and makes an impact. I call them the 5 Cs of online community engagement!
Build up an online community by connecting with stakeholders at a personal level.
When you're communicating with the public you need to strike a balance between detailed information and keeping it relevant. Everyone expects a 100-page masterplan to delve into the minute technical details of a project, but online community engagement needs to keep the messages shorter and more targeted. Don't get me wrong: precise details are important (and often a regulatory requirement), but make sure you spell out the significance of the consultation as well. Connect with your stakeholder's sense of place by embedding shareable videos of relevant local landmarks, places and people. Circulate hyperlinks to your project in local interest group forums or pages.
Because quality communication needs talking and listening.
The majority of the projects we work with have an element of interactivity. It might seem obvious, but it's surprisingly easy to overlook the difference between "online community engagement" and "online exhibition". Online community engagement is a chance for people to share their vision, not just read through your plans. If there are negotiables still on the table make sure you allow for a little leeway - as long as you spell out the limitations and scope. Communication is about exchange, so try not to get too caught up on forcing feedback to fit your goals.
You already have a network - use it!
Ever heard that saying "no planning authority or community engagement professional is an island"? That's because they need to have deep roots connecting them to a range of networks. Online community engagement is the perfect forum to nurture these connections. Use your existing assets - internal staff channels, contacts with interest groups, existing stakeholder databases from previous consultations; all of these can be enlisted to help seed a consultation project so that it blossoms into a fruitful discussion. That's enough plant references, now. I'll leaf it be.
Make sure your stakeholders know they have been an important part of the process.
This could be as easy as a thank-you email to particpants, or as elaborate as an multi-channel promotional campaign, but ensuring your stakeholders feel heard and respected is essential to building consensus and community. By closing the loop with your stakeholders and reporting back on successes you give people a chance to see how their input has had an impact. It's even better if these messages can come from someone high up in the planning or decision-making process.
Broadcast your successes to the world!
People want to feel like they were a part of something that had an impact - no matter what size your online community engagement project is you should always broadcast the results. Tell the public some of the key stats and figures and let them in on key findings or decisions as soon as possible. Leverage your existing social media and traditional marketing channels to make sure as many people as possible hear about your successes. This will encourage even more people to participate next time, and make your next online community engagement project the best it can be.