1. How did you get the word out about the opportunity to engage?

Not letting people know about the opportunity to engage is a common mistake and it can be harder than you might think to get the word out effectively.

Your social media channels, email lists and (most of all) traditional media are great ways to get the word out. I’ve also seen some great innovations – handing out postcards to commuters; offering prizes for creative contributions like photos and videos; involving schools, universities and large employers in your area; and getting out there with ipads to get people started, encouraging them to log back in later.

Repeat engagement using the same channel is also part of the answer. The community will get accustomed to coming here to engage and when community members find your site and leave their details you will be able to reach out and lure them back.

2. Were you asking questions that were interesting to the community?

It’s most likely that your needs for feedback and the issues that the community want to talk about don’t perfectly coincide. Having said that, most of the issues you need to talk about are of broad interest, if only you take the time to spell out the implications of what you are proposing.

Nobody wants to talk to you about your 300-page strategy document. They want to talk about real things and decisions that affect their lives. If you take the time to draw out the issues contained in your plan or strategy that actually affect people’s day to day lives it is much more likely that they will respond.

'A 20% variation in the library services budget' sounds interesting but 'your library will no longer be able to open on Saturdays' has far more impact.

3. How interesting were your content and feedback tools?

Your content sets the context for whatever you are engaging about and if it doesn’t grab people’s attention you will struggle to get much feedback. Perhaps make a video explaining the core issues, get someone to build an infographic, provide photos, at the very least break down your document into a series of single page summaries. Don’t expect the community to read and respond to a lengthy PDF document.

Provide this content in the same space you are engaging the community so they don’t have to go searching through your corporate website to find it. Unless your organization is ahead of the game the chances are that your corporate website is hard to navigate.

Secondly, your software needs to be engaging. Choose an engagement platform that doesn’t look like it was designed by a 1990s mechanical engineer. User experience (UX) is important, much more important than feature lists. UX is both a science and an art – avoid home spun solutions and make sure your platform has been put together with UX expertise at the forefront.

Thirdly, use engaging tools to speak to the community. Surveys are effective in some circumstances but nobody really enjoys taking a survey. Try to use engagement tools that let people discuss, share ideas, tell stories or share photos. Choose tools that suit the circumstances of your project too – it’s odd asking the community for ideas about a draft plan when you really want their feedback on your ideas.

4. What was your measurement of success? Was it realistic?

I’ve spoken to lots of people who tell me they tried one online engagement solution or another and that they only got a handful of responses so it didn’t work and doesn’t work in their community.

Firstly, you really need to let the community get accustomed to engaging online. If I’ve always known that I can have my say through turning up to a town hall meeting or writing a formal submission and suddenly I’m being told I can join in on my mobile device from home, you might expect me to be a little cynical at first. Repeat engagement builds community capacity. Don’t think about engaging for one off projects. Create a space for repeat engagement over time and community response will build as you engage more often. Think about some initial targets about building your community database and overall visitor numbers so you can look past individual projects to see the big picture.

You also need to set realistic targets based on what you are engaging on. If you are showing the community a draft and community members choose not to comment, this is usually an indicator that they don’t want to change it. A high number of comments may mean you got your strategy badly wrong not that you have succeeded. For some projects you will need to target the number of participants who are informed by recording their access to relevant information. If you think about this, it’s just like a well-attended drop-in session where people choose not to leave many comments. That isn't a failure, it's a success. Your software needs to be able to paint this picture for you so you can get a true picture of what's going on.

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