1. Explain the potential impacts of your engagement.
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.
Your community does not want to read and reflect on a 300-page strategy document - they want to be involved in the discussions and decisions that affect their everyday lives. When you take the time to explain the issues, opportunities and potential implications of your work and how it will actually affect your community-members, they are much more likely to participate.
'A 20% variation in the library services budget' communicates nothing, while 'Your library could potentially close on weekends' has far more impact.
2. Keep your content clear and interesting
Your content sets the context for your engagement, and if it's overly complex, jargon-filled or lacking a 'why', you're likely losing participants. It's not your community's job to read long form text and deduce what they need to know and how they're meant to participate - it's your job to show them.
Share the facts in easy-to-understand formats like bulleted lists or a video explaining the core issues. Infographics and photos can provide additional context and a welcoming atmosphere to visual learners. Provide this content in the same space you are engaging (read: your EHQ Project Page!) so the community so the community doesn't have to go searching in other places to find it.
Finally, make sure you're asking actionable questions. Whether they recognize it in the moment or not, your participants understand there isn't much you can decide with responses to 'What do you think of our proposed transportation plan?', while 'Help us prioritize items in the transportation plan - Would additional bike lanes or more on-demand bus routes benefit the community most?' yields input that can be turned into decisions. If your question(s) won't yield targeted responses that can help shape a plan, issue or project, your participants won't be as motivated to answer them.
3. Use a mix of engagement tools
Your community is diverse, dynamic and evolving, and your community engagement work should reflect that. Offering a mix of engagement tools (Ideas, Mapping, Surveys, Q+A) welcomes more participants into the conversation, resulting in richer feedback. While some of your community members might feel a deep sense of satisfaction when taking a survey, others might feel mistrustful after years of taking surveys that never seemed to result in any change. Mixing up the type of tool you use to collect feedback helps keep your engagements interesting and fresh, while ensuring you get the specific type of data (quantitative, quantitative, a mix) you need to get your work done. Finally, ensure you're choosing the right tools to fit the phase or needs of your project - asking your community to share new ideas about a draft plan when you really just need feedback on what is proposed can build create distrust in the community.
4. Promote, promote, promote!
A common mistake in community engagement work is forgetting to communicate the opportunity to engage. It's easy to consider the work done once you've put in all the effort to get your project page built and your tools launched, but that's really where the real engagement work begins.
Your social media channels, email lists and traditional media are great ways to get the word out. You might naturally know where your community orients themselves around interest (maybe the parks enthusiasts love your newsletters but the community development crowd is more active on Facebook), and targeting your invites along those interest lines will help drive even more traffic to your site. Shifting away from general messaging ('We have a new Online Engagement site, come check it out!') to interest-driven ('We're working on an Urban Forestry project and need you to recommend sites for tree planting!') can be a powerful driver of engagement.
Other ideas and innovations include – 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 in the community with tablets to help get your community members signed up.