As a minimum standard for any online community engagement software, here are the top 6 things to look for.

1. A Friendly, Safe And Accessible Environment

Let’s face it a friendly, easy and safe place to spend time on encourages your community to get involved. Consider the following:

  • Ensure the software is intuitive and easy-to-use for you and your community. Ask for access to a demonstration site so that you can try it out yourself.
  • When discussions, comments, thoughts and ideas are publicly accessible, 3rd party, 24/7 moderation ensures focused feedback in a safe environment.
  • Make sure the software meets current accessibility guidelines and standards.
  • Ensure you own the data and the privacy of data is protected.

2. An Information-Rich Learning Environment

Access to information is at the heart of community engagement and will help focus feedback towards a particular topic and sharpen the quality of the feedback you receive.

  • The software should come with a project library, video and image galleries.
  • When your community needs to know about project updates, a project news feed and e-newsletter capability are essential for keeping your community up to speed, informed and engaged.
  • A key dates calendar listing associated consultation events and details is a must along with a project timeline outlining key project milestones.
  • Capacity to embed social media, slide share, maps and applications anywhere within your engagement project is really useful.

3. Feedback Tools To Suit All Stages Of Your Consultation

The ability to incorporate the individual, sequential or combined use of multiple feedback tools in any consultation project, ensures your community remains engaged, allows you to choose and use the right tool at the right stage of your consultation and your community to select the feedback tool they feel most comfortable with. Look for all of these tools!

  • Discussion Forums: the most transparent form of online engagement, discussion forums are community spaces for public discussion, debate and dialogue. Ensure the software allows for multiple themed discussions and includes capacity for your consultation project team to facilitate and distinctively engage in discussion forums.
  • Guestbooks: the simplest of feedback mechanisms, Guestbooks are designed to gather text-based “public” feedback from participants without community dialogue or debate. Guestbooks are particularly useful as an ongoing feedback tool.
  • Storytellers: allow you to gather rich participant stories using text, images, video and audio files. Storyteller tools are most useful when capturing personal experiences or knowledge, or dealing with highly emotional personal or social issues, where the intention is simply to honour and make participant stories public.
  • Surveys: great when you need quantifiable data and want to gather responses to a range of very specific questions. “Closed” rather than a “public” feedback mechanism, surveys are often best used in conjunction with one of the public feedback tools within the engagement process.
  • Forms and Submissions: fantastic tools for applications, RSVPs and feedback of a statutory nature requiring the inclusion of personal details. Ideally, Forms and Submissions should allow for attachments and provide the submitter with a date stamped copy of their submission.
  • Quick Polls: provide a way to easily poll your community or project participants to assess general perceptions and capture a snapshot regarding a particular topic or issue. Quick Polls are best used as a “value add” to your consultation rather than as the main feedback mechanism.
  • Interactive Mappers: provide map-based tools and are useful for policy, planning or project work with a spatial element, for example, land use planning, parks and recreation planning, community facilities planning and urban regeneration. Interactive mappers should include capacity for participants to pin comments, identify priorities or complete surveys associated with specific locations.
  • Q&A: are issues management and information tools designed to balance transparency and careful consideration of responses to publicly raised concerns or requests for information. Q&A tools should provide the capacity to respond to participant generated questions either publicly within your consultation project, or privately via direct email.
  • Ideation or Brainstormers: are tools that allow your community to generate ideas around specific themes and are best used to gather input at the beginning of consultation and then opening up a selected or groups of themed ideas for further exploration using discussions, quick polls and surveys.

4. Meaningful Analysis And Reports

Capturing feedback around your consultation means you are going to need more than just Google Analytics. For starters, you need to know at a glance who is informed, aware and engaged! Look for the following:

  • Real-time integrated reporting within the software with the capacity to capture all feedback and activity associated with an individual consultation, a selection of consultations or all consultations over various timeframes.
  • Reports should incorporate the full range of participant activity on the including site visits, page views, individual document and video downloads, participant demographics, graphs and comments captured by surveys, mapper, submissions and quick polls and all comments captured via discussion forums, guestbooks, Q&A and the storyteller.
  • Ensure reports can be configured across a variety of date ranges and can be viewed in real-time and exported and printed in PDF and Excel formats.
  • Ensure you have access to comment analysis and tagging functionality for qualitative data incorporating capacity to search and categorise by keywords or combinations of keywords and tags.
  • The online community engagement software should include the capacity to determine and capture participant demographics within the sign-up and provide associated statistical data.

5. Anytime, Anywhere

Online community engagement software must allow your community to engage at a time and place that suits them!

  • Simple really… ensure the software is responsive and has the capacity to automatically recognise and adapt to provide an interface for mobile phones, tablets and PCs.

6. A Partner With Knowledge And Experience

For technical and strategic support, you need more than a technician on a helpdesk or IT sales person!

  • Again pretty simple… ensure the software provider is a leader in the development of online community engagement software and provides access to skilled support staff, community engagement practitioners and advice.

Footnote:

Moving to dedicated engagement software generally indicates a commitment to a more structured and focused approach to community and stakeholder engagement. Recognise the move as an investment in organisational capacity and culture and a commitment to strengthening relationships with and across communities.

Take your time to ensure the software you choose is up to the task!