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Is there a ‘tipping point’ in online community engagement?

Is there a ‘tipping point’ in online community engagement?

Community projects might engender a ‘tipping point’; but is there a bellwether for online community engagement?

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” Gladwell seeks to explain, and describe, the “mysterious” sociological changes that mark everyday life. As he states, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” Examples include the rise in popularity and sales of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s and the steep drop in New York City’s crime rate after 1990. And while it states that the tipping point exists somewhere around 20 or 30%, Gladwell’s book is not a scientific text with extensive citations, formal definitions and experimental research to justify its position. It relies on rhetoric and examples to provide its justification.

Interestingly, recent studies suggest a more defined threshold at just 10%. Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, it will always be adopted by the majority of the society. Also members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, these scientists used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10%, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director, Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 per cent, the idea spreads like flame.”

It seems to me that, in aggregate, community engagement client consultations tend to follow similar patterns as those experienced by the Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. An engaged population of 10% is typically indicative of a tipping point for an idea to gain momentum in public participation projects. If this is universally true, then 10% engagement becomes an important benchmark for communities to watch for. It becomes the bellwether for how a community might approve a policy; a leading indicator of support or opposition of a strategy.  At 10% or more engagement, it signals either a call to action for change; anything less suggests a community might support an idea as-is. In other words, if a community is only minimally engaged, they are more likely to support the decision-making ability of their administrators. But is this a justifiable conclusion?

It certainly raises some interesting questions: if an idea strongly held by 10% of the population is bound to be adopted, and an idea strongly held by less than 10% has no chance, then how do new ideas grow to prominence?  I would contend that the best ideas – under a setting of facilitated engagement and strategic communications – will emerge to prominence.  Ideas, both good and bad, will always run the risk of rising to prominence.  Many other ideas will fail to achieve any sort of recognition.  History is filled with examples as society has embraced all kinds of ideas, for better or worse. Until recently, we’ve only been able to guesstimate the tipping point that signals widespread adoption.  Things like more sophisticated computer modeling and big data are finally giving us a glimpse into the actions of crowds.

The point is that the Rensselaer study specifies that in every situation 10% idea adoption was the inalienable tipping point. It didn’t require census, rather the 10% benchmark holds true for any sort of community with enough persuasion and persistence.  In an engagement project, a subset of the community will represent the interests of the whole, and the ideas raised in the consultation will rise to prominence with adequate buy in.

Citizen engagement and public participation is about allowing everyone to discuss issues openly, honestly, and respectfully. In some cases, issues will surface that a government administrator was unaware of. In other circumstances, a subject will have been raised and dealt with, but not always to the complete satisfaction of an entire community. What is important is to have a destination for citizens to have their say, be acknowledged and understand how their contribution helped to shape outcomes. A proponent’s decision to expand the scope of their commitment to the public beyond a degree of straightforward consultation will form a part of the engagement strategy at the onset of a project.

Through smart communications, strategy, and moderation, facilitation will help to drive participation. Ensuring an adequately representative sample participating in your project will rely on establishing some early benchmarks – your aware number. If your aware cohort falls short of your goals, then it probably means some effort needs to be invested to drive traffic to the site. You may decide to leverage social media, send out email notifications, or utilize conventional marketing like direct mail and print advertising. These initial efforts will help build capacity for your current and future engagement initiatives:  you’ll be building your community list which will help build capacity for future engagements.

It’s not possible to say an engaged audience of 10% of your aware audience is unilaterally indicative of how the rest of the community might feel about a situation. However, a number above 10% is always worth noting, and might be a trigger to apply different engagement strategies such as face-to-face meetings. These varied approaches will eventually lead you to a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the issues that your community is dealing with, with the qualitative and quantitative analytics to support better decision-making.

Photo: flickr/cc

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