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Turbocharge your community panel’s growth by embracing a little controversy

Your community panel’s growth¬†can be turbocharged using a variety of strategies. One sure fire method is to embrace a little controversy and engage the community about highly emotional issues.

The single most often asked question I hear in relation to online community engagement is, “how do we get more people to get involved in the conversation?”

It is such a recurring theme that we created a tips sheet on exactly this topic some years ago. The best strategy we have found, in the long term, however, is to build up your participant database, or community panel, so that you have ready access to a large group of people (preferably from different backgrounds and with a broad demographic profile) who are willing to get involved in a conversation with you about public policy. Because not everybody is! So it is worth cultivating the relationship with the people who have demonstrated their willingness to get involved.

Each organisation will have it’s own distinctive community of interest, whether it’s place or subject based. Each community has its own characteristics like size, socio-economic profile, cultural history etc. Each of these characteristics interacts in complex ways to determine the number of people who are actually likely to want to engage with you. The key question is, how do we turbocharge your community panel’s growth so that you can get more people involved in ongoing conversations?

I’ve been looking at a bunch of our data lately and decided to map the number of registered participants in each of our client’s databases (where they have more than 500 members) versus the number of days their site had been live (where they have been live for longer than 500 days). For fun I also threw in the number of projects they had launched. The chart below is the result.

I’ve added a trend line, for what it is worth, to give you an idea of what “normal growth” might look like. As you would expect, in broad terms, the number of participants grows through time. But there is a LOT of variability. The purple, blue and red circles represent the three largest databases. But the one I’m interested in here is the green circle, because it is clearly an outlier. How, exactly, have they managed to achieve such rapid database growth compared to everyone else?

I’m not going to tell you who the client is, but I will say that it is a coastal Australian council. We work with lots of coastal Australian councils, so don’t bother trying to work out which one it is!

The next step in my investigation was to look at the participant database growth curve for our outlier. The chart below illustrates the cumulative number of participants in the database against the number of days the site has been live.

The curve starts slowly with a short upward burst at around the 100 day mark, followed by a period of relative calm and slow growth up until around day 350, whereupon all hell appears to break loose! The curve goes vertical and then climbs quickly from around 1100 participants to 2700 in less then three months. I’ve marked the point of change with the red circle. The question, of course, is what happened on day 350?

The final step in the unraveling the mystery was to look at the client’s project list. They have public 64 projects in all; most of which have had received subdued interest from the community. But on day 350 they launched a consultation about off-leash dog walking on the local beaches. The chart below maps the number of “engaged” participants for eight of the client’s projects. For our purposes, an “engaged” participant is someone who provides feedback, whether via a form, survey, forum, quick poll or any of a number of other mechanisms built into EngagementHQ.

You can see that the “Dogs on Beaches” consultation has by far the largest number of engaged participants from any of the projects this clients has run previously or since. More than 1400 people provided feedback via a survey. The trick though, was to require survey respondents to register on the site PRIOR to completing the survey. This simple strategy radically changed the participant database growth profile. The growth rate was turbocharged!

This should have been no surprise. Dogs are an emotional issue. It seems that people either love them (me), or, without being too judgmental, loath them (why? They’re so lovely.) For many people dogs are part of the family, their closest mate, their emotional crutch, their companion. They LOVE their dog/s. For other people dogs are fierce, smelly, soppy, wet creatures that defecate in all the wrong places and have owners who over indulge them and neglect to pick up after them.

Dogs are also “concrete”. I don’t mean they are hard and heavy. I mean that are the opposite of abstract. They are very real and very easy to get one’s head around.

When these two criteria come together, emotionality and concreteness, we inevitably see higher levels of engagement. Off-leash dog walking is always a controversial issue and always drives high levels of engagement. If managed carefully these sorts of issues can be used to great effect to drive participant database growth. These larger databases can then be tapped into for conversations about less fraught issues that might usually attract relatively little interest.

 

Photo credit: Marc Dalmulder

Thanks for getting all the way to bottom! Subscribe to our monthly digest newsletter if you’d like to be kept up to date about community engagement practice globally. Take a look at our two product websites: EngagementHQ if you need a complete online engagement solution, and BudgetAllocator if you need a participatory budgeting solution. Or get in touch if you have a story idea you think is worth sharing.

28 October 2014
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