How to grow your online community panel? Introducing the ‘Willoughby’ method!

There is no questioning that online community panels are fast becoming a key part of local government community engagement strategies. Online community panels offer many benefits in terms of engagement marketing efficiency and effectiveness, and from a research perspective, they can offer some rigor around the demographic diversity of those being engaged. The question that always arises is how to grow your online community panel.

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In the past I’ve written about cultivating community panels and more recently about turbocharging your community panels growth by embracing a little controversy. I’ve also embraced a little controversy myself with a post back in 20o9 titled, Is participatory democracy a lottery: a few thoughts on stratified random sampling. If you read it you’ll see that I’m not a huge fan of market research style approaches to panel recruitment.

Why? In a nutshell, because I don’t believe in excluding people from political processes. Those with a passion for the issues at hand should, I believe, always be allowed (indeed encouraged) into the tent to have a conversation. Also, I take issue with the standard demographic categorisations of “age” and “sex” because rarely reflect values, and values are what drive political discourse. Obviously these categorisations are incredibly important if you are doing service planning – where if you building a retirement home, you obviously want to talk to older people – but they are less important if you are talking about broad social policy.

That said, I’m always interested to observe our clients trying new ways to drive up participation rates by growing their community panels.

One such method that we’ve been aware of for a couple of years now (but have never reported) is what we will henceforth call the ‘Willoughby’ method, in honor of the staff at Willoughby City Council.

The Bang the Table team and Willoughby staff have been working together for many years on ways to get the best out of their EngagementHQ site, Have Your Say Willoughby. Back in 2011, the Willoughby team trialled a method of monthly open discussions, rather than project specific consultations, to see what would happen.

How the ‘Willoughby method ‘works

  • Each month a new open project page was created i.e. January Open Discussion, February Open Discussion, March Open Discussion and so on.
  • Members of the broader community who had not previously participated could simply register and participate.
  • Each “project” generally comprised one or two discussion topics or surveys and quick polls to gather feedback on a specific project/concept or issue, in addition to an open discussion topic which allowed participants to raise ideas or issues.
  • Willoughby staff used the EngagementHQ project team capability to engage in and facilitate each monthly forum. This functionality allows the project administrator to nominate “authorised” forum participants whose contributions are highlighted to separate them out from the rest of the comments.
Community Panel Growth

What the ‘Willoughby method’ achieved

  • The model added an average of 60 – 80 new registered participants every month and increased the demographic diversity of participants and the overall level of community participation.
  • The limited time frame of each the monthly consultation created a sense of immediacy and encouraged community feedback.
  • The use of a small number of discussion topics in addition to the survey tool and quick poll allowed Council to gather feedback on multiple projects/issues or provide multiple feedback options in the one online consultation.
  • The involvement of key staff through the project team capability built a strong rapport between the community and Council
  • The inclusion of an open discussion topic promoted transparency,  indicating Council’s willingness to listen and allow the community to identify and raise projects and issues for future consultation
  • The strategy is very different to twitter and Facebook because you manage the consultation process with quantifiable outcomes rather than just ongoing chats.
  • The strategy provides capacity the to undertake specific topic-based online consultations as well as private panel and focus group consultations.

Overall the monthly community panel maintains the connection with the community through frequency and diversity of use. It builds a healthy and diverse participant database and an appreciative and engaged community.

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