Revisiting the 10 Golden Rules of Online Engagement

Last August whilst at the Glasgow IAP2 congress I posted 10 Golden Rules of Community Engagement to this blog. I remember at the time I was nursing the mother of all hangovers after some wonderful Glaswegian hospitality. The post got some attention and was reproduced some months later in Government Magazine.

I thought it would be good to revisit these rules 9 months and a lot of experience later. Seeing as I find myself up before dawn nursing a somewhat smaller hangover this morning it seems like an appropriate time to do this. The original Golden Rules are in black below with my more up to date comments in red. I hope others will also share their views. If there is interest perhaps we could establish a page on the Wikipedia so everyone can contribute.

1. The most important lesson so far is that if you engage on line you must back your consultation with robust statistics relating to visitor numbers and behaviour otherwise you will never know what sort of response you have really had. Not everybody comments at a public meeting and they don’t in an on line forum either.

I think this lesson stands the test of time. I believe that a lack of accurate reporting and analytical tools remains a major issue for many projects that engage using online tools that are not purpose built. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other useful tools can all be found wanting in terms of gaining meaningful data about site activity. Having said that, if these tools are used for a specific purpose they can form a very useful component of an online project. For example Twitter is a superb tool for getting information out to self selecting groups (if you can get them to follow you).

2. Think about the questions you ask. ‘What are your comments on the overall community welfare budget’ is likely to elicit little more than a yawn but ‘budget constraints mean we have to close the childcare centre’ brings people’s attention to an issue they can instantly relate to.

We have seen this reinforced time and time again. One of my favourite consultations for asking meaningful questions was the consultation we hosted for Broken Hill Council about their swimming pool which asked questions such as “Do you have a view on the best way for recreational swimmers, club swimmers and lap swimmers to share the 25m and 50m pools?” a question that is instantly meaningful to anyone who uses a swimming pool on a regular basis. We wrote up a case study about this engagement which can be found in the Bang the Table Corporate site.

3. Publicity, Publicity Publicity! If you don’t tell the community its there they cannot be expected to find it. Use the traditional media, mailouts and local networks as well as links, social network sites, and any other means to ensure that your community find the consultation.

This is still the hardest part and the single biggest success factor – getting the message out. Some of our clients do this well and others less well. We have found that it is easier in regional areas where there are better local radio and news networks than it is in urban areas. Crispin came up with a guide offering 20 ways to promote your consultation which I think helps some people with ideas. By way of offering a 21st way I think school news letters can be useful and just recently Willoughby Council sent Bang the Table bookmarks out with their rates notices.

4. Provide relevant information in a format that is easy to read. A 10 page PDF is a good way to communicate to people in an office as they can print it out and read it. It is a hopeless way to communicate with a mechanic accessing the consultation on his iphone during a tea break. 1 page summaries are much better, photos are great, videos are fantastic

The video function on our site is still under utilized and I believe is an area where a good deal of potential remains untapped. I had a conversation the other week with a potential client who was looking for innovative engagement methodologies and saw the video library component of our site as an engagement methodology of its own. I only hope they use it in this way to create a much needed case study. Meanwhile we are scoping a new engagement tool that uses video as a core component (more on that in the coming months). Crispin wrote a recent blog about use of video

5. Set out the parameters of the discussion upfront. This includes moderation rules, closing dates, how this sits with the decision process and what feedback people should expect.

I would like to emphasise the feedback element of this rule. Very few of our clients use the site to provide feedback to the community after an engagement has concluded. Bang the Table sites remain in place when they are archived so users can revisit them and use them as a resource. The opportunity then exists for our clients to use these as a platform for providing the community with feedback. Each page also has an email group of all contributors so a bulk email can easily be sent to all participants following up on results. I’d like to see more of this. I blogged about it recently in Completing the Contract using Broken Hill’s media follow up as an example of best practice.

In terms of clear moderation rules, we moved to clarify our own (Bang the Table) rules in our community contract. Previously we said we would remove spam, defamatory or obscene comments but we found we needed to be far more specific.

6. Don’t get sucked in to debate. Set facts straight, answer basic questions but don’t get drawn in. While you’re at it make sure your colleagues have clear internal protocols for interacting in the consultation.

It is remarkable how little interaction with the decision maker is needed in an online forum. Many of our clients do not intervene at all. Others answer questions or facilitate a little but generally the community is happy to give their views and to discuss them with each other. Given that our moderation keeps the discussion broadly on track and keeps it clean (always) and constructive (most of the time!) I think that consistency of approach is more important than frequency of involvement so those internal protocols are critical.

7. Track the traffic that the consultation is attracting and consider follow up publicity if you are not satisfied that sufficient numbers have viewed the consultation. Remember, in most cases, visitors not comments is the truest reflection of success.

I think I was cheating making this a rule of its own seeing as it is really a combination of 1 and 3. However, the point about visitors not comments being the truest reflection of success warrants more discussion. I don’t think this is always the case. It is possible to broadly categorise projects into those that are seeking ideas and creative input and those that are validating decisions, policies or strategies. For the projects seeking ideas and input clearly comments and the quality of the comments are the most important indicator of success (though value may come from one or two comments amongst many that provide a new idea or perspective). If you are validating a policy then success (or affirmation of your stance) is characterised by high visitation and low numbers of comments simply because the community do not, typically, take the time to congratulate or affirm. They only comment when they want to criticise or suggest changes. I think perhaps this rule should be revised to “Identify clear objectives for your project.”

8. Consider initiatives to target certain sections of the population. Bass Council used Bang the Table to target non resident property owners and wrote to them directly. Lylea McMahon MP targeted young people and worked with schools to get feedback on youth unemployment issues.

I would like to see more involvement of schools because it is so hard to get young people involved in government decision making. I wrote a recent blog on engaging young people which I hope to follow up soon.

9. Use social networking sites like Facebook groups and community forums to get the message out to specialist groups in the community.

I’m not so sure about this any more. I went through a phase of posting links on local Facebook sites and found the resultant traffic was negligible. I don’t know why this is. I wrote about my reservations about Facebook back when we set up our corporate Facebook site. We now have 15 fans so I think that means we have gone viral! I think targeting community groups remains critically important but it might be that Facebook groups are not the best way to reach them.

10. Be consistent in your use of online consultation so that over time your community grow used to participating in this way. Like most things in life, online participation will be treated with caution by some people until they get used to it.

This is being proved to be accurate. There is no doubting the demand. I often get emails from community members suggesting new forums and topics they want to discuss online. People like engaging in this way. Hornsby Council have put a snap poll on their consultation about their Draft Housing Strategy (which has caused quite a stir). The poll asks if the online forum is a good way to engage on planning issues. To date the answer is unequivocally yes with only 15% of respondents disagreeing.

Photo Credits: Martin Perry

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