There is a lot of fear that swirls around online engagement work, and reasonably so. Whether you’re accustomed to running public meetings or managing your organization’s communication channels, you can always count on receiving more than your fair share of nastiness. It is not a stretch to assume that an additional online outlet will only serve to amplify the anger, mistrust, and misinformation you’re enduring in your community. Fortunately, that isn’t the case — you can set up productive dialogue through purposeful question writing and engagement tool choice.
Setting the Stage for Community Engagement
There is a bit of a recipe to follow when it comes to effective online engagement, and you begin to make it by creating a safe space for interaction that takes people away from their self-affirming echo chambers and onto neutral ground. This means you don’t try to have substantive conversations in the same places your community attempts to sell each other old furniture or gripe about politics. Once you have identified a separate space, whether on your organization’s website or through a platform like EngagementHQ, the work really begins.
The next step is to start conversations your community actively wants to have. I’ve seen a lot of organizations give up on the work of online engagement because they were never properly committed to doing it in the first place – aka, they never lean into substantive (and sometimes scary) conversations. They risk-averse themselves right on out of the room, leaving their divided community to battle it out in the OK Corrals of the internet without the benefit of facts or boundaries. So, if you’re thinking you want to tick a box for online engagement by asking your community about designs for park benches but not affordable housing policy, you aren’t ready to do this work. Step one is to talk about the tough stuff.
Creating Your Online Community Engagement Plan
Once you’ve decided you’re ready for the work, knowing that there will be some humbling moments along the way, the next step is creating a community engagement plan. Keeping a conversation productive and actionable has almost everything to do with the mechanisms you choose to collect feedback (engagement tools) and the quality of the questions you ask. Tools can be anything from a simple survey to an ideas board, but it is knowing which to deploy when that will help you collect the feedback you need.
Once you’ve selected your tool, it’s time to write your question or prompt. This is where things can really go off the rails if you aren’t careful. Let’s say you’ve gone with the aforementioned topic of affordable housing and chose an ideas tool to get the conversation started. If your prompt for said tool is “What do you think about Affordable Housing in (Community)?” you’re going to get every manner of response related to the topic, along with comments that are tangentially related dog whistles for other, more controversial topics. Chances are, very few of the answers you receive will actually be productive or actionable for your organization. The good news is you can prevent this mess from ever happening.
Inform First, and then Engage Your Stakeholders
At every step of the community engagement journey, you have an opportunity to really think about what you need to know and how you’re asking it, and then amend your communications accordingly. Instead of blindly asking what people think about affordable housing, you start by educating with facts about the state of housing and poverty in your community, sprinkle in some information about what happens in communities that don’t prioritize affordable housing, and then give your audience several entry points into the conversation via targeted questions. Edina, MN does a great job modeling this method on a street reconstruction project. Asking specific questions that are prefaced by facts, helps not only yield actionable feedback, it gives your staff a direct method for redirecting anyone who may wander off-topic — “We appreciate your input Greg, but what we really need is help answering the questions above so that we can work within what is possible for our community. What are your thoughts?”
Community engagement that yields feedback you can turn into decisions and then execution starts with you. If people aren’t showing up or aren’t giving you input that you can actually use, the only place to look is right back at yourself, pal.
If you’re interested in a deeper dive into how to choose tools and write prompts that set you up for success in the online engagement space, please watch our webinar. Watch now!