Understanding Digital-First Community Engagement

It’s often accepted in community engagement practice that “face-to-face” is the best and the most meaningful form of community engagement, with digital engagement being nothing more than a mere support act.

But imagine for a moment that face-to-face is simply no longer viable.

Perhaps the distances are too great; the issues too fraught to send a team into the field; the budget too small; the stakeholder group too large; or your audience is too fragmented.

Alternately, imagine the opportunity for a continuous conversation between the community and your organisation.

Declining trust in governments worldwide, coupled with the Smart City agenda has created an opportunity for a transformative form of continuous engagement between citizens and governments.

We believe only digital can provide that bridge.

To explore this issue, we recently presented at the International Association of Public Participation Conference in Australia to test some key questions in relation to digital-first community engagement.

We did this by looking at four areas of practice including, preparing your organisation for digital-first community engagement, planning for continuous engagement, facilitating online dialogue and developing a digital-first engagement strategy.

In this article, we provide a summary of these discussions in order to highlight some of the challenges and techniques which can be deployed to drive digital-first community engagement thinking.

Preparing your organisation

Shifting your thinking towards delivering a digital-first community engagement program can be difficult, especially if you’re already used to doing community engagement a certain way.

This is why it’s important to think strategically about the ways in which your organisation views community engagement and to think about the challenges you need to overcome in order to roll-out a cohesive digital-first strategy.

During our investigation on how organisations can prepare for digital-first community engagement, we observed the following challenges and discussed a range of strategies to help get better internal organisational buy-in.

Common challenges

Some crucial barriers to shifting thinking towards digital-first community engagement were;

  • Lack of organisational support and buy in from Senior Managers / Elected Officials
  • The lack of resourcing of staff, their skills, expertise and capacity to deliver meaningful engagement activities
  • Lack of internal process to support digital-first engagement, such as policies, toolkits, guidelines and training.
  • Measuring the effectiveness in online engagement such as KPIs, costs

More specifically to implementing digital-first community engagement, our participants identified;

  • Misconceptions about using data collected digitally,
  • Lack of understanding about how to present and foster online community engagement
  • Push-back from community about the change in the way they are able to interact

Strategies for overcoming challenges

To overcome these challenges these simple strategies were identified.

  • Demonstrating the use of digital-first engagement through pilot projects and case studies
  • Presenting the successes and learnings from your digital-first engagement
  • Educating leaders on the benefits of digital-first community engagement and encouraging them to become champions of digital-first engagement
  • Building transparency internally and externally by closing the loop with stakeholders. Building faith in digital amongst community
  • Development of internal systems and frameworks to support digital-first engagement, with ‘Digital Champions’ driving the cultural change
  • Resourcing beyond Monday to Friday 9-to-5pm to ensure digital-first is supported

Overwhelmingly, our investigations into how to prepare your organisation for digital-first community engagement revolved around building good internal engagement with staff and continuous learning and improvement by establishing a community of practice.

For a closer look at how to overcome some of the challenges to preparing your organisation for digital-first community engagement, check out our interview with the City of Casey.

Planning digital-first engagement

Process design continues to be a challenge for practitioners in online engagement with online engagement frequently treated as a ‘set and forget’ exercise.

Shifting thinking to a digital-first mindset requires thinking about which digital tools you will use, when and why you are using them and also deeper consideration of what you are going to ask your community to do and answer during the activity.

Planning for digital-first community engagement needs to focus on identifying and accessing audiences online, providing engaging digital content and information, scaffolding learning and feedback opportunities and building better transparency by publishing data and results.

Below are some challenges and strategies identified by workshop participants;


  • Limited understanding of which tools to use and when
  • Time constraints for planning engagement
  • Over reliance on surveys and not knowing how to use other digital tools effectively
  • Too much risk
  • Audiences are too hard to access. Everyone is online. But they are nowhere to be seen!

Strategies for overcoming challenges

  • Think about different types of input, qualitative and quantitive and which tools allow you to collect that information
  • Take a longer view of your online engagement process. Are there different intervals where the activities, questions and tools change?
  • Plan for digital-first engagement with reporting in mind
  • Have a policy and process for how you will deal with risky situations
  • Explore digital channels and understand where different communities congregate. Develop messaging which reaches and appeals to different groups.

Watch our webinar on planning for online engagement, and implementing online engagement for more ideas on how to plan for digital-first community engagement.

Planning for continuous engagement

One of the best ways to realise the benefits of digital-first community engagement is to utilise continuous engagement activities.

This means thinking beyond the transactional mindset of project based consultations and instead utilising strategies to drive ongoing conversations with your community.

Strategies identified for driving continuous engagement include; issues identification programs; ongoing question and answer wikis; competitions; open forums where your community can talk about the things they want to talk about; advocacy campaigns; regular ideation; polling as well as live video.

By utilising some of these continuous engagement techniques you are able to maintain regular contact with your community, allow them to take control of issues which are important to them and help you get a better sense of issues and opportunities ahead of time.

Common challenges

  • Data management of feedback to help provide background to projects before your get started
  • Sharing of data across departments/business areas, ensuring the organisation is using and protecting the data
  • Changing the corporate culture to invest in continuous engagement opportunities and community capacity building
  • Internal buy-in to ongoing engagement activities and its return of investment. There is an internal perception that engaging outside of planned projects may not provide a cost benefit to the organisation


  • Gamification of your digital platform
  • Engagement about pro-social activities i.e. fundraising
  • Ability to ask deeper and meaningful conversations, beyond the immediate problem
  • People opting in and engaging by choice on topics and interest that have meaning them
  • Opportunity to connect with partners and/or engage with partner projects
  • Build transparency and trust and rebuild relationships with your communities
  • Keeping your organisation relevant and engaged
  • Advocate on behalf of the community in a more meaningful agile way


  • Use your digital space to have projects that promote and improve the communities capacity to understand the business or project
  • Use a single platform to engage or capture online feedback using a variety of accessible tools
  • Giving participants to opt into the engagement
  • Use digital channels such as Facebook to drive people into a light, but meaningful engagement
  • Empowering your communities champions to be subject matter experts and/or facilitators beyond 9-5pm

For a closer look at some strategies for continuous engagement strategies read about how to grow your online community and 100 ideas to engage your community online.

Digital Dialogue

A simple first step towards shifting your thinking towards digital-first community engagement is to consider online dialogue principles.

Digital dialogue is possibly one of the most neglected practices in digital-first community engagement.

True digital-first community engagement must make a commitment to better harnessing this critical process.

To explore this idea, workshop participants were introduced to key concepts for planning and facilitating online discussion forums.

Critical issues

  • Online forum questions need to be effectively framed
  • Ensuring facilitation occurs to ensure a robust and healthy discussion
  • Identifying different types of dialogue and opportunities to shape discussion
  • Creating a clear set of rules and guidelines around participation

Dialogue Modes

Three main dialogue modes were discussed;

  • Monologue – when participants visit a forum once, leave their comment, and never return
  • Debate – participants read and react to each other’s posts. BUT, critically, they are competing to present the best argument. Their goal is to WIN the debate
  • Dialogue – when participants start to read and respond to each other’s comments. They ask questions, they seek to understand, they build on other ideas

Facilitation Opportunities

  • Greeting and welcoming participants
  • Thanking and acknowledging contributors
  • Enquiring, provoking, encouraging deeper participation
  • Reinforcing expectations and behaviours
  • Correcting misinformation and misunderstandings, direct people to information resources
  • Bringing participants back on topic
  • Resolving conflict and mediating arguments
  • Linking people together who express different views to gain different perspectives and positions

For more about digital dialogue check out our webinar on online deliberation for community and stakeholder engagement.

The Bottom Line

There are many obstacles to shifting to a truly digital-first community engagement environment and mindset, however, by confronting these challenges and developing strategies for overcoming them, you can better manage your transition.

Once you have successfully achieved organisational buy-in, developed the relevant skills capacity in your organisation and begun utilising digital-first principles and thinking, you will be better able to harness digital-first engagement to connect with your community.

Special thanks to all out wonderful IAP2 Workshop Participants. Hope to see you next year!

Nate, Dinuki, Mel, Dan & Katie

More Content You Might Like