Where Next for Online Community Engagement Software?
We’ve had quite a ride at Bang the Table over the past 12 years. We’ve grown organically from a small two person company in Australia to 80 staff in 6 countries currently servicing over 500 government clients (a number that has doubled over 3 years). Our most recent mission report showed that in the second quarter of the year our clients launched over 3,000 online engagement projects and that over 60% of Australians (forgive my focus on Australia but it’s where it all started) now live in a city where our EngagementHQ software lets them have a say on issues that are important to them.
Pleased as we are about the impact we have been able to have, it’s quite apparent that our clients and their communities are now starting to demand something more. They are asking for more holistic engagement, they want to build real online communities that go beyond project based engagement and to be able to learn more from those discussions.
This brief essay is a manifesto for the coming years, it points to the directions and priorities we will have in the development of our software and the services and partnerships that we use to support our clients to achieve the results they need. The traditional approach is to hide this sort of planning from competitors. We prefer to share because we have much more to lose as a business and as an industry from failing to project a clear vision than we do from others piggy-backing on our thinking (something that has happened for years and that we are actually quite proud of, it’s the sincerest form of flattery after all).
Our commercial success means that we are now in the enviable position of being able invest to pursue the priorities in this manifesto as our global growth continues.
There is also room to do more, we remain open to new ideas. Part of the reason to publish this is to collect the ‘you forgot about’ and the ‘have you thought about’ statements that might take us in new directions.
Putting engagement at the core
Our software, EngagementHQ, has an HQ in the name for a reason. From the outset the vision has been to create a platform that sits at the heart of a government organisation’s communications.
A recent rebuild of the platform has made it much much easier for us to integrate with other online tools and platforms. This can mean either being able to bring specialist tools into EngagementHQ to enhance the community or administrator experience (examples include Balancing Act and Mailchimp) or being able to project elements of EngagementHQ out to other sites and platforms (our project finder and embeddable tools are early examples of this).
We have just launched a new marketplace where our clients can get access to some of the great technologies and services that fit seamlessly into EngagementHQ. You can take a look here.
We are also in the process of putting together a developer ecosystem around our APIs where clients and others are able to build directly within the platform. This will give our clients the ability to tailor their engagement sites as well as giving GovTech start-ups a place where they can access our growing global client base.
Moving beyond formal 2-way engagement
Traditionally cities used platforms like EngagementHQ for formal two way engagement with the community and relied on Facebook, NextDoor and other social media platforms for more casual and for multi-directional engagement.
The problem is that we don’t trust social media any more. It uses algorithms to profile us and push us into echo chambers where it bombards us with half-truths, adverts and lies. It sells our data. It restricts our access.
But it is that these multi pronged discussions are the very thing that builds community the best and that reveals the most insightful information.
So we will be seeking to introduce more ways to encourage participants to talk with one another. More exposure to contrary views, more discussion around shared interests, more depth and more context.
This will also have the effect of making engagement less transactional, less project based. Passionate people should always find a welcome ear. Being heard makes for a more engaged, satisfied and resilient community.
More fun, more accessible and more appeal
We need engagement to be more mobile, more accessible, and to be more fun to participate in. Sure we already offer an accessibility compliant and mobile friendly platform, but as we look at what people want to do it is obvious that this needs to go to a whole new level. It will take time and might push the comfort zone of our clients a little, but we need to make the whole engagement experience truly one that will attract not just more of our community but more diverse parts of our community.
This doesn’t just mean fancy new tools or widgets. It means re-thinking the whole engagement experience to give participants a reason to return, and a sense of ownership over the space and over their contributions.
Making sense of it all
We have always worked hard with our reporting to make it easy to interpret data into manageable reports. That work continues. We will be looking to AI to help interpret ever growing data sets. We will be looking to give our clients more flexibility to design their own reports. We will be encouraging clients to share results directly with the community wherever possible to increase transparency and to bring the community closer to the decision process.
Our vision is that interpreting an open discussion should be every bit as easy as reporting on a survey.
We do need to take care in the introduction new technology that we do not dilute or even ignore the voice of the community on specific issues. People should always be given a chance to be heard, and not just have their views extrapolated by a machine. That said we can pre-frame engagement projects much better by mining data and by making the task of busy government staff easier we can encourage the use of more open and effective engagement techniques.
All of our clients are busy people. Providing work-flows, reminders, integrations, well targeted services and more opportunities to customise will all help to encourage more engagement without adding to already pressing workloads.
When and how?
There is a lot here. We will be working on this for years but I expect you to see elements of each of these themes (along with general upgrades, a continued focus on security and compliance, and enhanced design flexibility) appearing in the software within months.
For the last year a re-engineering of the platform has been underway. This is now being rolled out. Apart from a shiny new administrator interface, it means that our software is now much more flexible and open to change. We can allow others to build on it as well as our own teams and our new API allows us to connect with just about anything (with a little work).
As a company we have invested heavily in expanding our business to the USA, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. All of these territories are now positively contributing to the business which facilitates the next stage of our growth – a renewed focus on product development. Possibilities abound.
And a big thank you!
All this means that, after 12 years doing this job, the team at Bang the Table are still excited about what is coming next. That’s an enviable position and the people we need to thank the most are our clients past and present.
I want to make a particular shout out to our Australian and New Zealand clients, you were our first. You’ve been with us through ups and downs, you’ve been patient and loyal and it is through you that we have learned the lessons that we have taken to the rest of the world.
Now this includes lessons from Canada, the USA, and the UK and we are working to share all this learning in order to create engaged communities everywhere.