Insights article

How to boost online community engagement with ‘off-line’ interaction

Sebastian Weise
Published: 30/07/2018

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Most modern community engagement and outreach strategies face the challenge of engaging audiences both offline and online.

Typocally, in construction and planning, public exhibitions in village halls used to be the default form of engagement. In recent years, this firm of engagement has been accompanied by approaches that account for our connected lifestyles, using web platforms such as the PlaceChangers engagement platform. 

Face-to-face contact in public engagement continues to offer a number of positives over online engagement. So here we provide a few tips on how you can combine the benefits of online engagagement with face-to-face interactions.

Online versus offline community engagement

We know that personal interactions have great social benefit. 

In a study by Waterloo University in Canada, researchers asked 45 people to invite 10 participants each to complete a survey. Half of the group made their requests face-to-face, while the other half sent emails. The results were clear: Face-to-face requests were 34 times more likely to be answered. Why? Because face-to-face meetings promote trust and relevance far quicker than any cold email or paper flyer could. They can diffuse conflict more easily, establish trust and better communicate emotions. 

Robust community engagement requires different points of interaction. Success means combining online media with the ability for individuals to come to meeting spaces and socialise, either with the project team or with other participants. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that younger people have a greater preference for digital interaction, whereas older people might prefer a meeting or a handwritten response.

Rather than seeing it as a choice between two approaches, it is better to appreciate their relative strengths. In most community engagement projects, your possibilities of engaging a large number of people through detailed face-to-face interactions are naturally limited, due to time constraints and obvious logistical issues. With face-to-face engagement, it can also be a struggle to follow-up and correspond to a large audience simultaneously. 

That’s why a dual approach is advisable when it comes to community engagement:

Online and off-line community engagement tips

Lead in with a digital presence of your project

    Create a website: Build a simple project page that can be found easily for anybody who wants to engage with your project. Provide details on the project and how you want to receive responses.  This will cut substantial time and effort in following up later while making it possible to rapidly adjust your campaign at any time – a clear advantage over print material that has been distributed. 
    Use a platform for consultations: Use online consultations for key decisions. Digital responses in digital form (so somewhat structured) can also be sorted, filtered, and analysed much faster, and can even allow different participants to add to their ideas to establish priorities and relevance. 

Balance this with a strong grounding in the real world. Consider how to establish a presence where your development may have an impact. Help participants to respond easily without having to go online.

Engage face-to-face on a small budget

    Use post cards: Design a set of postcards and distribute them in relevant public spaces or to local house holds. Make sure to include a link to your project page and provide an address where comments can be returned by post. 
    Targeted interviews: Arrange a few in-depth conversations with a handful of key stakeholders. In the context of consumer research, Nielsen Group has shown that just five interviews would flag up most of the key concerns towards a project. 

Engage face-to-face on a larger budget

    Integrated public campaign: Arrange public booths and meetings, combined with flyers and print material that ties back to your campaign through the same visual clues, copy, and links to your online landing page.
    Hands-on co-design workshops: Organise hands-on workshops that get people engaged. Activities can include mapping or model-making – tasks that involve visual and physical clues that mirror the real world and help the group pull their knowledge together (see: Planning for real). Some activities, such as mapping can be supported by suitable online tools to enable others to participate online.
    Interacive games: Buy in a specialist consultancy to offer engagement events for young people, such as with Minecraft. 

When working across different engagement platforms, pay special attention to aligning your tone of voice and visual communication across all channels. This includes choosing and sticking with the same visual colour schema, typography, logos, etc. You should also make sure that the key points of your project do not change, such as the justification for the project, its title and the outcomes that you aim to achieve.

In conclusion, the more aligned your communication across different channels, the greater the chance for individuals to recognise you both online and offline. This generates more trust amongst participants and increases the chance of a good demographic spread – ultimately leading to more robust engagement data. 

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