- Community engagement tends to be implemented as a project – with a defined start and finish date e.g., planning or designing a program to be implemented for the benefit of a community.
- Stakeholder engagement is ongoing, although programs are refined regularly and stakeholders are managed based on stakeholders’ interests, priorities, relevance and influence.
- Anyone who has an interest in the project/issue (including stakeholders) can be involved in community engagement projects.
- Key stakeholders belong to organisations (generally not individuals) including government, district municipalities, councillors, industry associations, business organisations like chambers, unions, etc.
- Community engagement – with technology today, you do not have to be local to contribute to a project.
- Stakeholders are only consulted on matters that come under their jurisdiction e.g., electoral district, provincial or municipalities or wards.
Level of influence:
- Under the public participation spectrum, the community’s influence on a decision can range from inform to consult, involve, collaborate or empower.
- Affected or interested stakeholders can be involved in both processes, with the levels of influence varying for each project.
- Dedicated program/project or community engagement officers are assigned to different projects.
- Stakeholder engagement: Relationship managers (executive and senior managers) who hold specific titles (i.e., corporate affairs, investment relations, stakeholder managers, government relations) are assigned responsibility for managing relationships with specific/important stakeholders.
Community engagement in a digital era
Community engagement is a vital part of both public and private-sector decision making. With a rise in organisations undertaking community engagement, it is important to consider the whole picture of what community engagement means before jumping straight into delivery.
What is community engagement?
The definition of community engagement varies but in effect, it means the collaborative interaction of community members with decision-makers about issues that impact them and taking forward this feedback into the decision-making process.
Collaborating and consulting with your community creates stronger relationships between organisations and their communities, and this trust creates empowerment and opportunities for the mutual formulation of actions, policies and strategies.
What are the principles of community engagement?
Community engagement is about creating a two-way dialogue and for that collaborative feedback to be channelled into decision making.
The notion that it is just a tick in a box on the way to a project being signed off is not only outdated but inherently dangerous.
In the age of digital advancement, accessibility to communities has never been greater and organisations can build on that to create a genuine culture of participation and collaboration with their communities.
Why is community engagement so important?
Without collaboration with the relevant community members affected, decisions are top-down and risk disengagement with the organisation or decision-makers, competing ideas and at worst revolt and community activism.
Instead by involving the people impacted or who can benefit, seeking their feedback and participation – new ideas can be generated, strategies can be tested and the community feel very much part of the journey. This creates an engaged group of individuals who feel listened to and valued and understand the inner workings of the particular issue.
This early involvement and transparency can facilitate more informed decisions and sustainable outcomes.
How do you define your community?
The first challenge is to define the scope of your audience or the impacted community involved. This may simply be a geographic area or an interest group, however, most organisations need to engage with multiple audiences requiring different approaches and strategies.
Start by collating information on all your various stakeholder groups and prioritise these in terms of impact. You can also use a stakeholder matrix to cross-reference impact and influence so your priority would be to the community members who are high impact and high influence.
It is important to tailor your strategy to help you both reach and effectively engage the different stakeholder groups, particularly the harder to reach groups. On your matrix, you can differentiate both the communication and engagement methods for each group of stakeholders.
What you need to consider when creating your community engagement plan?
- Community Engagement Strategy – Are you writing a project-specific or organisation-wide strategy? Your document needs to include some standard information that outlines your objectives, audience, risks, methods and measurement tools but make sure you also include any elements that are unique to your organisation, project or demographics.
- What is your approach? – There are literally hundreds of combinations of approaches to community engagement and you need to select what method or types of engagement are going to suit your audience and get you the best results.
- Consider your challenges and risks – Your plan needs to include an objective view of the general challenges within community engagement and your organisation or project-specific risks. Following this, you need to include a discussion of how you are going to reduce or mitigate these risks
- Choosing your tools – There are several tools you need in your community engagement toolkit. You may need some tools for planning (e.g., Mind mapping, Project planning software etc), production (Video production software, animation software, graphic design tools, Grammarly etc) or delivery (social media, apps, online meeting technology, portable kiosks and displays, recording equipment etc).
- Building in measurement – This is a step many people skip before launching their community engagement. Without in-built evaluation tools or methods, you risk not being able to quantify or report on your engagement results or measure which practices were most successful or beneficial.
- Share your engagement plans– one of the forgotten challenges when planning your community engagement is often how to reach your target audience. Making your engagement visible is crucial to the success of your strategy. Without promotion, numbers may be too low to draw conclusions on and your engagement is therefore not representative of your community. As a key part of your strategy, you must consider how you plan to reach your audience with prioritised activity.
Knowing your purpose when writing a community engagement strategy:
Your community engagement strategy sets out your approach to community engagement. This central document may be organisation-wide or project-specific. Some organisations additionally have a Community Engagement Framework which gives an overview of the organisation-wide approach to community engagement. Your strategy is then the detailed execution guided by that framework.
Regardless, there are some common requirements when writing an effective community engagement strategy and here we outline the various sections you need.
Structure of a community engagement strategy (Use these headings to kick start your strategy)
- Organisation / Project Overview
- Analysis of the business case – is it fit for consultation
- Objective of Engagement
- Audience – community definition (with primary, secondary and tertiary sub-groups) and potentially also with stakeholder influence or segmentation
- Project team
- Risk matrix
- Implementation / Action Plan (maybe a separate document)
- Project timeline with key engagement points marked
- Communication Plan (maybe a separate document)
- Review / Evaluation
- Next steps
One of the most important but crucial parts to include when writing your community engagement strategy is being clear on how you are going to resource it. Community Engagement can be resource-heavy so you need to choose the right team and tools to support you.
Types of community engagement practices
There are many types of community engagement to choose from depending on the level of engagement you are seeking. It is crucial to firstly understand whether you are ‘informing only’ or are looking to collaborate with your community or empower them to be part of the decision making.
Choosing how much input your community has will drive your choice of the level of engagement and in turn the different types of community engagement practices to employ to achieve it.
The different types of community engagement practices broadly fall into two categories – traditional and digital. Below we detail some of the types and approaches within these categories to give you some ideas of the various methods used in community engagement and which might be best for you.
Types of community engagement practices
Traditional defines ‘in-person’ engagement activities and traditional media for example:
- Community or public meetings
- Interviews – face to face or telephone
- Focus Groups
- Displays or Open House
- Design Charrettes
- Deliberative Polling
- Citizens Juries
- Paper surveys / polls
- Printed materials
- Traditional advertising
Digital types of community engagement are anything completed online such as:
- Participation via an online engagement platform like Engagement Hub
- Social media
- Online surveys
- Voting in polls
- Interactive mapping or images where people can comment and interact with other comments
- Online events such as meetings, webinars or focus groups
- Participatory budgeting using set parameters
- Open idea walls where people can post ideas
- Online advertising – banners, pay per click and advertorials
There are endless opportunities to engage either traditionally or digitally and it is important to consider both as part of a balanced strategy and be selective for what is going to achieve the best results for your community, organisation and project. It is also important to consider how you will measure your activity.
How to measure your community engagement:
Agreeing on how you are going to measure your community engagement activities and results is of primary importance before commencing any activities.
There are lots of articles out there about how to measure your online community through looking at metrics such as followers, growth and sharing – here we talk about the more complex picture of measuring how effective your entire community engagement strategy is.
Hard data is easy to quantify, assessing your digital engagement activities relatively simple. Measurement often becomes more difficult when looking at your qualitative data and any factors that are open to interpretation.
As an organisation, the first step is to benchmark what successful community engagement looks like for you. This is unique to your organisation, project and your community demographics. 10 people providing insightful and meaningful feedback may be better than 1000 votes on a poll or vice versa. Having a clear vision or objective for your engagement activities guides you to how you will measure your success.
- Visibility / Reach – this is all about how visible your engagement is. What are the opportunities for someone to see or hear about your project? E.g., banners in X locations, radio ads, social media posts, appearing in the media etc. Advertising firms use metrics like OTS (opportunities-to-see) to quantify this visibility but you could simply list out all your promotional efforts so you can then tally these up against direct conversions or registrations (where possible). To be clear about which methods work for you – use specific codes or URLs for each different activity to help with clear measurement or ask attendees or registrants where they heard about it.
- Conversion – This is about how many people you converted from all your efforts in visibility into the action you want them to take e.g., messaging via Facebook, clicking your website link, clicking on your email (CTR) or completing a survey. Often this is displayed as a percentage of total activity e.g., if 14 out of 100 people completed the survey at your exhibition then your conversion rate is 14%. Your conversion rate normally depends on how engaged your audience is, for example, conversion rates are generally relatively low for high-volume digital promotion unless your audience is primed and ready to engage.
- Registrations – For most community engagement, you need your community to register to participate. This not only validates your data but also gives you avenues for further communication and to feedback on the issue you are consulting on. Measuring how many registrations you receive during your engagement period is a great way of assessing your engagement success. Tailoring your registration process to gather more information allows for more segmentation in your data and communication so do not miss this opportunity to quickly find out more about your audience.
- Activity – This is the most classic way to measure engagement – how many surveys were completed, how many pins and comments on a map etc. but it can also encompass how active your citizen jury or focus group was and how many decisions were made. Make this specific to your project or engagement and create multiple points to measure.
- Depth – Depth of engagement is probably one of the hardest to gauge and goes much deeper than follower numbers or website visitors. On your website using Google Analytics, you can see the behaviour through the site noting how users journey through from one page to another and where they exited.
- UGC or User-Generated Content – A truly engaged audience will want to share their thoughts and ideas and talk about it, so this is a really useful way of tracking just how engaged your audience is. On social media, you can see your engagement statistics and how many of your posts are shared or you can use Google Alerts to show you where you are getting mentions. In terms of consultation, you could measure how many ideas your audience came up with at an in-person event or on your online ‘Ideas Wall’ in your Engagement Hub platform.
- Sentiment – For some, this can simply be ‘positive or negative’ but that is a lot of grey area not talked about! Sentiment is a tricky element to analyse and although some software programs can be helpful in this, a knowledgeable human eye is still preferable. Grouping similar sentiments in comments and feedback and using examples in your report allows you to quantify your qualitative without losing the human element.
- Retention – For digital methods, you could quantify this by how long someone stays on your website (average session length) or on your engagement platform you could look at the length of membership or help people stay engaged by using the ‘Follow this project feature’ so they can receive automatic notifications of any updates to the project. For a physical exhibition, you can measure how long people stayed on average. This is quite project-specific but finding some way to measure the length of time they are engaging with you is helpful in building a picture of your engagement success.
- Queries – Communication is a two-way street and you know your project inside out, but your audience likely does not. Keeping a track of how many queries you get on your project or engagement can help you see any areas that are not clear, need more explanation or need improvement.
- Moderation – Measuring how much moderation is needed during your engagement may not be a success metric, but it is useful in resourcing future projects. It is likely representative of how controversial the subject of your engagement is but it is also important for transparency to have a record of any moderation needed, users blocked and communication on the issues.
For every action or consultation method, decide how you are going to collate the feedback BEFORE you start. For example, if you run a focus group are you going to record and transcribe it before pulling out key themes. For social media, what metric are you using to measure community involvement, reach and engagement?
Next Generation have assisted numerous organisations with both community and general stakeholder engagement. For more information about our services in this regard or to enquire about how we can assist you, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org