Online vs offline: Creating a blended community engagement strategy

Want to set up an online community engagement strategy? Maybe something in person is more your thing. Whatever you prefer, using a blended approach of both is one of the most effective ways to increase your reach and get local citizens interested in your next project.

Up until fairly recently, the only way to engage the community was with good old-fashioned flyers and town hall meetings. However, as technology got smarter, computers got flatter and people’s attention spans got shorter, the ways in which we communicated drastically changed- and that’s not accounting for the massive virtual shift caused by the pandemic.

With the internet as ingrained in daily life as breathing, ignoring it as part of your communication strategy could have you missing out a huge chunk of your audience. However, despite the great leaps in technology, that doesn’t mean that offline methods of communication are obsolete. In fact, many are still fantastic ways to initiate a conversation with the public.

The solution? Use both! Commonplace is here to show you how to combine your online and offline efforts and pull together the most effective citizen engagement strategy possible.

Online community engagement tools: the pros and cons

New community engagement Heatmap with comments-2

Online engagement methods have really helped pull forward the conversation around local projects in the past few years, especially when the pandemic hit. 2020 really pushed our relationship with technology to new heights, highlighting both the amazing things it could do as well as the pains that it just couldn’t quite fix. That includes what it could and couldn’t do for community engagement.

Pros of online engagement

  • Availability: Unlike people, the internet never sleeps. Where in person meetings can only cater to those who are available then, an online platform will have all your information ready to view at any time. No need to see when the town hall is free next! 
  • A single informational hub: With one online hub, all information can easily be added and updated so project developments are accessible. Not to mention, maintaining one online platform can be much more flexible and cost-effective than travelling around and setting up physical meetings.
  • Transparency: One barrier to community engagement can often be distrust between planners and the community. With a number of people believing that developments are done in secret to ‘avoid public backlash’, having all your plans freely available can help build trust. Plus, with Commonplace, heatmaps allow anyone to feedback and the comments are publicly available. Seeing neighbours and friends commenting can encourage others to do the same and greatly boost engagement.
  • Building long lasting relationships: Taking the time to build real lasting relationships with the community takes time and effort, especially if you’re doing it face to face. With an online engagement portal, you can easily keep in contact with the community through comments, updates, emails and more. It doesn’t have to end when your project does, and taking the time to continue talking with local people can lead to warmer feelings when your next project rolls around.

Cons of online engagement

  • Accessibility: Even nowadays, not everyone has constant or reliable access to the internet. Having a fully online strategy could alienate some people, especially those who are already used to more physical methods of engaging with local authorities.
  • The personal touch: No matter the subject, the ability to talk to someone face to face is a luxury many of us missed throughout 2020. This year, being able to actually visit places is almost an exciting concept. Plenty of us are tired of staring at Zoom day in, day out with in person meetings being a nice breath of fresh air.

Luckily an engagement strategy doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can take all of the above points and use them to create a strong blended approach. Engaging the community is about having an open, two way conversation. Being accessible to as many people as possible will not only get you more data in the long run, but show that you want to put in the extra effort to communicate.

Planning a blended engagement strategy

So, what does a blended engagement strategy look like? We’ve listed some points below to help you get started.

  • Choosing your setup: Whatever type of project you’re working on, an online hub will keep all your information together. This is a great place to start as you can work out exactly what you need for your project. For example, if you’re looking to work on a climate plan, you could focus on creating a hub to share events about climate initiatives. Or, if you’re transport planning, you could incorporate ongoing stakeholder feedback to keep on top of the consensus around your plan.
  • Create awareness: Creating awareness is a number one priority when it comes to any local project. After all, who’s going to give you feedback if no one knows what’s going on? Luckily, there are several ways to do this and you can use whichever works best for you.

    If you have an existing contact list, it’s easy to talk  to them directly with a targeted email campaign. You can send this the second your website goes live and give recipients the option to subscribe. This way, you can give project updates frequently and allow community members to contribute with further feedback.
    social media for online engagement

Social media is an excellent tool to reach those in your local area and, depending on the platform, has the added bonus of being able to reach younger members of the community.  With Commonplace, we can always  set up targeted social media campaigns for you based on location, interests, certain demographics and more. All you have to do is ask

Creating awareness doesn’t just stop with online methods either. With our offline engagement pack, you can generate all sorts of design assets or set up QR codes for billboards, bus stops, lamp posts and flyers. Perfect for creating a presence on the actual street.

  • Present information clearly: One thing that is absolutely crucial for a successful engagement campaign is that all your information is clear and easily accessible. This is where a blend of online and offline engagement tools come in very handy. If you’re a fan of in person meetings and proposals, these can absolutely still go ahead, but consider recording or live streaming them so those who can’t make it can still see what was discussed.

    Face to face conversations don’t always have to happen in person, as you can always do a virtual meeting via a webinar. Our live webinars allow you to directly engage with your community with a simple chat interface so anyone can raise questions while it’s happening.

Information should always be up to date and presented regularly as well. With Commonplace’s news feature, it’s easy to post updates about projects, events and to show exactly where residents can find the information they’re looking for.  

  • Start a conversation: Any engagement project is a two way street, so making sure people can discuss anything easily and freely is a must. One way to do that is with a  community heatmap. With this, people can choose the exact location they want to leave a comment on while also being able to agree and comment on other people’s pins. With Commonplace, you can customise a whole series of questions, but choose carefully! The right survey questions are crucial for getting useful and actionable data. If you’re still planning in-person events or know of people that can’t engage, you can always have these conversations face to face or use paper surveys. It’s easy to add that data to the website so all your answers are in one convenient location.
    Analyse data in real time to support your decisions (1)
  • Analyse: Once you’ve started to collect all your on and offline community data, it’s time to analyse. It’s crucial to track answers periodically as the conversation around your project will be ever evolving. Plus,  you can see exactly which demographics are getting involved and adjust your plan if certain areas of the community aren’t engaging. With us, you can see exactly which marketing channels are driving engagements so you can focus and improve your strategy. It’s an ongoing conversation after all, so it’s good to check if you’re reaching as many people as you can.

Ready to create your blended community engagement strategy? Just get in touch and we'll be more than happy to take you through the platform.

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Charlotte Cooper

Charlotte Cooper

Content Writer at Commonplace