Online vs offline part 2: the common digital infrastructure
By David Janner-Klausner | Wed, Sep 14, 2022
4 min read
In our previous blog, we looked at combining online and offline engagement to create a hybrid strategy, reaching the widest possible audience for public engagement. In today's blog, we look at how effective hybrid public engagement is underpinned by a common digital infrastructure.
Using a database
At the core of the infrastructure is the database. This is where the information from your online surveys will accumulate. It is attached to analytical tools enabling data to be shown clearly in the dashboard, from where data can easily be exported for reporting and public feedback.
The database is not only a readily accessible repository, it keeps data that has been collected from different channels (such as online surveys, face-to-face interviews, and public events) safe. This variety of channels is the essence of hybrid engagement, but can also cause problems if data comes in wildly varied forms. For example, at workshops, people are often not asked about their demographic data. This consistency is hugely important as it enables all the data to be analysed together and leaves less room for differing interpretations.
It is not to say that face-to-face events such as public meetings or street interviews can't have their own script and unique features. But it is important to have a core of common questions that are asked across all channels. This ensures that equal weight is given to opinions regardless of how they are gathered. Furthermore, having consistent demographic data ensures good representation and also creates insight as to which groups are most receptive to which channels.
Project information and illustrations: a digital-first approach
The second component of this digital infrastructure for hybrid engagement is the way that engagement projects and policies are presented. We strongly advocate a “digital-first” approach using both text and imagery. This means that all assets should be created for digital presentation first. There are a few reasons for this:
- The number of people visiting an online consultation is highly likely to exceed those who visit an exhibition or look at paper information. As with any marketing strategy, the best way to use limited resources is to optimise the media for the channel with the widest reach.
- For online assets to be effective, they need to look compelling on a phone screen as well as a desktop. Graphics need to be clear and text needs to be in short clear blocks, with informative headings that enable people to quickly understand the key concerns. This approach converts very well to a number of physical assets as well, including forms, posters and even exhibition panels. The reverse however is not necessarily true. Highly complex PDF maps and technical drawings are often provided in face-to-face settings. These can be difficult enough to understand on-site with help - and become very tricky when placed online. In other words, the short attention span common to digital interfaces sets a benchmark for developing assets.
Communication and public feedback for community engagements
The third reason to always use digital infrastructure for hybrid engagement is to ensure clear communication.
For community engagements to succeed, communication is essential at all stages. People need to know that the engagement exercise is happening. They need to know there is a website, that there will be public meetings and when the deadline is.
While your engagement is in progress, you’ll want to create a buzz around it to maximise participation - and also to see where there are gaps in engagement that might need special interventions such as a local pop-up or door-knocking.
When the engagement is over, thanking the community for its contribution is polite - and telling them what you are doing with the input is imperative. Again and again, our own research shows us that the thing Commonplace contributors get most upset about is the lack of feedback about how their contributions help shape the project they commented on. We call this “Closing the loop” and it underpins community trust with the council and developers in the area. Communities know they can’t have everything - but they also want to see how they have shaped and impacted what might be necessary changes and compromises.
Digital platforms can facilitate much of this communication fast and at scale. If we take Commonplace as an example (of course!) you can use several channels and tools that are built into the platforms. From within Commonplace, you can reply to individual comments; post a news item to subscribers; or use social media to drive traffic to any part of the website. Some of these tools can be used over a very long term, creating a sense of continuous engagement which residents hugely appreciate.
You can also change the website itself easily - for example adding content relating to a phase in engagement or reporting back from a public meeting.
Now you must ask yourself another question: did they see it?
When you send out a traditional mailing, you have no idea whether it has been opened or read. The only indication you get is the number of returned survey forms. With a digital platform, you can tell how many people have visited your website; how many pages they viewed; and the community has the option to comment (the equivalent of returning a survey by post) or agree with an existing comment.
Immediately, having a digital platform gives you infinitely wider insight into the way residents engage with information sent to them.
There is a further dimension to using a digital engagement tool - the familiarity a community gains from using that one tool for all types of engagement. Here at Commonplace, we have been working hard to ensure our platform is suitable for any consultation question. To facilitate this we now offer a wide variety of question types, ranging far beyond spatial and public realm consultations. New types of question include, comment on an image or a map; arranging options by priority; budget allocation and many more.
When you launch a new Commonplace you can notify people locally (who have opted-in to Notifications) that there is a new engagement in their area.
Ask anything: ask anyone
All these characteristics of digital engagement and the unique features of Commonplace mean that with your hybrid engagement underpinned by Commonplace you can: Ask Anything, Ask Anyone.
OK, that’s a big claim... but yes, the digital platform, together with a hybrid strategy, really means you can ask about any topic and efficiently reach everyone you need to. The mix of different question types; communications and insight can deliver unprecedented engagement and quality of data.
Ready to engage your community in new ways? We're here to help! Just book a free demo to get started.