Social distance and collaboration seem like opposites. When one thinks about community engagement, it is common to imagine a room full of people, holding pens and sticky notes. However, COVID-19 and the resulting social distance forced community engagement professionals to get out of their comfort zone and think creatively about how to listen to isolated and sheltered-in-place communities.
Although challenging, the world needs to adapt to this new reality. Projects still have to be planned, important decisions have to be made, and programs need to be implemented and designed. Stakeholders' cooperation and participation are still essential to move projects forwards and to assure that projects are reflexive of communities' needs and concerns.
Digital engagement was already part of community engagement strategies. Social media was one of the best ways of truly meeting people where they are, and engaging with communities, especially youths. However, the pandemic changed this scenario. Without a maturation period, what was before part of the engagement is now its whole.
It is fundamental to research, develop, and test creative and innovative digital community engagement methods that ensure public participation and collaboration. This article provides a step-by-step guide to plan for a digital engagement.
Step 1: Know the Community
Before planning for online engagement, track who your audience is. You can do that through demographic and socio-economic data collection, key stakeholders’ phone interviews, and research.
Questions will change according to your project's complexity and characteristics. This information can help you understand your communities’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges.
They will also help you to understand aspects such as if a translation is needed (or if you need to do the outreach entirely in a foreign language), to what extent you will need to provide tech support, and, of course, what tools to use. They will also inform if digital engagement is already something that the community uses, which can be a valuable tool to design your strategy.
Step 2: Select the best tools
After understanding the community profile, it is time to select the best tools for digital engagement, keeping in mind the community’s characteristics. Although Zoom (and other online meeting platforms) have increasingly gained space for digital engagement, there are many tools for community engagement, all of them have a free-of-cost alternative. Examples of tools include gamification, online open houses, augmented reality, digital pop ups, collaborative mapping, and many others.
When selecting tools keep in mind the community you are dealing with. For example, for an audience that has low digital literacy, use tools that require less technical knowledge, such as online conferences, SMS engagement, or digital pop-ups. For a tech-savvy audience, you can implement creative and innovative methods, such as hackathons or crowdsourcing activities. Also, if they are already engaging with social media, chat apps, or meeting platforms, you can integrate your practices into what already exists and works?
If you decide that the best options are online meeting, be aware that different platforms have different features, and can be more or less suitable for your community. See below a quick scorecard of the main platforms for online conferencing.
Keep in mind that you can be creative and mix up different methods of engagement. An option is to integrate online meetings with live polling. Some online meeting platforms already integrate polling tools (as depicted in the scorecard), but you can also use external tools to do it. Mentimeter offers an easy to use and design-focused option. Users will have to enter a code on the website and vote or write their options, and the results will change automatically. The tool allows you to create word clouds, charts, and graphs.
There are also options to simulate post-its activities, through whiteboards within the online meeting platform or other platforms. One of them is Jamboard, an interactive whiteboard system developed by google used for online collaboration.
Step 3: Address your community limitations
Every community engagement has challenges. For an effective strategy, that truly reaches and listens to the community, it is fundamental to acknowledge these challenges and address them.
For an audience with low tech knowledge or access, make sure to provide technical support during the meeting, have at least two facilitators for technical support and chat monitoring. It is also good to have staff available to jump into breakout rooms for troubleshooting or to provide training before an online meeting. Another valuable option is to use methods that require low-digital, such as SMS, or schedule calls or one-on-one or small group sessions (following all the safety prescriptions).
Finally, it is fundamental to keep in mind the need for translation, and take advantage of closed caption and live translations if needed. Another option, depending on the percentage of individuals speaking each language, is to provide digital engagement sessions in different languages.
Step 4: Create appealing online environments
There are several ways of transforming your digital engagement session from a (sometimes boring and unengaging) webinar to something that keeps community attention and, above all, assures participation.
In addition to using more than one engagement tool, you can think creatively about how to create spaces of participation. In one small focus group discussion, the organizers sent coffee and bagels to the participant's house to replicate catering services and create a welcoming space (and provide topics for discussion).
Another initiative did collaborative mapping activities in online environments through collaborative drawing tools and whiteboards. This case took place in a focus group discussion with five community members. The facilitator shared their screen with a simple google earth map and asked participants to pinpoint places of importance, tell their story, and explain the importance of the places. The resulting map, a colored digital map expressing the main areas of a neighborhood, was printed and sent to each participant's home.
Step 5: See the positive side
Finally, think about the bright side of digital engagement. Using digital engagement can help to include communities that would not participate. Social media can increase the number of youth members participating and giving their opinion. Online meetings can enable parents to stay home, taking care of their family members, and still participate in public meetings. The addition of digital elements can transform engagement into something lighter, more fun, and truly participatory and engaging.
It is hard to draft a structured step by step methodology because each community engagement case is different from one another. Each case has its peculiarity and unicity. My main advice would be to think outside the box, be creative and empathetic.
You have any questions or want to know more about digital engagement, feel free to reach out to me.