Those who are critical of digital community engagement are usually critical of digital community engagement done wrong. This is when digital community engagement is just regular business as usual engagement on the cheap, not driven by strategy and planning, and failing to engage with more than the same old NIMBYs and squeaky wheels.

In this case, digital community engagement is chosen out of administrative convenience, with a lack of creativity and inspiration, limited understanding of data collection and use, and generally done by self-anointed ‘experts’ rather than involving everyone in the organisation.

The risks of doing it poorly are clear: failure to extend your organisation’s reach, influenced or hijacked processes, biased data collection and outcomes, additional cost and effort, and ultimately the reinforcement of community apathy or distrust in government, defeating the point in doing it in the first place.

Rather than dwell on why poorly executed digital community engagement fails, we want to shine a light on how it can succeed, with the right combination of planning, strategy, communication and analysis.

Poster - top 5 principles for digital engagement

Click to expand. Download a PDF of the poster below.

Here are our top 5 principles for digital engagement success:

1. Have a purpose

Have a clear intent as to why you are engaging in the first place. Are you just checking a box, is there a demonstrated need, or have you done it before? Ask yourself if you have clearly defined goals and desired outcomes, and a vision for how input for your community will help to share and evolve the project.

This means setting objectives to create better projects, programs, policies and strategies. In action, it means a considered approach to the planning of content, and to data collection and analysis. Develop strategies to unlock insights and knowledge from the data you collect from your community. From the very start, create explicit links between the design process and decision-making.

2. Plan for success

This step provides the blueprint to guide interactions in a well thought out and integrated way. From the beginning you should know what you need to collect, how you’ll collect it and how you’ll use it. What do you need to ask, how are you going to ask it, and when will you go back to the community with what you’ve discovered?

Provide a variety of ways for people to be involved and promote, promote, promote! Set targets for representation so that you can go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and ensure confidence in the robustness of your data. Create pathways for constructive and positive interactions with your community, putting yourself in their shoes so you can create user-friendly, compelling experiences that provoke a response.

3. Inspire interest and action

Before asking for something, always articulate the value for participants. Why should they give you their precious time and insights? Why should they care? Encourage positivity and constructive action.

When you are setting up your online projects, create compelling content and communications that grab people’s attention and pull them into the conversation. Above all, you should make participating enjoyable - that could mean making activities fun, meaningful or even challenging!

4. Bring citizens on the journey

Bringing people along on the journey means engaging and communicating information early on and often in a project. This is important as it means constant re-engagement, building trust and giving people a sense of agency and investment in the project.

Provide the materials to educate and build capacity within the community, fostering involvement and community spirit. Bring people into contact with others with different views and build relationships between citizens. Communicate back regularly (close the loop), and accurately and honestly reflect back the community’s views in your final outputs.

5. Show you listened and learned

By showing you’ve listened and demonstrating how people’s input will help shape decisions or changes, you will build trust and grow the relationship between community and government. Community engagement projects should probe the underlying values of the community, identify priorities and seek solutions.

Throughout the process, listen to people’s experiences and stories, source ideas and content to feed back into the process, do thorough and thoughtful analysis to corroborate your findings, and then reflect what you heard back to the community. Finally, invite people to future opportunities and keep the conversation going.

Online engagement is complex and following these five steps is no guarantee of success. However, by following these five steps you can approach your digital community engagement projects with a solid framework that can ensure integrated campaigns, content-rich, interactive, branded experiences, and data-driven design and decision making.