Embracing the World of Online Public Engagement
Technology for online meetings and engagement have been around for a while. As big companies expand nationally or globally and remote workforces become more common, online meetings are widely accepted and utilized, but online tools for public engagement have not. In our recent survey, it was noted that nearly 70% of respondents now hold meetings online — everything from project collaboration to council meetings – compared with 13% prior to the pandemic. Highlighting the fact that many communities are slow adopters to new technology. When your ability to engage with people face-to-face is removed, humans adapt and learn quickly. How can we embrace the online world and begin virtually engaging with people to progress our communities?
This week we will assess the pros and cons of online public engagement to help us align expectations so we can continue to consult with the people of our communities during crisis and beyond.
The Pros and Cons of Online Public Engagement
We tend to believe that new technology should solve all the problems of older methods. It’s important to understand what virtual meetings and online engagement can and cannot do so we don’t dismiss it prematurely before understanding how it can fill a void or even influence our approach in positive ways.
Below is a mix of general cons we’ve identified with online engagement along with research conducted by Bang The Table, a digital engagement platform. With this understanding, we can outline potential remedies with some new (and some old) best practices.
- Text-based: Online engagement relies heavily on inputting text which can be challenging for those who don’t like to write or live with a disability that makes it inconvenient.
- Lack of physical cues: As facilitators, we rely heavily on the ability to “read the room” through observing facial expressions, body language, gestures and even the room’s energy. Participants rely on these cues as well to help keep their focus and attention.
- Directionless: Some people learn better on their own and some need more guidance when asked to complete engagement exercises. Some participants have a harder time understand what is being asked of them in a virtual setting.
- Managing the voices: Conducting in-person meetings can be engaging, but still requires a practiced facilitator to steer the discussion. Virtual meetings are no different and without rules and etiquette for managing the conversation, following and participating in the discussion may be difficult, especially without the ability to read the room and know when it’s your turn to speak.
- Accessibility: Most often we have heard the biggest concern around online engagement is internet accessibility that could exclude some people from participating.
Even with these concerns, there are a number of pros to online public engagement that are worth considering:
- Flexibility: Online engagement can be scheduled or it can be available 24-7 for a period of time so people can engage when it’s most convenient for them.
- Broader participation: When facilitating public engagement in-person, it’s important to carefully balance exercises to ensure that even those who are quiet will participate. Virtual engagement levels the playing field, allowing those quiet folks to have a voice without “feeling on display” in a physical forum.
- Reflection time: Some people have the innate ability to think on their feet, while others need more time to process and reflect on their questions or answers. Online surveys and questionnaires allow for longer windows of participation so people can take a little more time to think through their answers.
- Measurement: With online engagement, participation is tracked, data is collected, and results are sorted, often in real-time. For researchers, this provides an immediate “big picture” view that allows them to dive deeper for more robust insights. Most virtual meeting tools allow for the session to be recorded so you can listen again or share the conversation with others.
- Efficiency and lower cost: There’s a lot of time, effort, and dollars required for effective face-to-face public engagement. Virtual engagement can be more efficient and cost-effective, saving on commute time and the occasional refreshments. Furthermore, if it’s a snowy day or in a location with limited parking, you may end up with a better turnout, reaching more people than you would with a traditional in-person public engagement.
- Awareness and collaboration: When paired with a simple low-cost project website, virtual public engagement can inform, educate, and foster continued communication with your community.
Since being forced into using this technology more to meet and engage with our clients and their constituents, the weight of the disadvantages of virtual engagement have lessened and the advantages have inspired us to consider innovative ways to continue our ability to learn about the communities we serve.
Next week we will uncover how rapidly improving technology along with tried-and-true best practices for public engagement are mitigating many of the cons listed above.