Virtual Meetings and Online Engagement – Keeping Pace with Our Digital World

Like all technology, the rapid pace of development is mind boggling and it’s no different when it comes to online engagement software. In parts 1 and 2 of this blog series, we talked about the pros and cons of online public engagement and outlined best practices for its use. Now, it’s time to find the best platform(s) through which to engage your audiences. The good news is that there are a lot of tools available for online meetings and engagement; the bad news is that there are a lot of tools available for online engagement. No, that is not a typo. It’s daunting to mire through the various options, so we have curated a list of software and digital platforms that are designed specifically online engagement. While we have not vetted all of these ourselves, we have used many of them and been a participant on others. We also researched which tools may be most comfortable and familiar for a broad demographic. Now, it’s up to you to test one out, see what you think, and try another.


Social Media

Let’s start with social media platforms, probably the most familiar and accessible to the general public. Inexpensive (or free!) to set-up; expansive in reach; and, if you have some dollars available, easy and effective options for targeting and promoting your meetings and events for better attendance.

        • Facebook: In addition to posting information about projects and events on Facebook, there are new tools on the platform that expand engagement options. Facebook Live is a useful platform for live broadcast and sharing video content. We’ve seen communities using this for mayoral addresses and public workshops, which gives your audience a chance to comment and communicate to a broader audience directly through the platform.
        • NextDoor:This free, private social network for neighborhoods is highly localized, which often correlates with more active participation. If it’s set up appropriately, this is an excellent way to request survey or focus group participation, share events, and gain feedback from residents.
        • Twitter: Like Facebook, Twitter can be used to foster targeted civic dialogue as well. Hashtags can help you target the right following with the added benefit of having those followers use your hashtag to help broaden your audience. Platforms like Hootsuite (that offers a free plan) and Sprout Social, you can easily monitor, compile, analyze and report on conversations.

Virtual Meeting Platforms

        • Zoom: Like the rest of the world, Guide uses ZOOM for virtual meetings and webinars, and have been doing so long before this pandemic. Under the current circumstances, we’ve had to up our “online engagement game” with breakout rooms and whiteboards that emulate in-person engagement.
        • GoTo Meeting: Guide used GoTo Meeting for years and it offers similar features as ZOOM. Both offer high-quality, stable video and audio with strong collaboration features. In our opinion, we found Zoom to be a little more user-friendly, which is helpful when you’re asking for people to engage.


Survey Software

The following survey platforms are a mere handful of the options used in the civic space. Surveys are probably the most common approach to public engagement, but most of the available platforms are not designed to be stand-alone tools for public engagement. You can integrate survey software with other engagement tools, including social media platforms, email marketing automation tools, webinar and online meeting software, among others. Survey software also aggregates the data collected to help you analyze the information. Some of the most popular survey programs include:

        • Survey Monkey and Typeform are both user-friendly when it comes to set-up, distribution, and analyzing results. At Guide, we use Survey Monkey most frequently and find that it can be simple or as complicated as you want. It’s easy to set up and deploy a survey, but it also has all the tools to create more sophisticated surveys, should you choose. The only downside that we’ve found is that these platforms expect that the user understand the art of how to compose survey questions for optimal results.
        • PublicInput functions as a community engagement CRM, and communications management tool for governments. An option for communities struggling to gather and manage contact information for residents and stakeholders.
        • Poll Everywhere allows you to embed polls into presentations during live meetings and events encouraging interaction via smart phone.
        • Google Forms is easy and free. You can create polls, forms, and surveys without having any background or know-how. While it lacks some of the bells and whistles of other platforms, if you’re not likely to take advantage of the bells and whistles included in other software, this is the way to go. It takes minutes to set up a survey and there are templates available for the less savvy survey-writer. This platform is particularly mobile-friendly if your audience is likely to use a phone and or a tablet, and it’s easy to fiddle around with the design, look and feel, even if you’re not a designer. Did I mention that it’s FREE?            

Online Public Engagement Software Platforms

Online public engagement tools are being developed quickly to meet an increasing demand. But there are several popular platforms that have been around for a while and provide an almost-full-service suite of tools specifically designed for community and transportation planning. These platforms tend to be more robust than what our team typically needs, but their features could be a good fit for planners and communities working on large-scale, multi-faceted projects that require significant, ongoing community engagement.


Fun Charrette and Discovery Tools

If you are looking to mimic those interactive design charrettes or brainstorm session online. Here are a few tools we are checking out:

        • Stormboard and LucidchartWe are interested in seeing if we can mimic our Affinity Mapping exercises with virtual post-it notes (we love post-its).
        • MURAL Its like a giant whiteboard – but online! (we like whiteboards too.)
        • Maptionairre Map-based surveys

All of the software and tools that we’ve recommended here are truly viable options and this just scratches the surface. If you have the time and mental bandwidth to explore these and others, we encourage you to do so (and let us know what you think!). New software and online replacements for your tried-and-tried methods can be daunting and inspire procrastination. But (1) we don’t have time for that considering the circumstances, (2) once you try these online tools, we think you’ll find that they’re much easier than you were anticipating, and (3) it will open the doors to new opportunities and better engagement in the future.

Get to it!



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