February 20, 2014

Jamie Billingham

Top 10 Reasons to Engage Online

In our mobile, technology laden, connected world it’s easy to forget that not everyone has fully embraced online community engagement. Half the world may be on Facebook – and that means half the world is not. Those that don’t use social media or participate in online processes may not think that online would be a place to engage a community. Yet, we also know that even for those who don’t use technology to its fullest extent, it is still an ideal place to reach out, inform and ask questions of your community stakeholders. There are reasons to engage online that go beyond accessibility and convenience.

Top 10 countdown of reasons to engage community online

10 – Online engagement costs less – especially if the group is large or at a distance. Travel costs, child-minding and time off work are common costs for community members.

9 – Speed – the average person can read twice as fast as they can speak. North American adults speak at a rate of 130-150 words per minute. Their average reading rate is 200-300 words per minute. Online engagement using written information is faster for participants.

8 – Time – Engaging online gives people time to reflect.

7 – Moderation – Ideas and responses can easily be checked online. Disrespectful or harmful comments can be removed.

6 – Comfort – Difficult issues can be addressed in a safer, more comfortable space online. Participants feel protected and identities can be kept private. There is a difference between anonymity and confidentiality. In our moderated, online environment people can say what they need to say without fear of reprisals. However, they are not anonymous. This balance provides safety and accountability.

5 – Accuracy – What is written online is what is recorded. Our memories aren’t as good as we think they are. We don’t actually record and store what we hear or see. We record and store what we think about. In face to face meetings and community forums emotions can run high causing us to mis-remember what was really said. An online platform protects from that.

4 – Fairness – Quieter voices aren’t muffled by louder ones in an online process so introverts get an equal opportunity to participate.

3 – The Halo effect – We are easily influenced by how a person looks, sounds and by their position. Using an online platform reduces this kind of bias. Charisma is a great quality but the downside for groups is that people can be swept away by a gifted presenter who knows how to sway an audience. Online processes are protected from the influence of the “person” and the ideas can shine through, regardless of who presents them.

2 – Groupthink – When people get together in a face to face environment they can begin to think alike. Groupthink or in-group bias is a part of being human. It’s a subconscious drive to be part of a group. Moving important considerations online and ensuring people have their say before being exposed to other people’s thoughts allows for more diverse ideas while reducing the risk of polarization and or groupthink creeping in.

1 – Convenience – Online consultations let people take part where and when they are able. People can participate from anywhere and on any device.

Engaging the “others”

But what about the folks that don’t have access and the so-call luddites? And what of those who have a strong preference for face to face meetings.  What do we do with them?  You need to engage them too. This is especially true of school-community consultations. You absolutely have to reach out to the harder to engage and that includes those that shun technology on principle and those who find the barriers to access too steep.

Who are these people?

That’s another great question! You need to know ‘exactly’ who your stakeholders are. Knowing who your stakeholders are goes beyond general labels like ‘parents’, ‘board members’, or ‘business owners’. Knowing who your stakeholders are means diving deeply into their experience or inexperience online and finding out how else you might reach out to them.

Here’s a list of possible stakeholders from one of the School Community Engagement Toolkits that we share with our customers. Each of these groups could be further split – or segmented – into Online Friendly and Online Barriered. However don’t confuse the Online Barriered with the folks that may not have easy access to the web, but do have access to email.

Many less technically enabled folks that don’t have a computer or internet access at home do have a smartphone that they use to check email regularly. That’s one of the reasons we use email to send out invitations to participate in a ThoughtExchange Process and why we have made our platform mobile friendly.

Community stakeholders in education:
  • Parents
  • Volunteers
  • PAC or PTA members
  • Other education committee members – i.e. Aboriginal Education Enhancement Committee (in Canada)
  • Community at large
  • Retirees
  • Parents of preschool children
  • Grandparents
  • Recent graduates
  • Business community members
  • Service club members
  • Not-for-profit community members
  • Special interest community members
  • Cultural or ethnic groups
  • Non-English speaking community members
  • Local government leaders and city hall staff
  • Parallel organizations – Hospital employees for example
  • Local media – newspaper and radio reporters and other staff

What does your list look like?

Lowering barriers to participation

What can you do to include the Online Barriered in school and community engagement? Each community is going to have a different response to that question. The good news is that this group – of non-technology users – is a smaller group and it’s shrinking daily. That means the extra effort and creative methods will not be overwhelming. Here’s a few ideas to get you started. Once you begin you’ll no doubt think of even more ways that suit your particular circumstance and community.

First – be clear on the message you want to get out. Have a plan in place around how you will help those who want to take part in your online engagement but can’t access online methods. Your message has to include that information – specifically. For example, if you are willing and able to provide information and questions on paper then make sure people know where and how to access that. And of course have a way to integrate those responses into the online process. We do this a lot by the way, so just ask us for the templates.

Ways to connect offline:

1. In all cases – Use clear language and make it multilingual if your community is culturally diverse

2. Go old-school – send messages home with students

3. Use lots of signage to let people know about your online engagement and how they can participate offline

4. Phone people – Remember the phone tree? Try to find out who the connectors are in your community so you just have to connect with them and they can phone their connections

5. Use the media, newspapers, radio and local TV if you have one – Don’t forget culturally specific media i.e. radio stations that broadcast in a particular language

6. Use flyers and distribute them to local community centre’s and gathering places

7. Connect with local cultural or ethnic groups – many have their own communication channels including well read newsletters

8. Don’t forget City Hall – they can sometimes help get the word out

Some of these ideas may not be a fit for you, and some might. The goal is to find what works and then make it so. If genuinely engaging your community is your objective then start online because that’s where you can most easily connect with the majority of people today. Engaging online has benefits beyond affordability and ease of use. To go beyond that, to engage the folks that are not privileged enough to have access to online mediums takes a bit more effort and some creativity. If including as many diverse perspectives as possible is important to you, it’s worth that extra bit of time and attention.

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Jamie Billingham
Specialties: Learning and Technology, Curriculum and Instructional Design and Development, Leadership, Organizational Learning, Systems Thinking, Group Facilitation.

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