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Digital engagement versus traditional engagement.

Prepare to engage – choosing between digital and traditional consultation tools

In the second instalment of our Real Relationships series, Sarah-Jane Dabarera considers the strengths of tried and tested traditional stakeholder engagement methods against the constantly evolving methods of the digital world.

The range and complexity of available tools for engagement can be overwhelming, so consideration of purpose and context should always be the first step in developing an effective consultation program.

The digital dream

Digital engagement is convenient. People of all ages are increasingly integrating digital platforms into their daily lives, giving digital engagement a cost and accessibility edge over traditional methods.

But research shows many organisations are missing out on new digital engagement opportunities and use online surveys – little more than extensions of traditional analogue surveys – as their primary activity in this space.

Sophisticated digital tools can enable interactive engagement and provide long-term benefits for both parties.  Melbourne City Council’s Urban Forest is an example of a ground-breaking tool for engagement and collaboration. The microsite combines big data and engagement by providing a centralised place for people to learn about Melbourne’s urban forest. All in the name of conservation and maintenance of the green space.

New technologies, including Virtual or Augmented Reality (VR or AR), now offer opportunities for greater interactivity. VR and AR can be used to create digital site-walkthroughs or interactive planning displays, replacing hard copy plans, maps and blueprints. They also have the flexibility to be used in tandem with a traditional engagement event and to remain available on the web for stakeholders to access in their own time.

The tried and true  

Face-to-face engagement is probably the most traditional tool of them all. There is nothing quite like meeting someone in person, finding out what concerns them, what they care about and explaining a proposal while building a real relationship.

Although social media engagement is increasingly perceived as being of equal value to a face-to-face conversation, there are some types of traditional engagement which will always be more appropriate.

Face-to-face interactions build rapport and demonstrate willingness to participate in a genuine conversation. In many instances an initial engagement using a digital tool will ultimately require some kind of in-person meeting.

Adopting traditional engagement tools doesn’t always result in holding large-scale events or numerous meetings. Phone calls are another effective way to stay in touch with stakeholders. For long-term projects, it can be a vital means of maintaining continuous communication.

When it comes to engaging with local residents, letter box drops (potentially supported with social media posts) can also be relevant and useful. This method can be particularly useful when trying to reach stakeholders from a large or remote geographic area.

Workshops, forums and perception surveys are other traditional forms of engagement, that don’t have to standalone. These tools can usually be enhanced by incorporating a digital element. This might be part of the meeting itself or used before or after the session to encourage attendance or collect feedback.

The decision process

When it comes to making your selection, consider your target stakeholders and think about their preferences. For bigger projects, it can be a good idea to ask them how they want to be engaged.

You should also consider the practicalities of your project and the ability of stakeholders to influence the process and final decisions.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a program which genuinely takes the time to engage with stakeholders and incorporate feedback will result in better project outcomes.

Digital engagement tools can be fun, flexible and convenient. Evolving technology means you can experiment with new methods to achieve better engagement.

Traditional methods have undoubted benefits and for some stakeholders remain the best way to engage. Face-to-face meetings, workshops, drop-in sessions, letter drops, door knocks and print adverts will continue to have a role in engagement programs.

A blended approach of digital and traditional methods will usually allow a practitioner to reach the broadest range of community members. This is especially true when dealing with diverse communities that encompass different ages and cultures.

Ultimately, your methods should reflect your purpose and your stakeholders. To achieve the best results, you need to know your community and have a clear strategy in mind. Only then can you choose the best ways to engage.

Cannings Purple’s community engagement specialists Sarah-Jane Dabarera, Charlie Wilson-Clark, Simon Corrigan, Jordin Payne and Renee Wilkinson are available to help your organisation build and maintain real relationships with your stakeholders.

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Main image by Stephan Sorkin on Unsplash