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Millions of visitors, a handful of comments: why engagement falls flat

I’m not sure when I first heard someone describe social media as being the media of “dialogue” as opposed to the preaching monologue stance of so called “traditional media”. It’s a neat turn of phrase for making the point that Professor Mark Ritson makes a little more bluntly, that the key word in the phrase “social media”, isn’t actually “media”.

The advent of social media, bringing with it the chance for businesses to start having dialogues with their customers, has been grasped by government organizations worldwide as an opportunity to move on from the days of researching policies at focus groups on wet Wednesday evenings to a new unfettered world of open dialogue on subjects from A to Z, of a world where for the first time, citizens, residents, voters, call it what you will, get the chance to “have their say”.

“We’ve never had better tools at our disposal … so why don’t people want to engage?”

I write from first-hand experience having played a part in creating a whole of government engagement platform that for the first time collected the many consultation and engagement exercises under way across the 100-plus departments and agencies into one central portal. Easy for the user to find, creating greater awareness of the opportunity to contribute and all available through your desktop or tablet. Better for the user, better for each campaign. Hundreds of thousands of people visited.

Four years later, a quick google search of the phrase “Have Your Say” produces 185 million global results. On the first page of an Australian search, you get directed to the NSW and SA sites, the Sydney site and council sites for Willoughby and Waverley. If you have something to say about skate parks, new CBD stations or West Connex, they’re all there on page one of the search. We’ve never been more engaged.

Scratch below the surface a little though and the challenges of community engagement for government departments soon start to appear. One of the most prominent interstate sites does a terrific job of publishing the results of the engagement (surprisingly not all do…).

It doesn’t take a great deal of web or forensic skill to see that the number of people engaging on that site on some very important topics are, well, on the disappointingly small side.

Odd, isn’t it? We’ve never had better tools at our disposal. The most recent Sensis report tells us that 69% of Australian internet users have a social media profile. Every government department has at least one website with some seeing millions of visits a year. So why don’t people want to engage?

From the touchlines, I can suggest a number of reasons. Some government departments are still guilty of posting dense and really lengthy PDF’s online and inviting comments. Only the most committed will find the time to get involved. Other struggling engagement campaigns are niche or about subjects that just aren’t suited to such an impersonal (and public) medium. And many of course are simply less well promoted than others.

All possibly suffer a little stigma from the fact that as citizens we’re just not used to talking to government.

Another part of the problem is that we citizens all feel busy. Whichever statistics you favour, nobody could argue that we’re seeing more messages and having our day to day interrupted more often than ever before, whether by email, sms or indeed social media update. In a world with an almost infinite number of websites, most of us have less than 20 favourite sites that we visit regularly. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

And this is the media environment that government are working in, fighting to get us interested during our busy days in taking part in an online survey. In the 1990’s marketers mused about how we were competing for people’s time. Nowadays, we’re all competing for their attention. Just getting someone to notice and then stop by your community engagement campaign page is some achievement.

Simple changes for driving higher engagement

Despite all that, having worked in the field for a while now I’d suggest a couple of pretty straightforward principles government departments could adopt to drive higher volumes of engagement. None of them have anything to do with technology. None of them cost money.

  1. The first is to learn from the growth of the world’s second biggest search engine, YouTube. Most of us would rather watch someone describe how something works, with graphics and pictures rather than read an instruction manual. The content of an engagement campaign should be the same. Rather than pages (and pages) of words, engagement campaigns are more likely to work if accompanied by pictures, interactive maps and other graphics to show people what you want their views on. And the shorter the better.
  2. For engagements that absolutely have to feature long form documents, help the reader by breaking the content down into smaller, digestible chunks. Use subject headings and summaries to guide the reader and invite comment as you go, not only at the end.
  3. Make it really easy for the user to respond. Tick boxes, multiple choice questions and yes/no choices are good. Open ended boxes inviting them to “tell us what you think” not so much. Mailing addresses or PO Boxes a total no-no. And ask the least number of questions possible.
  4. In everything you do be really clear about what you want, how you will use the information and wherever you can tell people how you will publish the results. If it’s one of those campaigns for good reasons you can’t share the results of, say so upfront. Don’t leave people hanging. They won’t bother next time.
  5. Remember that notion of “dialogue”. Use simple conversational English, make it clear what you want people to do and thank them for their interest. It might just help get their attention and more importantly bring them back again next time. And that’s what get results.

It’s worth considering that some of the most successful community engagement campaigns I’ve been involved in were also some of the simplest. I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson there.

Author Bio

Alun Probert

Alun Probert is associate publisher – Engagement - for The Mandarin. Head of the GovCom Group, a specialist communications agency for the public sector, Alun has over 25 years global experience in communications and marketing, both as Marketing and Publishing Director for a leading global publisher and more recently as Executive Director of Strategic Communications for NSW Department of Premier & Cabinet, working under five NSW Premiers.