What is community engagement?

community engagement, social mediaWhen discussing public relations or strategic communications, the word “engagement” comes up a lot. It is always interesting to hear what engagement means to a communications professional. It can mean different things to different people, including consultation, education, participation, active discussion and more. Quite often, it is spoken about in hushed tones and feels like the “holy grail” for communications professionals, which it can be – especially in this day and age of online connection through social media.

I was speaking with the communications manager of a potential new client and she was telling me about how much community engagement they had during a recent contest that they ran. I asked what engagement in this context meant to her and she responded that it was all about the likes, followers, contest entries and website visits. I probed a little further and asked about what happened after people signed up, followed or liked their social media accounts after entering the contest. I wanted to know if there were active discussions on Facebook or Twitter. And if – after entering the contest – the number of likes and followers increased, stayed the same or decreased. How long did people entering the contest stay on the website? What pages did they view? What were the longer-term engagement outcomes that she wanted from this contest? The communications manager didn’t know. She went back and checked the stats and was surprised to find that many of the likes and followers were gone, and the website analytics showed that people came, entered the contest, and left the site.

We then had a valuable discussion on effective engagement, how objectives and goals need to be clearly defined before each campaign or initiative, and how important it is to put results into context when measuring. For example, we have several travel clients here at AHA and our focus is both on consumers and the travel trade. When we reach out and connect with the travel trade (for a travel professional audience, such as travel agents), it is important to understand that a blog post might receive less than 200 views, but each of those views is by someone who may write a travel piece in a trade publication or who will speak to hundreds of people in a week who are looking to travel. The travel trade community doesn’t tend to comment on blogs or on social media sites such as Facebook, or retweet on Twitter, but they do read, review and sometimes e-mail us directly to ask questions or connect. This is their style of engagement. By standard metrics – it doesn’t seem to be an engaged community, but when you put it into context with their typical behaviour and their outreach, using the information they find through our outreach, they are engaged.

It is valuable to understand how interactive your community is regarding your organization, services, products or the information you share. I live in a small town just outside of Vancouver and there was recently an issue with our water supply. The people who work for the town were on social media with updates, they updated their website regularly, and they put up signs and bulletins in some public areas around the town. There was a great deal of activity on Facebook – residents asking for information, the staff responding and clarifying and updating – and, of course, there was some criticism. (If you aren’t getting some criticism, is it really engagement?) It was community engagement. I think the town did a good job, given the urgency and immediacy of the situation, their limited resources (it’s a small town, remember) and the fact that this issue happened on a Friday afternoon in the summer season.

We do a great deal of work with clients focused on engagement – and the first step is always to define what success looks like relative to the community you want to engage. Just because a blog post doesn’t get a lot of comments, that doesn’t mean it isn’t being read. Alternatively, if you want feedback from your community and you get the 10 people with the loudest voices participating, that doesn’t mean the community is actually engaged – there is likely a silent majority out there that is not responding. Your job is to find out what will move them to engage as well.

Define what you want to communicate and why you want feedback, identify not just the metrics of success but also the context of that success, make sure you review all of the results in that context, and listen to what is being said to you. Sometimes you can ask for engagement and get very little response. The lack of response could be because the subject either isn’t understood or it’s not a priority for your community.

Effective engagement is challenging and it can be incredibly rewarding and valuable when it is done well.

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