Engaging Hard to Reach Populations

  • 19 March 2021
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Engaging Hard-to-Reach Populations


One of the biggest challenges in getting feedback from your community is to make sure that you are hearing from all of your community. Hard-to-reach populations is the term to describe all of those populations we know can be difficult to engage. Included are people who are younger, are of color, or have a lower socioeconomic status, and more. But with a broad outreach strategy and using the tips below, you can reach these important groups.

  1. Double-check your assumptions about who is hard to reach
    At Polco, we often hear the concern that online engagement is not a good way to reach older adults, and particularly seniors. We have actually found the opposite to be true! Often, residents who attend city council meetings are over 50 years old, and those residents also participate in significant numbers in online surveys. We regularly see responses from people in their 80’s, and even 90’s! Age isn’t necessarily the issue, but more important is internet access. Mobile responsive surveys that can be taken on a cell phone solve the problem in large part. However, you may also want to consider providing a kiosk in a senior center or other location where seniors gather as an opportunity to connect with this important group, especially those without internet access or a smartphone. 
  2. Peer networks are priceless
    One of the most challenging populations to reach is young people. They often don’t hang out in places where local government traditionally reaches, and they may not be homeowners or parents, two traits associated with increased civic engagement. However, young adults often have strong social networks, and that can be leveraged for engagement. Snowball sampling is a statistical method that asks people responding to surveys to share the link with their peers. In our work at Polco, we have found this to be a good method of increasing participation from young adults overall and especially from young adults of color.
  3. Partners can be crucial for a broad outreach strategy
    Enlisting community partners such as school districts to share your survey link with parents can be helpful in reaching out to the community. But to access younger parents, consider reaching out to area child care centers, preschools, and community programs like the YMCA or park district that provide programming for young children. Area community colleges and trade schools can also be a great way to target young adults. In your messaging always let them know you value their feedback!  
  4. Browsers can be a big help!
    We often get asked about providing surveys in other languages, but even when surveys are offered in Spanish or another language, they often get a tepid response. Because many browsers allow for automatic translation from English, many non-native speakers already use them regularly on their computers.  While these translations are not as accurate as direct translations, they usually provide enough information for respondents to answer questions. For particularly sensitive topics you may want to pay for translations. But for many others, in-browser translations may be adequate and provide cost savings that you can use for outreach such as distributing flyers, etc.
  5. Outcomes are particularly important to share
    Letting survey participants know how you are going to use their responses is always important, but for hard-to-reach populations it’s crucial. As part of your outreach and communication plan, make sure to have a plan to share the results, either entirely or just some of the most interesting findings. And let participants know how the data will be used. The perception that their input doesn’t matter is part of the reason that response rates tend to be low from harder to reach populations. Knowing that their input has been considered and impacts decisions increase the chances that they will continue to participate.

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