Outreach: Building and Engaging Your Feedback Team

  • 18 August 2021
  • 0 replies

In a perfect world, every public engagement effort would include every resident of your community. But in practice, time, resource and monetary costs, this would make pulling off such a Herculean feat largely impossible for even the most advantaged jurisdictions.


For this reason, survey scientists will usually select a much smaller sample of the population and set response rate goals from that smaller sample. Statistics then makes it possible for a few hundred responses to accurately represent sentiments in a community of tens-of-thousands. And now with automatic weighting available, this is a reality for all custom content pieces you create on Polco as well!


Online outreach opens the potential for more residents with internet access to respond. But the same practical limitations that lead researchers to survey samples are the same limitations that must be considered when setting your goals and expectations for civic engagement.


It can be tempting to try engaging a certain blanket percentage of your overall population, but this is not the best determiner of successful engagement with your stakeholders. 


Online engagement is best viewed as an extension of the public input section of municipal or county board meetings. Very few residents and other stakeholders take the time to attend these meetings. But digital platforms, like Polco’s online engagement tool, solve for one common barrier: convenience. Instead of requiring all interested parties to attend a meeting on a Tuesday at 7:00, online platforms allow for input 24/7. Allowing for the schedule of the stakeholder greatly improves the volume of feedback you can expect. And as is the case with city council or commissioner meetings, hot topics are likely to get more input than everyday issues. 


Engagement through Polco will vary by community, research topics and stakeholder groups. You should look at not only how many people are engaging but also the representation of these people. It is more important to have a smaller, more representative sample than a large, less diverse one. Probability sample is based on this premise and it holds true for all engagement outreach as well. Many important market research and policy decisions are based on small numbers of respondents that represent key market/opinion segments. A panel of 200 representative residents can provide meaningful data into any decision-making processes (and will better predict the true sentiment in the community than 10,000 residents if they are all of similar mindsets). 


That said, in open participation, online engagement, you will want to try to bring as many people as you can to the table. Following a number of best practices can help you create a strong panel of residents. The practices are listed below. Each practice also has more detailed information in the Polco Knowledge Base. 


1. Develop an Outreach Plan

A comprehensive engagement plan is key to any online outreach activity. The plan should specify:

  • Who are you trying to engage? Who are the key segments of the population you want to make sure are included on your panel?

  • Are there community organizations/stakeholder groups you can partner with to better reach your target audiences?

  • What methods will you use to engage residents (e.g. website, emails, social media outlets, newsletters, press releases, billing inserts, etc.)?

  • What is your timeline for gathering input? 

  • What will you do with the input you receive?

  • What resources do have to work on this critical piece of gathering feedback (e.g. staff, technology, budget, existing partnerships, volunteers, etc.) 

  • What are your expectations for your panel?


2. Partner with Community Organizations and Stakeholder 

To effectively expand your reach into the community, identify and connect with community partners. First create a list of contacts from those partners, which can range from individual community champions and cheerleaders to civic groups and organizations. For example:

  • Chamber of commerce

  • Local sports leagues

  • Schools and PTOs

  • Civic organizations

  • Religious institutions

  • Local businesses 

  • Veterans groups

  • Other governmental agencies 

  • Other city departments 

  • Local media

  • Homeowners’ associations/neighborhood liaisons

  • Local leaders and bloggers


Partner organizations can not only help spread the invitations, but also provide insights into how their members are best engaged. Your partners also will provide legitimacy to the project and help share the results of the panel’s work at later dates. 


3. Utilize Key Outreach Channels 

Reaching out to your community is essential. To recruit a strong sounding board in your community, there are a variety of methods both traditional and technologically based: 

  • Website (pages, blog posts and FAQs)

  • Email

  • Social media posts

  • Printed documents 

  • Press releases

  • Meetings, events and other in-person opportunities


Use as many of these channels as possible and as make sense. The Polco Connect and the Polco Knowledge Base provides some great resources and tips on how to craft messages through email, social media, press releases and more to get your residents responding to you on Polco. 


In particular, if your organization and/or your departments and agencies have developed good email lists, send invitations to the members of these lists. Having lists that have been developed across the organization can help to expand the reach to residents with varied interests (e.g., some may be library users, others recreation center users, others with an interest in water issues, etc.)


4. Make the work meaningful to participants

Many residents across America do not feel like their voice is heard in their communities. An important component in all research is to ensure that all of the participants know how the information will be used and how it was used. Following up with your panel members and partners will let them know the value of their participation and how the short time they spend with you makes a difference. Giving acknowledgements and showing gratitude also is important, just as it is for all volunteer recruitment and retention. 


5. Monitor and evaluate your work

Gauging success of online survey and polling platforms looks different for each individual organization. Building a strong panel of residents will not happen overnight. A custom success plan should be drafted for each community. The best way to know that your community engagement efforts are headed in the right direction is tracking your own trends over time. You will want to monitor:

  • Number of panel members

  • Diversity of panel members

  • The types of outreach and questions that bring in more panel members

  • Are your partnerships working? What could be improved?

  • Are you retaining your members? 

  • Are the data you are gaining useful? How do they compare to your older methods of community engagement? 

  • Do your participants feel valued? Do they find the relationship meaningful? 


With opt-in online participation, you may see steady streams of participation or see snowball effects where you get big leaps and bounds followed by low response. The key is to monitor and be flexible to make changes in your plan. Every community and every stakeholder group is different. Measure your performance, then plan and aim for better results next time!

The Polco Knowledge Base has more in-depth information on all of these topics to help provide insights and templates on how to engage.


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