The outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent social distancing shined a spotlight on digital engagement, both for personal connection and for communication between organizations and the public. PRR wants to provide some perspective on available digital tools as our community partners adjust outreach and social marketing strategies. What follows are brief snapshots of tools we recommend, and please know we are happy to talk at greater length.
Please note: When PRR codes digital engagement tools, we follow the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) engagement matrix to ensure we maintain best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, digital engagement alone is not inherently equitable for all people. Consider these tools as a supplement to other efforts to engage historically underserved groups.
An open house typically functions as a two-way engagement experience where the host shares information about a project or issue and asks visitors for input. It functions very similarly to an in-person open house, only visitors can stop by whenever it works for them over the course of an established timeline (usually a few weeks). The branded website that houses the open house includes stations with visual information such as photos and interactive maps, organized in a reader-friendly progression that helps the user best understand the information.
Virtual sign-in information can feed into a customer relationship management (CRM) database to stay connected with participants after the online open house. (Don’t be put off by the term “customer” as CRM tools offer value to both private and public sector organizations interacting with the public.) Because the open house invites commenting and may collect contact information via CRM, be proactive in addressing privacy concerns. Describe upfront what data the organization will collect and how it intends to use that data.
Last but not least, Closed Captioning and third-party translation are available on some platforms. PRR can be a resource in evaluating which platform is the best match.
Critical insight: The two-way engagement of an online open house may not be typical for organizations used to sharing out information. Nevertheless, the tool may be useful to help test and refine messaging, increasing buy-in by giving people a genuine voice in shaping the message. For example, an organization can share out COVID-19 safety precautions using an online open house and invite the community to provide their reactions to the messaging in order to keep what works, add clarity for what is confusing, and rephrase or remove what doesn’t resonate.
A webinar is a live online presentation with moderate opportunity for questions and conversations—even breakout groups. Various platforms include features for audience participation, including polls, post-event surveys, moderated Q&A, and live chatting, while the host maintains control over the event. As with the online open house and narrated slide show, many webinar platforms allow for captions in English and other languages. And again, disclose upfront if the webinar will collect information (such as retaining comments) and how the hosting organization intends to use that data.
Critical insight: PRR recommends recording webinar sessions in full and editing recordings into shorter thematic clips to package for distribution after the event on the organization’s website and/or social media channels. Because platforms offer such a variety of options for translation or interpreters’ captioning, please reach out to PRR for assistance with navigating the available choices.
Research into attitudes, opinions, and behaviors reflect is able to continue much as it did before the pandemic, though with new questions to answer and trends to measure. Thankfully, we’re seeing recruitment and participation in research increase rather than decline (both at PRR and across the industry), as more people have a desire to share their thoughts and to be heard.
Critical insight: From an equity perspective, online research tools can expand on inclusion, despite the digital divide. The tools we recommend offer many languages and work on mobile phones (no broadband required). According to the Pew Research Center, 90% of U.S. adults use the internet including 86% of people who are Hispanic and 85% of people who are Black.
Perhaps most importantly, online research tools do not presume the same participant resources required for traditional in-person focus groups. Specifically, online research does not presume participants have transportation, childcare, nor a 9-to-5 desk job that allows them to attend an in-person focus group at night. When potential participants need extra support, a research associate can provide over-the-phone counsel to get them set up online.
Gather input and generate detailed statistical analyses of responses from large audiences. Recruit online participation widely, via lists, websites, and social media. Recruit with mailed invitations or pair with paper surveys for optimal accessibility and statistical validity (by sending to a random sample). Translate and field the survey in all the languages of the campaign.
Recruit participants based on demographics, location, or other qualifiers to share open-ended input over a series of activities accessible via a smartphone app. These activities are asynchronous, meaning people can complete them on their own time, whether day or night. Because individuals do not see each other’s responses, this online qualitative option offers a sensitive solution for topics in which participants would feel peer pressure in a group setting, such as behavioral health issues.
Bring multiple people together at the same time, allowing people to build off of each other’s ideas. This is a great approach for testing creative concepts or generating an active discussion about an issue. In online ethnographies, interviews, and focus groups, the online moderator skillfully builds rapport, providing the human touch of encouraging participants to share opinions and probing for detail as needed.