Is going digital the only answer for engagement during restrictions?

Social distancing measures have forced us to think differently about community engagement — traditional methods such as door knocking, in-person focus groups and public displays are no longer possible in the short to medium term.

Now more than ever, communication professionals are embracing digital platforms to inform and engage with our audiences. But even in an environment heavily geared towards the use of online interfaces, is it necessarily the best approach when it comes to community engagement?

One size might not necessarily fit all in the digital world, so consider the following before diving into your next engagement strategy:

The digital divide

ABS data tells us around 2.5 million Australians do not have access to the internet due to affordability issues, location and/or a lack of digital literacy. COVID-19 has further exposed this digital divide as we attempt to work, learn, shop and access services from home.

Disadvantaged Australians, for example, are among some of the most vulnerable and largely rely on local library facilities to stay connected online. While these digital ‘shop fronts’ remain closed, one-on-one phone interviews may prove to be a more suitable method of engagement during this time.

Participant recruitment

Priorities have changed and many people have shifted their focus to what matters most in their lives — maintaining their job, staying healthy and putting food on the table. This may be the case for your stakeholders, which will make it hard to entice them to engage online.

One way around this is to allow for longer lead-in recruitment times where possible, and provide incentives for participation (intrinsic and/or extrinsic).

Building rapport

Unlike face-to-face communication, it can be difficult to build personal rapport and trust from behind a computer screen, especially when stakeholders may be experiencing a heightened sense of stress or pressure as a result of the pandemic.

When it comes to dealing with particularly sensitive topics that require a level of trust between facilitator and participant, in an ideal world, a mix of offline and online methods are recommended and typically result in robust feedback and discussion.

If the engagement is time-critical and online is the only option, try calling stakeholders ahead of time to introduce yourself and ensure they have the tools and software needed to participate, to help establish a trusted relationship. Follow-up again after the engagement period to ‘close the loop’ — ask for feedback, and reflect on what worked well and what could be improved. Remember, communication fundamentals still apply in the digital setting.

Find this article useful? Want more practical tips on how to adopt digital across your business? Read this article