How to boost online community engagement with face-to-face interaction

Most modern community engagement and outreach strategies face the challenge of engaging audiences both offline and online. In the past, workshops and village halls were popular choices for the former, while the latter now encompasses connected personal devices reliant on web applications, text chats and social media. For your projects, consider briefly what formats for face-to-face interaction you could use to support your community engagement project. Nowadays, we have become very reliant on communication that takes us away from face-to-face contact. Yet, face-to-face contact in public engagement has key advantages. So here we provide a few tips on how you can retain the benefits of personal interaction alongside those of online interactions.

Online versus offline community engagement

We already know that personal interactions have great social benefit. In a study by Waterloo University in Canada, researchers asked 45 people to invite 10 participants each to complete a survey. Half of the group made their requests face-to-face, while the other half sent emails. The results were clear: Face-to-face requests were 34 times more likely to be answered. Why? Because face-to-face meetings promote trust and relevance far quicker than any cold email or paper flyer could. They can diffuse conflict more easily, establish trust and better communicate emotions.

Robust community engagement requires different points of interaction. Success means combining online media with the ability for individuals to come to meeting spaces and socialise, either with the project team or with other participants. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that younger people have a greater preference for digital interaction, whereas older people might prefer a meeting or a handwritten response.

Rather than seeing it as a choice between two approaches, it is better to appreciate their relative strengths. In most community engagement projects, your possibilities of engaging a large number of people through detailed face-to-face interactions are naturally limited, due to time constraints and obvious logistical issues. With face-to-face engagement, it can also be a struggle to follow-up and correspond to a large audience simultaneously.

That’s why a dual approach is advisable when it comes to community engagement:

Online community engagement tips

Start with a digital platform that can be easily found online for anybody interested in engaging with your project. This ‘digital backbone’ helps to cut substantial time and effort in following up later while making it possible to rapidly adjust your campaign at any time – a clear advantage over print material that has been distributed. Digital responses in digital form (so somewhat structured) can also be sorted, filtered, and analysed much faster, and can even allow different participants to add to their ideas to establish priorities and relevance.   

Balance this with a strong grounding in the real world. Consider how to establish a presence where your development may have an impact. Help participants to respond easily without having to go online.

Face-to-face on a small budget

  • Produce a set of postcards and distribute them in a relevant public space. Make sure they provide a link to your campaign landing page and can be easily annotated with comments and returned by post. They could also be distributed in relevant public spaces or in association with a relevant event.
  • Identify a handful of relevant stakeholders and invite them for individual conversations. Previous studies have found that just five conversations with relevant stakeholders identify most priorities.

Face-to-face on a larger budget

  • Arrange public booths and meetings, combined with flyers and print material that ties back to your campaign through the same visual clues, copy, and links to your online landing page.  
  • Organise hands-on workshops that get people engaged. Activities can include mapping or model-making – tasks that involve visual and physical clues that mirror the real world and help the group pull their knowledge together (see: Planning for real). Some activities, such as mapping can be supported by suitable online tools to enable others to participate online.

When working across different engagement platforms, pay special attention to aligning your tone of voice and visual communication across all channels. This includes choosing and sticking with the same visual colour schema, typography, logos, etc. You should also make sure that the key points of your project do not change, such as the justification for the project, its title and the outcomes that you aim to achieve. In conclusion, the more aligned your communication across different channels, the greater the chance for individuals to recognise you both online and offline. This generates more trust amongst participants and increases the chance of a good demographic spread – ultimately leading to more robust engagement data.