From time to time, we take on clients at Civic Commons, and when we do, one of our first, most important jobs is properly setting expectations about what can and can't be accomplished. A lot of people still have a Facebook-and-Twitter-inspired "if I build it, they will engage with it, right?" sense about how online engagement happens. So, once we disabuse them of that notion and they realize that engagement only happens when the opportunity is authentic, meaningful and consequential, and only when the community knows of the opportunity, then our next job is to train people to do this well. We're always interested in transparency, so here's the Best Practices stuff we've developed and share with our partners. (If you have feedback on this--perhaps something you think should be added or rephrased--email me).

You get to set the tone When you launch the conversation, use language that’s authentic and informal. The people you’re hoping to engage want to know they’re talking to a human, not an institution. When Ohio State Rep Mike Foley started a conversation about public education funding, he called it “How the heck should we fund education?” and he explained in the simplest terms why he wanted feedback (he’s on the finance committee and wanted to be able to tell his colleagues what constituents were thinking).

You can maintain the tone by staying a part of the conversation and being interested in what others are saying. It helps, too, to keep the Civic Commons principles in mind: we strive to be diverse, credible, transparent, civil, participatory, entrepreneurial, and optimistic.

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Follow up People love to be asked meaningful follow up questions. Sometimes it's as simple as "tell me more about that," or "why did you say such and so?" Other times you might need to be a little more pointed in your question, by examining a particular point?

Be credible Facts are really important and a conversation is much better when the facts are correct. Credibility is one of our principles, and the community expects you to be a model of credibility. Plus, when you do treat facts with care, it makes it a lot easier to call out someone who isn’t. Just comment with something like: "Jamie just said _________. Does anyone know where we can verify that?" Then anyone can respond with a link right in the conversation.

Give people a reason to participate The most successful conversations attract participation because people in the community understand that their input matters. Engagement is a two-way street. It’s not enough to say you want to engage the public because you know it’s the right thing to do and will burnish your image. What the public tells you when you’ve engaged them has to actually have an impact on the work of your institution. The important thing here is to make sure you’re communicating to community members why their input matters.

Let people know this is happening Opening your work to two-way communication is a big deal. The mere fact of your doing it puts you in a class of organizational pioneers. Let people know that you’re doing this by mentioning it in newsletters and presentations. Also, use the “embed” button on the conversations to place the activity stream from the conversation right on your own website.

Invite people We’re all super busy, and sometimes, the people you really want to hear from don’t know how easy it is to contribute even a little time to an important civic conversation like the one you’ve started. Use every tool you have to let people know about the opportunity to engage. Tweet @ members of your network, inviting them to share and participate. Use Facebook posts and tags to do the same. Use your own email lists and marketing tools are very important, too. All that stuff above about using a warm, informal and authentic tone is important here, too.

Be intentional with your invitations Really successful conversations involve people you may not already know. So give some thought to who’s missing and invite them. For instance, if you’re talking about economic development, and you don’t have any business owners, you might invite them. Not sure how to do that? Just tell them what you’re doing and why you think their voice is important.

Don’t be afraid of your critics We’ve designed Civic Commons to handle conversation with everyone, even your toughest critics. Remember, we set the table with everyone has agreeing to be civil and transparent, so even your toughest critics have to maintain that tone. If someone in your community brings up a point of criticism, you have a few of options. You can
--thank them for making the point
--ask them about what’s informing their criticism (for instance, “Was there something you read or heard that influenced how you feel about this?”)
--ask them a completely other question

Sometimes, though, engaging with certain critics can be an unending back and forth. If it ever gets to that and doesn’t end with a “Maybe on this we can agree to disagree,” let us know and we’ll step in. That said, part of your job is to have a thick skin (or at least pretend like you have one).

Lastly, and most importantly, be present. True engagement isn’t something you can outsource. We give you the tools, but no one outside your organization can be present for your organization. When you do that, it starts to look very transparently inauthentic. You’ll get email notification once a day when there’s activity on your conversations, but make it a practice to check in at least once a day to see if there’s new comments or questions you should respond to.

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Copyright © 2013 Dan Moulthrop; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

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