6 Tips to Reach Beyond The Usual Suspects in Your Public Engagement

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One of the most frustrating challenges that decision-makers face in their public engagement processes is in trying to bring a full range of diverse perspectives to the table. Representative engagement leads to better decisions that the community can get behind, but it's often challenging to reach beyond the "usual suspects" and hear from under-represented demographics. Luckily, a few smart and intentional strategies can significantly boost participation in your engagement and give everyone a chance to have a say on the decisions that impact them. 

First, know who you need to reach in order for your engagement to be representative. 

What does a "representative sample" look like for your particular community? Before planning your outreach, establish who you would need to reach for your engagement to be a success. You can identify the groups that fall into key categories of demographics, interests, and experiences by asking questions like: 

  1. Who will be most affected by this process? 
  2. Who will help us achieve a decision that is reflective of the community? (What does your community census data say?)
  3. Who are we reaching, or not reaching, with our usual outreach methods? 
  4. Who has spoken up in the past about not having the chance to participate? 
  5. Who do we need to re-engage that has lost faith in community engagement processes?

To identify these demographics, reach out to formal and informal community groups, or influential individuals or spokespeople - like youth leaders, Indigenous leaders, sports coaches, non-profit groups, and industry groups or associations. Building relationships early on with active groups can be incredibly valuable for all stages of your engagement process. 

Use a micro-targeted communications approach. 

With so many diverse stakeholder groups, it’s time to move beyond one-size-fits-all messaging. Micro-targeting is a concept borrowed from advertising and public relations. It’s the idea of crafting different sets of content, promotion, and outreach strategies that are tailored to the interests and values of specific audiences.

In other words, you want to sell community members on the engagement process, instead of a product. Remember that your participants are people, not data points. Clear and compelling narratives based on their unique interests and values can break through the noise and grab their attention. For example, local hockey teams might be more inclined to participate in a budget survey once they realize that their input could be the only thing preventing reduced hours at the local ice-rink. Connecting the dots for people can help them understand why the issue is relevant to them, and why their input is so vital to the outcome. 

Smart utilization of social media is relatively new to the public engagement sphere. With Facebook Ads, even a small budget of $100 can reach hundreds of people. You can target ads to audiences based on factors like location, age, gender, ethnicity, language, and even interests, or you can upload emails to re-target your newsletter lists. Google Ads, Spotify Ads, and Google Display Network also allow you to strategically place your ads to the right people via micro-targeted ads in different formats across the web. 

Hyper-local communications can also inform, educate, and build support for future policies. In a promotional campaign designed for Salt Spring Island's climate action plan, we used Facebook Ads to raise awareness about the engagement while also educating residents about the sources of GHGs in their community, laying the groundwork for future policies around GHG reductions. 


Complement digital advertising with traditional outreach. 

Good public outreach means meeting people where they’re at, and for many community members, that means going online. However, the digital divide persists in Canada, making it even harder to reach populations that are already traditionally under-represented in engagements. 

Fortunately, traditional methods like mail-outs (perhaps targeting particular postal-codes), billboards, radio features or ad buys, and local newspapers are all still tried-and-true complements to digital advertising and social media. You can even ‘micro-target’ in the offline world, by placing targeted ads in community hubs like libraries, faith centres, or grocery stores. Do you know a spot that often sees long line-ups? Bring out volunteers with iPads and email forms (and hand sanitizer, of course!) to chat with people in line about the engagement. 

girl-holds-mail-postersA volunteer distributes a mail-out to neighbourhoods in Salt Spring Island. 

If applicable to your engagement, consider also setting up stationary tablets, computers, or paper surveys so that people have a fast path to participation immediately after seeing the ad. This also makes the engagement more accessible for people who may be in these spaces, like libraries or community centres, because they don’t otherwise have access to the Internet. 

Build relationships with local ‘influencers’ to help promote the engagement. 

Community members place great trust in the recommendations of friends and neighbours. One of the best tools for public outreach is to ask a variety of community groups and individuals - especially folks who belong to those traditionally under-represented groups you identified in the first stages of your process - to help spread the word, blast a message to their email lists, volunteer, or be featured in your promotions. 

This is particularly powerful when these groups aren’t the ‘usual suspects’ themselves. For example, one community we worked with partnered up with the local Facebook meme group for teens to reach younger demographics! In Salt Spring Island, we asked a number of community connectors and influential residents for quotes to use in our Facebook Ads:


While an affordable housing advocate above might not seem like the obvious person to be the face of a climate action plan, the right framing highlighted a clear relationship between housing and climate impacts.

When approaching groups, think back to the concept of micro-targeting: what kind of story can you tell that helps people connect their values and interests to the issue at hand? 

Note: It’s important to be mindful of asking marginalized groups to reach out to their networks on your behalf, especially if there is no pre-existing relationship or tangible benefit to them. Understand that time is a commodity, and there may be ways - financial or otherwise - to reimburse these groups for their time. 

Evaluate the demographic breakdown of your engagement as you go. 

Don’t conclude you’re reaching the right people without confirming it. Like any marketing campaign, regular and on-going evaluation is key to helping you adapt, improve, and ultimately determine success. If you’re using digital advertising, it’s a good idea to start by understanding basic metrics like click-through rates, conversions, ad impressions, and bounce rate. 

Digital engagement can make evaluation easier, but it’s not always a straight-forward story. In classic marketing wisdom, the ‘rule of 7’ says that a prospect needs to hear your message an average of 5-7 times before they take an action (or ‘convert’). This means that ads that appear to be under-performing, for example, may still be an important part of the prospect’s journey. Even if a resident doesn’t click-through an engagement ad the first time they see it, they’re now "primed" to open the next email invitation that shows up in their inbox. 

The ‘rule of 7’ says that a prospect needs to hear your message an average of 5-7 times before they take an action.

Working relationships come in handy when it comes to evaluating your offline efforts - touching base with community contacts can give you insight into what messaging and methods are resounding with their group. Consider also building a question into the engagement that asks how visitors heard about the process, and then doubling down on the methods that are working. 

Finally, evaluation goes hand-in-hand with good survey design. ‘About You’ sections allow you to gather feedback on who’s taking part, especially when the questions match StatsCan census data that you can easily cross-compare to the community. If you notice that one group is falling through the cracks, that’s a sign you may need to re-evaluate and re-target. In general, promotion efforts should start with wide targets and then narrow down as it becomes clear which demographics need more attention.

Anticipate accessibility needs ahead of time. 

If you’re following the tips above, but still aren’t hearing from the diverse audiences you have been targeting, there might be an accessibility barrier that’s preventing them from following through. Even before starting your outreach and promotion, consider what challenges your different demographic groups may face.

Digital engagement can make participation more convenient, reduce time commitment, and can reach audiences over large geographic distances. If you go online, use platforms that allow for different languages, and ensure your engagement is compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Some easy accessibility concessions that you can check off are ensuring all videos have captions, all images have ALT text that can be read out loud to screen-readers, and all text is enabled with text-to-speech capability.

To cover folks on the other side of the digital divide, again consider setting up engagement stations in community hubs, mailing out paper copies, or employing a tele-concierge service.

Need a hand? 

Representative engagement isn’t easy or fast, but the results are worth it. Diverse and inclusive input means better insight into participant preferences, fairer solutions, and stronger, more aligned communities. 

Whether you’re building a budget, building a climate plan, or getting feedback on a new capital project, we want to help you bring as many voices to the table as possible. When you add Ethelo's Citizen Panel service on to your Ethelo engagement, our communication & engagement experts use these strategies and more to lead a representative sample of participants to your engagement process.  

Click here to learn more about Citizens' Panels, or contact us below to get a free one-on-one consultation with our engagement experts. 

September 23rd, 2020 | Engagement, Citizens' Panels | 0 Comments

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