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I’ve been talking to a few people about community engagement recently. The topic of how much engagement you can expect often came up.

For me it’s not “how much” engagement, but the depth of engagement which matters.

As a bit of background I spent 2001-2009 running an online community around cycling in New Zealand. At its peak “Vorb” had 150,000 unique visitors a month - quite an achievement in a country of 4.5 million. After Vorb I moved into online communications in the local government sector and worked with eight different councils on various online engagement projects.

What struck me was how online community engagement and local government engagement follow a similar pattern.

I call it the “10% rule” as I noticed a similar pattern with diminishing engagement depth.

 

Population Online Community Local Council
Minimally Engaged 90% of visitors to an online community will read content, but not post online themselves. 90% of the community won’t pay much attention to the council, unless they are getting a bill, or there’s raw sewage flowing across their lawn.
Engaged 10% of visitors will occasionally post content. 10% of the community will pay some attention to the council. They may even give feedback on things that affect them, personally.
Regularly Engaged 1% of visitors will regularly post content and take an active role in the community. 1% of the community will pay attention to the council and regularly engage in feedback, submissions etc.
Very Engaged 0.1% of visitors will engage on a daily basis, often posting a number of times a day. 0.1% of the community are known to the councillors and will regularly attend meetings, write letters to the newspapers and lobby their interests in the public sphere.
Constantly Engaged 0.01% of visitors will spend most of their waking hours in the online community. They will feel ownership and have some very clear ideas of what they think the community should be. 0.01% of the community will put all of their energy into getting the local council to align to things they feel very very strongly about.

 

To put some numbers to the percentages a community of 50,000 may only have 5 “Constantly Engaged” members - but they will make more noise than all of the 45,000 “Minimally Engaged” members put together.

As you can see I’ve broken down the level of engagement in 10% steps. In reality there is a spectrum of engagement depth and the breakdown isn’t exactly 10%.

For example an online community about a specialist topic will receive more engagement than a more general community e.g. members of a group focused on a medical condition will engage more than a community news site. Or the engagement level in a town may increase if the council is proposing something that would impact a lot of the community.

However, across all online communities and physical communities I’ve worked with there is a strong imbalance between the silent majority and the vocal minority.

A constant challenge is how to manage a community based on the desires of the “Minimally Engaged”, without getting hijacked by the “Constantly Engaged”.

To make matters worse many of the “Minimally Engaged” have absolutely no desire to engage. They are quite happy just browsing content, or have no interest in how their town is run.

It’s easy to shrug and think that if people aren’t going to engage with you then it’s very hard to know what they want. We’re used to the squeaky wheel getting the grease so surely people need to speak out if they want their expectations met.

The issue with that approach is the “Very Engaged” and “Constantly Engaged” have far more time and energy to put towards pushing their agenda. For example right now in my town the local newspaper has published a story about public feedback on local roading issues. At the time of writing 6 out of the 17 comments on the newspaper's website are from the same person who strongly disagrees with the result of the feedback. That is 35% of the comments coming from a single person on a topic which affects tens of thousands.

This is not to say that the “Very Engaged” and “Constantly Engaged” people are a negative. They can be the greatest champions of good & tirelessly work to better their community. The issue is to recognise the selfish from the altruistic. While someone may apply all their passion and energy to feeding disadvantaged families it’s entirely possible for someone else to apply the same levels of passion and energy towards being able to walk their dogs without those damn bike riding kids getting in the way.

The first step to dealing with this imbalance is to be aware of it. Simple awareness helps factor the true value of feedback and hopefully avoid hijacking from self-interested pressure groups or individuals.

The second is to explore different ways of engaging and giving feedback. For online communities visitors who may not feel comfortable commenting may still like to give feedback via “likes” or reactions. For councils it may be exploring different methods of engagement to cover as much of the community as possible.

The third is to use methods of engagement which can target and weight feedback so a broad range of voices can be heard and given due consideration.  In a previous post I talked about the benefits of targeted engagement versus collecting general feedback.

At a time where democracy is under threat and people are struggling to be heard it’s important we engage in ways that include & involve as much of our audience as possible.  And we need to be very careful that when we process the feedback we receive we take into account the different depths of engagement in our communities.

 

Banner Photo by                                              Per Lööv