The myth of engaging with everyone

When I talk to people about the possibilities of engaging with people online, using social technology, I often get questioned about the numbers issue. Stuff like:

  • How many people in our area actually use Twitter?
  • What about people who don’t have web access?
  • What do we do about people who don’t like using the internet to communicate?

…and so on.

It’s night on impossible to give the people who ask these questions the answers that they want. Really, they’re asking the wrong questions.

That’s because they are assuming that what they are doing now already covers all the bases. The fact is, that it doesn’t.

  • Meetings usually exclude anyone with a job, because even when they are in the evening, most people are too knackered to attend or have other stuff to do
  • Printed media usually goes straight into the recycling bin
  • Few people pay attention to the Council stuff in the local paper

The first thing to be clear on is that no one engagement method will reach, or suit, everyone.

The second thing to be clear on, is that you don’t necessarily want to reach everyone, anyway.

The latter point is true of the people within organisations as much as it is people outside. A small percentage of employees couldn’t give a toss about their jobs and are generally quite bad at them. The majority are perfectly competent but aren’t so into their work that they are constantly thinking of ways that things could be done better. Then there are the small number left, the committed, enthusiastic and innovative folk who care about what they do and will put effort into improving things.

My argument would always be to focus on the small number of active, enthusiastic people first.

Likewise, when engaging with citizens, most won’t be too fussed about knowing how their council does things in too much detail, for example. They might like to know that it is being done reasonably well, and cost effectively, but in terms of getting too involved, they’d rather not. But there will be a smaller group of people, those with some social capital to burn up, who want to get involved, who actively think about making things better, and who’ll give up their time to help.

Those are the people you should go after. Don’t waste time convincing people who aren’t and never will be interested to do something they don’t want to do. It’ll make everyone, including them and you, unhappy.

So when people ask about whether 100% of the people in your organisation, or who live in the area, will be involved with a digital engagement project just be honest and say no. But add that you’ll probably get more interest than through current methods, and that they’ll be different people, and people who care.

0 thoughts on “The myth of engaging with everyone

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  4. Mark Pack

    A difficulty I think for councils following this advice is that in my experience often those keenest on an issue have a different view from those less keen on the issue.

    For example, if you ask people about parking problems, those who think there’s a big problem and want something to change are keenest to get involved – and when the council then rolls out some proposals, you often get another wave of people saying how much they disagree. Add in a bit of “Council isn’t listening to us!” vs “But we asked before and you didn’t reply” back and forth and it can descend into recrimination and a mess.

    Even if that fate is avoided, there is still the underlying problems that those who are most likely to respond on an issue are, almost by definition, not typical of others.

  5. Fraser Henderson

    I think it’s fair to argue that the digital channel offers diversity of participation but I still you (currently) get more local participation from printed matter.

    However, it would be nice to see some simple metrics for an investment business case. Maps help:-

    http://www.gps.communities.gov.uk/digitalinclusion/LicenseAgreement.aspx

    Otherwise you could do some estimates, perhaps look at the number of items for sale on eBay within a particular postcode?

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  7. Simon Dickson

    In this context, it’s worth flagging up the recent Hansard Society findings that: ‘55% of the public simply do not want to be involved in national decision-making. However, 43% of the public, who feel that they do not have any influence over decision-making, would like to get involved.’
    http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/blogs/press_releases/archive/2009/09/21/what-do-the-public-want-from-politics-sept-21-2009.aspx

    So your target isn’t 100%, it’s less than half that.

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  11. Cara Keithley

    I always try to explain this with the idea that digital efforts will augment what we do currently. It is not meant to replace talking to people, meeting people face-to-face, printing materials, or even event sponsorships.

    For a certain group of people, social media and a company’s online presence will provide increased engagement and hopefully empower them to be evangelists for innovations or just plain good work being accomplished. After all, 92% of word-of-mouth marketing takes place offline. But our online efforts can have a dramatic impact on what happens offline if we commit to this endeavor.

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  15. shane dillon

    Great post and a welcome dose of web realism. Some have I think an over inflated expectation of what social media can achieve. Social media forms just one part of a broad communications strategy. You are right that engagement should start with the most active and interested. Your first task is to build a community of interest among those who are enthusiastic. This approach comes up against the cry “that’s just preaching to the converted, lets engage with a greater number of people online” They may perhaps have read or heard about Clay Shirkys ‘Here Comes Everybody’ and misread his thinking to get the impression everyone is online and engaged so have inflated expectations for social technology. The reality that yes more and more people are going online but not to change the world or their local street but instead to use the web as a form of escapism much like they do already with cinema. Like wise the myth of engagement when we believe that the web can be a bulwark for democracy in place like China is dubious. As Evgeny Morozov points out they may have the technology and access to the net but prefer to use the web to escape politics not to embrace it but I think Morozov has a very narrow view of politics. However I full recommend this video of him at the RSA to you

    http://www.thersa.org/events/vision/vision-videos/evgeny-morozov—the-internet-in-society-empowering-or-censoring-citizens

    Building and influencing an online community is I think time intensive work. John Duncan who is the UK’s ambassador for Arms Control has slowly built an online community of the interested around the Arms Trade Treaty. He has built up a community of the interested over many months on Twitter and now seeks to widen that community to those who are less interested by engaging. Here is an example

    @WarChildUK Come on guys/girls we need your support on #armstreaty. Get active and out there
    (Source: @jduncanMACD)

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  23. Tony Bovaird

    Hi Dave – Great stuff and absolutely spot on.

    Maybe the best way for people to get this is to distinguish those who KNOW about an issue or a service and those who CARE about it. Both bring something to the party, but very different things.

    Those who KNOW AND CARE are the salt of the earth and should be CENTRAL to decision making. Find them, treasure them, listen to them – but, of course, you’re free to disagree withthem. By and large, they won’t mind disagreement – they just want to find others, who, like them, know and care enough to try to make a difference. These are the core activists whose ideas should shape your future decisions.

    Those who KNOW but DON’T CARE (e.g. many top managers, many consultants, etc.) should be tempted into the decision making arena, because we can learn from their knowledge. But because they don’t care much, their knowledge is suspect – it’s abstract, purely cognitive, not experiential – and therefore lacking in emotional richness. Use but beware!

    Those who don’t KNOW but really CARE are enormously valuable – they will contribute energy, passion, commitment – they are vital to mobilising the forces of change. But we certainly shouldn’t follow very closely their ideas or recommendations or desired options – they don’t know enough to be ‘safe’. So we should respect how much they care, invite them to become engaged – and If we work closely with them, they will grow in expertise and become even more valuable. In the meantime, we should honestly tell them that their views are still unconvincing – most of them will understand that they have to travel some ways to get into the central assembly hall of decision makers.

    Finally, there are those who DON’T KNOW and DON’T CARE. As Dave says, we should, by and large, be prepared to leave them alone and not disturb them. Actually, I’ve sometimes suggested that we should explore whether they might be prepared to PAY to be left alone – valuable source of income! And, sure as hell, we should not pay much attention to their views (e.g. as expressed in Daily Mail-sponsored questionnaires), as they themselves understand (and often volubly protest) that they shouldn’t be asked. On the other hand, there will always be a fraction of this group that could be tempted to either KNOW a bit more or CARE a bit more. (Interestingly, when they are recruited to citizen panels, they often develop an interest quite quickly in issues they have long claimed to be shatteringly boring). We shouldn’t abandon them entirely to their passive non-involvement – but nor should be spend too much public money trying to tempt their engagement.

    Such an approach may seem hard-hearted to some. However, we need to focus our participation and engagement activities to those people where they are likely to have the biggest pay-offs. The current pretence of trying to engage everyone, while doing it so badly that most people are actually turned off by it, is not sustainable – and certainly not defensible in any logical way.

    So, Dave, power to your elbow – and voice for sanity!

    You can find a fully exposition of these ideas at Hi Dave – Great stuff and absolutely spot on.

    Maybe the best way for people to get this is to distinguish those who KNOW about an issue or a service and those who CARE about it. Both bring something to the party, but very different things.

    Those who KNOW AND CARE are the salt of the earth and should be CENTRAL to decision making. Find them, treasure them, listen to them – but, of course, you’re free to disagree withthem. By and large, they won’t mind disagreement – they just want to find others, who, like them, know and care enough to try to make a difference. These are the core activists whose ideas should shape your future decisions.

    Those who KNOW but DON’T CARE (e.g. many top managers, many consultants, etc.) should be tempted into the decision making arena, because we can learn from their knowledge. But because they don’t care much, their knowledge is suspect – it’s abstract, purely cognitive, not experiential – and therefore lacking in emotional richness. Use but beware!

    Those who don’t KNOW but really CARE are enormously valuable – they will contribute energy, passion, commitment – they are vital to mobilising the forces of change. But we certainly shouldn’t follow very closely their ideas or recommendations or desired options – they don’t know enough to be ‘safe’. So we should respect how much they care, invite them to become engaged – and If we work closely with them, they will grow in expertise and become even more valuable. In the meantime, we should honestly tell them that their views are still unconvincing – most of them will understand that they have to travel some ways to get into the central assembly hall of decision makers.

    Finally, there are those who DON’T KNOW and DON’T CARE. As Dave says, we should, by and large, be prepared to leave them alone and not disturb them. Actually, I’ve sometimes suggested that we should explore whether they might be prepared to PAY to be left alone – valuable source of income! And, sure as hell, we should not pay much attention to their views (e.g. as expressed in Daily Mail-sponsored questionnaires), as they themselves understand (and often volubly protest) that they shouldn’t be asked. On the other hand, there will always be a fraction of this group that could be tempted to either KNOW a bit more or CARE a bit more. (Interestingly, when they are recruited to citizen panels, they often develop an interest quite quickly in issues they have long claimed to be shatteringly boring). We shouldn’t abandon them entirely to their passive non-involvement – but nor should be spend too much public money trying to tempt their engagement.

    Such an approach may seem hard-hearted to some. However, we need to focus our participation and engagement activities to those people where they are likely to have the biggest pay-offs. The current pretence of trying to engage everyone, while doing it so badly that most people are actually turned off by it, is not sustainable – and certainly not defensible in any logical way.

    So, Dave, power to your elbow – and voice for sanity!

    You can find a fuller exposition of these thoughts at http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/carbs/research/groups/clrgr/policypaper.pdf

  24. Kevin Campbell-Wright

    I think we’ve got to be careful when we’re talking about community engagement.

    Sometimes, the people who are enthusiastic are the people who will engage, whatever media you’re using. In fact, they’ll proabably engage even if you don’t want them too.

    To fully empower a community, you need to engage the reluctant ones, the people who might feel that their contribution would be worthless or pointless.

    That said, I entirely take your point about engagement methods. I had an instance when doing counci lPR with an irate local resident who was getting cross that the local swimming pool was closed for refurbishment. When I pointed out that it had been covered three times in two local papers, on the local BBC and ILR station, in the councils newsletter and on posters at the centre he replied that he only watched ITV and only listened to Radio 1.

    This was before social media was a viable option for citizen engagement, but it illustrates two points. Firstly, that receivers must take some responsibility to source their own information. Secondly, that we can never use enough different media to reach people.

  25. Tony Bovaird

    Hi Kevin

    I agree with all of this but I think that the dynamics of ‘community empowerment’ are quite difficult, subtle, and hard to predict – so they are also hard to ‘engineer’. (We’re normally dealing with complex adaptive systems, with all that this entails).

    So I think we HAVE to start with ‘those who know and care’ – they have most to contribute. But we need to find ways of linking them to other, includeing the hard to reach. After all, they have social networks very different from those of the officers and politicians who are trying to widen the user of power in local communities.

    Then, we need to treat very differently ‘those who care but don’t know much about the issue’ – we desperately need their energy, their passion, their preparedness to become involved – but we need to associate them with people who know more than they do, so that they don’t get browned off, noticing that their viewpoint is not usually taken on board.

    Similarly, we need to treat differently ‘those who know a lot but dont’ care much’ about the issue or service. Their knowledge needs to be respected – even celebrated – but they have to recognise that their disspassionate approach means that they miss out some very important dimensions of the topic. That means finding ways of getting them into more contact with those who really do care.

    Finally, theres is the huge majority – those who don’t know and don’t care. I agree that community empowerment means getting MORE of this group involved. But, hey, let’s stay real. On any one issue or service, only a minority will get involved. Raising the number of that minority is important but let’s not beat ourselves up about the fact that it will remain a minority.

    What community empowerment means to me is that the majority of those who care on any one issue get involved in it (although they are not the only ones who will be involved) AND that the majority of the community get involved in SOME issue AND that the majority of the rest (who carefully avoid ANY involvement) accept that they had the chance of involvement in something they were really interested in but turned it down, for whatever reason.

    I think those are challenging and difficult criteria for a successful approach to community engagement. They are feasible to achieve. But they don’t involve getting EVERYONE on board or beating ourselves up because some people hold out against our best efforts!

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  30. Phil Green

    I suggest being very careful about concluding too much from stats like “55% of the public simply do not want to be involved in national decision-making.” (“Lies, damned lies, and statistics”?)

    It reminds me a bit of arguments that were made a few years ago about selling organic or fairtrade goods, that there’s simply no demand for them. At a time when very few people are supplying these goods it isn’t easy for consumers to vote with their feet or their cash. Change that and then you can see how sales subsequently grow.

    If, to put it bluntly, citizens’ experience of involvement with government has been either a little bit toxic, or at least not very citizen friendly, it’s hardly surprising if a slight majority aren’t goint to vote for more of the same.

    What maybe is more surprising, is that even though only 18% of citizens feel able to influence decisions affecting Britain (Citizenship Survey: April – June 2009, England, Communities and Local Government, 29 October 2009) 43% of those who feel that they do not, in practice, have any influence over decision-making are still up for it!

    Governments, institutions and bureaucracies may have in the past been reasonably successful at designing participation that works well enough for the purposes and benefits of governments, institutions and bureaucracies. If on the other hand in the future we’re able to design participation which is more citizen centred, then maybe after some time winning back trust in government, the figures could begin to look very different.

    Some stats about local decision making:
    *29 per cent felt they could influence decisions in their local area
    *27 per cent would like to be more involved in decisions affecting their community (again likely to be influenced by what historically has been on offer)
    *45 per cent were, taking everything into account, satisfied with the way their local council runs things
    (Source: Place Survey, Communities and Local Government, June 2009)