This article from the consulting firm RM Delaney is interesting for four reasons: first, it gives a good how-to for using both the PlaceSpeak platform and for preparing for online public engagement generally. Second, it gives a pretty even handed evaluation of the tradeoffs implicit in PlaceSpeak’s geo-verification model, which is arguably its most unique feature. Third, it’s one of the first I have seen from a consultant describing specifically how to work with a certain platform (I think these kinds of relationships are going to become more and more common. Finally, it references me and EngagingCities for some reason. 🙂
Several days ago, while doing my regular scan of Twitter on the bus to work, I read Della Rucker’s (from Engaging Cities) article on online engagement. So much of Della’s article reminded me of one of our recent projects that had an online component to it and our experience with it, that I thought I would write our lessons learned – for us to remember in the future, but also for anyone planning a similar engagement project.
We were working on a project where our client was a post-secondary education institute planning their Strategic Plan, and wanted to conduct comprehensive stakeholder engagement to involve all stakeholders in the Strategic Plan. In addition to interviews with decision-makers and key stakeholders, we held student focus groups, staff focus groups, and a World Café session for the staff, but the engagement also had an online component to it – for a wider public reach and for those who were not based in the Lower Mainland.
For the project’s online component, we selected PlaceSpeak, a Vancouver-based online engagement platform designed to give projects a wide online reach, and geo-coded non-anonymous public input. Based on Colleen Hardwick’s (PlaceSpeak founder) conviction, the geo-coding required from members on PlaceSpeak is that key component that makes the input from participants valuable for the simple reason that the input is then not anonymous, and therefore, not random. At PlaceSpeak, the comments belong to real, “verified” people, and online engagement is not “social media for play,” but a “real deal.”
I have been a fan and follower of PlaceSpeak’s work for years. I am impressed with how the platform gives you easy access to a variety of projects in the area where you live, how easy it is to learn about new projects and remain informed, as well as how easy it is to speak your mind. PlaceSpeak also makes it very hip to be informed and engaged in projects happening around you because it is effectively connected to social media, making it a great platform for those “in the know.”
So, when this opportunity to collaborate with PlaceSpeak presented itself, I was thrilled. The project was very successful, but we have learned several lessons. I am writing these down, so that next time we have a project with PlaceSpeak, we are fully prepared. So here we go:
- Your PlaceSpeak project is easy to promote. Promoting a project repeatedly is what gives it exposure, and on PlaceSpeak, that’s easy to do. You can plan to publicize your PlaceSpeak site on your social media channels daily. This is what really made the difference for us, and I think that by the end of the project, everyone who wanted to know about it, knew about our project’s online engagement component. Make sure you change your project’s overview photo every couple of days to ensure some image diversity on your Facebook posts, and embed PlaceSpeak’s widget for easy access to your online engagement on high-traffic sites of your client’s website. And keep adding images to your resources page daily – images are what makes the site more visually appealing.
- Budget for resources and time to build and maintain the PlaceSpeak site. As Della Rucker mentioned in her article, “online engagement often looks appealing to a local government or organization because we don’t have to spend time printing boards and staffing evening meetings. Online public engagement, however, requires staff capacity, just a different kind of staff capacity.” We knew we had to allocate resources and time to having someone put everything together, but we were not prepared for the amount of time we needed for maintenance. To keep the project page interesting, fresh and current, it is important to keep adding images, resources, respond to discussion board comments, etc. And all this requires time and wo/man-power. (Since our collaboration with PlaceSpeak, they have added a Topic Set Up fee in addition to the subscription in order to train and transfer knowledge between the PlaceSpeak consultants and the proponent’s team. You will still need to assign a person to manage the site, but the additional help with the set-up from PlaceSpeak consultants should definitely help).
- Have all the content ready to populate the site before you start building the site. This, of course, seems very obvious and self-explanatory, and we totally thought we did this well. We had all the poll questions, discussion board questions, and surveys created, reviewed and approved before we started our work on building the site. What we were missing were the “little” things, and gathering those little things took time. We realized only when we started to build the site that, of course, we needed an overview image, an updated logo, images for the resources, etc. It is important to have all these little things ready to go, or you might find yourself in a frustrating situation where you are planning to launch the site, but receiving the proper images might not happen right then and there because it is end of a working day, and people you need these “little” things from would not be at their computers until the next day.
- PlaceSpeak can feature only one survey at a time. We had four different surveys for four different stakeholder-types, and we wanted all four launched at the same time and have them live for the duration of our online engagement. This meant that we had to combine the four surveys into one, which then branched into four based on the response in the first question. This took some last-minute reorganizing and some more time reframing the surveys in FluidSurveys.
- Make a good use of your PlaceSpeak consultant….