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Seven Tips for Increasing Participation in Your Community Design Project

hoto Credit: Wolfram Burner, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/aHg34i
Photo Credit: Wolfram Burner, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/aHg34i

This post is the first in our blog series on how cities and towns can increase participation in their local community’s design efforts. Ariana McBride is a planner with more than a decade of experience in community and organization development. She is the Director of Strategic Capacity Building for Ninigret Partners (NP), a boutique economic design firm based in Providence, RI.  She served as a recent CIRD Resource Team Member in Franklin, NH.

If you want to get people to participate in your community project there are no shortage of ways to spread the word. With the increasing number of online options combined with traditional methods, the challenge rests in selecting the most cost-effective communications alternative. Here are seven tips to help you develop an effective communications strategy for your effort:

1.       Commit to participation. In Dave Biggs’ piece on the ROI of Better Engagement, he details five compelling reasons for garnering participation; among them is James Surowiecki idea of the “wisdom of crowds.” According to Surowiecki, it is beneficial to solicit feedback from a diverse group of people when dealing with a complex problem. Of course, it’s not as simple as getting a group of people in a room, however, it is essential to be genuine in your call for community participation. 

2.       Establish a baseline. It’s important to be realistic when setting participation goals and strategies. For instance, if ten is the largest number of people you’ve ever had show up for a community meeting, then setting a participation goal of a hundred might be unrealistic. This is particularly true for projects that are proactive rather than reactive (think downtown master plan vs. proposed casino development). You’ll also have to balance the breadth of participation (i.e. how many people touch the project in some way) with the depth of participation (i.e. whether those people engage in an ongoing, intensive way vs. filling out a sticky note on a map).

3.       Expect to do most of the work yourself. No outside consultant, no matter how talented, will know your community better than you. Typically, consultants are very expensive, and using their time to spread the word about your project is not a cost effective use of your resources. Good consultants will be able to give you practical advice about communications and they may be able to provide support tools like a project website. However, consultants cannot do the “boots on the ground” work as effectively as locals performing tasks like making personal phone calls or spreading the word at community events.

4.       Tap into local networks. From my own personal experience, the most powerful communication tool is word of mouth. There are a few practical implications of this finding. First, make sure that your project is supported by a local steering group with a composition that represents a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in your town. This group will be critical in helping you design an effective project and may serve as the project’s ambassadors. The steering committee may also complete the legwork necessary to spread your message (e.g. making personal invitations, hanging posters, spreading the word about the project around town). For more ideas on how to form your group, check out the Orton Family Foundation’s tips on the topic. 

Secondly, be sure you know who actually lives, works and plays in your community so that you can determine the best ways to spread the word. Orton has an excellent tool for this called Community Network Analysis. Community Network Analysis lets you examine your demographics and how people are organized in your community. This will allow you to prioritize who you want to participate and how to reach them. 

5.       Use more than one communication channel. The world of advertising can be helpful in informing your communications strategy. Take the often cited “rule of seven”: people have to have contact with your “product” an average of seven times over an extended period of time in order to become informed about your project. Business Insider covers this concept, and suggests that the actual number of contacts depends on a variety of factors, including community trust and history of participation. Local press stories can also help build an effort’s credibility (assuming they are positive); whereas tools like posters and emails will market project activities directly. 

6.       Market like you mean it. Imagine that your job (or volunteer position) actually hinged on how many people participated in your project. Now take a look at how you describe your project. Does it take a full page to explain? Are you using sentences that require a glossary of acronyms for the lay person to understand? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you aren’t going to “sell” much.

There is considerable research available on how to market products. Resource Media has great tools available on value-based messaging, which can be particularly effective in developing ways to communicate persuasively about community-based efforts. This kind of messaging makes the connection between your efforts and how it affects what people care most about in their own lives. For instance, many people care about their family and work. So, if your project is about redeveloping an old industrial building you can connect its redevelopment to new jobs or opportunities for family-oriented activities. 

7.       Measure and adjust. Evaluate your communication efforts so that you can adjust them along the way. There’s no sense in continuing to do something if it’s not working. By refining your strategy you can reach additional groups in your community.

There are some simple ways to evaluate your efforts. Tools like questionnaires can inform you about how people heard about the project, and other ways to spread the word. Your steering group can discuss the data and make necessary adjustments to your plan moving forward. 

These tips will help you improve your communications efforts no matter how big your budget is.