Three ways to change up community engagement in 2020

Community engagement finished the teens with new legislation (in NSW), further professionalisation of the workforce and software offerings that provide twenty first century worthy user experiences. As we head into the restless 20’s I am pondering, how can we take a step closer towards genuine, inclusive engagement and compete in the attention economy?

Ditch the phrase “hard to reach community”

When spoken, what I really hear is assumptions about dominant culture and ingrained power dynamics. The term is used in relation to young people, individuals who have low English proficiency, require accessibility support or who are from low socio-economic backgrounds. This term shouldn’t be standard. These communities have valuable insights that enrich projects that impact them and yes, these groups do care. With a tailored approach, organisations can start to earn their insights. No one is hard to reach – your community is made up of segments that need tailored methods of communication and engagement.

Be audience focused

When smart cities became all the rage, Boston released the ‘Boston Smart City Playbook’. Play 2 is ‘solve real problems for real people’. It goes on to briefly explain that “smart” cities can’t be driven by technology companies selling their products. A truly smart city would be guided by solutions that benefit their community and solve localised problems.

Engage-tech has evolved over the last decade. However, if you de-identify any five council engagement platforms, they could all be working for one organisation. I’m not asking each one to re-invent the wheel, but to consider the nuance for each audience. By neglecting to understand the customer’s journey, your content is a two second thumb scroll away from irrelevance.

Get beyond vanity metrics

Vanity metrics are data points that justify staff trying to engage the community. Engage-tech platforms provide data that leans towards this model of reporting. However, in doing so, we miss the experiential aims of our projects.

When you read engagement outcomes what is the overarching story? Does it over emphasise reach, awareness and participation behaviours? In order to improve the experience of engagement, we need to evaluate experiential aims internally. Often, low participation rates are assumed to be disinterest in a project or that impacted people have already participated earlier in the project and we assume support. I would argue that eight times out of ten, it is actually a bad customer experience and a lack of trust. Understanding the user’s journey throughout the engagement process is key to moving beyond vanity metrics and building genuine engagement experiences.

Tying in with being audience focused, understanding that engagement operates in the attention economy is crucial. The feedback experiences you design shapes who provides feedback. An inadequate review of experiential aims contributes to our process privileging certain demographics.


The single word unifying these three areas is tailored. Genuine, inclusive engagement requires the time and resources to tailor methods, messaging and visuals to impacted groups and/or individuals. It also requires an understanding of the customer’s journey in one project, but also across multiple engagements.

When you try to speak to everyone you end up speaking to no one in particular. 

What’s one way you’d like to disrupt business-as-usual community engagement in 2020?

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