Online engagement vs face-to-face – what’s different?
In all sorts of settings, organisations are now considering if and how to take public engagement and consultation that they would usually conduct face-to-face, online. At Traverse, we’ve run online engagement alongside face-to-face methods for a few years now, and the two are definitely different beasts. We’ve pulled together some things to consider if you’re looking at shifting your project online:
1) Return to your original objectives first. Usually, your original objective is not “to meet a group of people in a room for a day on a Saturday”. Your objective will be to understand views on a subject, to share information, to elicit feedback, to support understanding, to inform decision-making, to generate ideas etc. Transitioning to online engagement doesn’t mean slapping your workshop onto the first online platform you find and hoping all will be fine. It means thinking about how you can achieve those same objectives – in an engaging and creative manner – when your participants can’t meet face to face.
2) Reconsider the scope of the project. Take the opportunity to think about what moving online allows you to do that face-to-face does not. For example, if you wanted to hear from people across a wide geographic area, but had no budget to pay for all those travel costs – well, now you can get them together! Suddenly you don’t have the same location constraints – what could that allow you to do? In addition, while online engagement is not by default cheaper (it still needs the same design and facilitation time, there can be costs for digital tools, and of course considering participant motivation and incentivisation is still crucial) it can free up some budget lines which may provide you with other opportunities. With no venue and catering costs, for example, you could have a larger number of participants, or run more activities than you originally planned.
3) Reconsider your timeline. Expecting participants to stare at their computer or phone for 6 hours on a Saturday is probably quite a big ask. Consider breaking up your event into discrete activities and delivering them over the course of a longer period (weekly 90 min sessions for example). In addition, remember your participants don’t have to be engaging directly with you, or with each other, all the time – you have the opportunity to design an asynchronous process that can provide you with even richer dialogue when the online interactions take place.
4) Reconsider your methodology. As an extension to the point above, consider whether webinar-style presentations, and video-conferenced discussion groups are going to be the best way to achieve what you need. Think about other options available to you – can you give your participants research tasks that they can do with members of their household, or through phone conversations, or via WhatsApp groups? Instead of relying on presentations can you make engaging videos, create quiz tasks, or encourage some self-directed Googling on the topic and ask participants to report back their findings and discuss in a live Q&A with a specialist? You’ll also need to think about data collection, we use our analysis tool Magpie to collate data from a range of different sources, ensuring that we can get the same rich mix of data we would from a face to face session.
5) Reconsider your audience. With online, just as with face-to-face, you can either go to where people already meet (community Facebook groups and chat forums etc.) or you can invite them to come to meet you somewhere else (your event platform). Both have advantages and disadvantages, but slightly different ones from those in face-to-face work. Asking people to visit your platform assumes people have the digital literacy to do so, and depending on the tools you have chosen, have the appropriate connectivity and tech to make it a positive user experience. Working with existing online groups is a much more public and “published” space (unless groups are private) and so interactions will be available for all to see. Separately, of course you need to consider the inclusion implications of moving to online engagement – check out our blog on that for how to address those questions.
We think that online engagement presents some exciting opportunities, offering us more tools and ideas for reaching people than ever before (see our list of resources). Our door is always open if you would like to discuss what’s possible – just get in touch with Rob or Anna.