The myth of engaging with everyone

by Dave on October 15, 2009

in Social Media, culture

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.

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davebriggs (Dave Briggs)
October 15, 2009 at 10:06 am
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October 17, 2009 at 8:39 pm

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Steve T October 15, 2009 at 10:08 am

good points David

2 Mark Pack October 15, 2009 at 11:04 am

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.

3 Fraser Henderson October 15, 2009 at 11:36 am

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:-

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

4 Simon Dickson October 15, 2009 at 1:02 pm

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.’

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

5 Cara Keithley October 16, 2009 at 2:23 pm

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.

6 shane dillon October 17, 2009 at 11:02 am

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—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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