Not All Engagement is Created Equal: Social Listening versus Community Engagement


Engagement is a buzzword that causes the ears of government communicators to perk up all around the world — for good reason. Every good government worker wants more residents to be aware, involved, and… engaged in the many programs and services offered by their agency. And since we’re twenty-first century people, digital engagement is the prevailing expectation, even for government. But not all engagement is created equal. There’s a subtle, but critical, distinction between two different types of engagement that we’d like to highlight.

Although both could be categorized under the umbrella term engagement, there are important differences to point out when it comes to social listening versus community engagement.

Engagement distinctions

Social listening is the process of tracking social media platforms for engagement related to your brand (or agency), then analyzing that engagement for insights that inform your future strategy. It’s a critical aspect of modern government communications that many agencies either overlook or attempt to tackle manually. As we all know, social media can be an incredibly toxic environment shrouded in negativity, misinformation, trolls, and even bots. Government communicators, nevertheless, are charged with the seemingly impossible task of using these digital tools to listen to their community members’ needs and interests and make decisions in response.

Public engagement, on the other hand, is the process through which residents and stakeholders come together to engage in thoughtful discussion and expression to discover common ground and influence government decision-making. This form of public engagement is mandated by the Freedom of Information Act that was created to ensure residents are informed in a democratic society. Public engagement tactics vary from in-person methods like task forces and focus groups to high-tech, digital solutions that function more like social media. Community outreach can also fall within this category. Government communicators might use social media or newsletters, for example, to distribute and promote information. An informed community is certainly a good thing, but without the establishment of a way for members of the community to provide their feedback, the communication loop remains perpetually agape and therefore incomplete.

Common ground

While both engagement methods seek to ultimately inform government decision-making, they go about it in slightly different ways: social listening typically happens on social media’s wild, unmoderated stages, while public engagement is usually more structured, but often involves too few residents to address the concerns of the entire community.

One thing holds true for both methods: They are incredibly difficult to facilitate manually.

Given social media’s unruly, often destructive terrain, it is impractical to accurately gauge and aggregate public sentiment, especially across several platforms. And impactful community engagement is often stifled by limited government funding, negligible resident interest, and a general lack of time on the part of government workers and the broader community (among other common challenges).

The solution

The best approach to combat the challenges presented in hearing from and engaging residents is technology.

Instead of painstakingly trying to cull through pages and pages of public opinion on multiple platforms — about various topics — or initiate a walking survey or focus group — with disparate mediums and feedback processes — we recommend employing software to dramatically simplify the process while simultaneously improving the efficacy of your engagement strategy. Software has come a long way, baby. EngagementHQ, for example, encompasses eight distinct online tools that remove the barriers to engagement and reduce the time that so commonly lapses between community problems and government solutions.

Using this technology, hosts can employ a range of dialogue tools that sit in an open environment and allow for creative, productive engagement. And instead of being at the mercy of unpredictable, often baneful social platforms, EngagementHQ is moderated by actual humans to keep the discussions constructive and on topic, while fully protecting participant privacy. Links to the dedicated community engagement sites can be shared on social media, however, just to get the word out. The public engagement software can be rolled out in two major stages of project engagement. The first stage is ideal for tools like the forums, ideas, and places tools — when residents are curious and potentially open to learn more about various topics and provide their initial feedback. The second stage is designed to capture more quantitative data, so tools like the surveys, questions, stories, and guestbook tools are more appropriate.

Stage one tools:

Forums. A discussion forum centered around a specific topic. Residents can share their thoughts and read comments from other residents.
Ideas. A digital idea board where thoughts, images, and links can be shared to spark real conversation.
Places. Where residents indicate areas for improvement or new projects on an interactive map, with comments about the perceived issues.

Stage two tools:

Stories. Residents can share their lived experiences, stoke empathy, and build community.
Guestbook. A safe, moderated space for one-way, open-ended engagement.
Q&A. Residents can ask pressing questions and agencies can choose to answer them publicly or privately.
Polls. An effective way to gauge broad public sentiment with a single question, especially valuable to drive interest and participation in a project.
Surveys. Where structured feedback and quantitative data can be collected using single- or multi-page questions to gather actionable insights.

EngagementHQ also has tools that help in-house researchers and staff members make sense of all the data collected in both stages of project engagement. These tools include a text analysis tool, a survey analysis tool, and a sentiment analysis tool to help you efficiently analyze all the great data you’ve collected. After the data has been collected and analyzed, you’ll want to circle back to your community with appropriate, unique messages informed — specifically — by the collected feedback. With an understanding of how your community feels about certain topics, you can provide relevant, personalized updates about those topics in a way that feels much more natural and sincere than governmental.

While the distinctions between social listening and public engagement are slight, both are necessary for a well-rounded, impactful engagement strategy. If you’re interested in learning more about our digital engagement solutions, schedule a demo.

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