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The Complete Guide for Digital Community Engagement

We talk a lot on this blog about digital community engagement for planning and development projects, but how do you actually tackle community engagement online (sometimes called public outreach)?

digital community engagement

The most effective plans we’ve seen from our customers involve thoughtful leadership from planning teams, combine big-picture goals with practical tactics, welcome representative community feedback, and iterate plans based on that feedback.

Community engagement is an investment that empowers more voices to be heard and gives community stakeholders a seat at the table to help shape the future of their neighborhoods. 

This investment also pays off for development teams by reducing misinformation about the project and helping to build support and buzz about your vision.

So let’s get started. First up, the initial planning phase. 


Step 1: Initial Planning and Goal Setting 

Before launching a community engagement strategy, the project team should be clear on the purpose and objectives of the effort. 

  • What do you want to learn about the community that you don’t already know? 
  • How can community feedback be used to make a project better?
  • What’s negotiable and which aspects of the project are set in stone?
  • What’s the purpose of soliciting feedback? What will be done with it?
  • How can we ensure that the comments gathered are useful and can be incorporated into the final plan? 

An effective community engagement strategy requires buy-in from both the internal project team and the community. From the project team’s perspective, it’s important at this phase to identify who will be responding to community members’ questions and ideas. That two-way communication builds trust and fosters even more engagement. 

Step 2: Create your Messaging 

Now it’s time to think about what you want to say about the project to the community. 

That messaging varies depending on the stage of your project. For development teams, you may be in early pre-development, exploring concepts for a newly acquired site, or you could be revealing site plans for the first time ahead of the entitlement/approval process. 

Some questions to think about: 

  • What messaging would inspire community members to give their feedback and support?
  • What questions will they have about the project? 
  • What may make them nervous or uneasy about this change in their neighborhood?
  • What do you want to know about the neighbors joining the conversation? 
  • What questions will you ask them?

Again, it’s important to marry the questions to the current phase of the project. For example, if your site plans are finalized, don’t ask for opinions on the facade of the building. If you’re looking for which businesses should fill the retail space, ask the community what they need. This vital local knowledge will also increase the likelihood that the future retail tenant will be successful. 

Step 3: Execute your Strategy 

With your messaging nailed down, the focus shifts to identifying how to get that message out to the community. 

An important goal for any community engagement strategy should be to reach a representative population. Consider what barriers historically prevent neighbors from contributing to conversations around community development. For example, attendees at community meetings – the traditional approach to engagement – are whiter, richer and older than the broader community – and they almost always leave out your “silent supporters.” 

Think about the single mom who’d love to tell a development team about the importance of open green space, but she doesn’t have childcare during the meeting time, or the neighbors who may not speak English as their native language but would directly benefit from planned development. These are the voices that go unheard during traditional meeting-based community engagement.

Bringing engagement online can greatly reduce the barrier to participate by not restricting participation to a narrow time window. By bringing engagement online, there is also the opportunity to share project information in multiple languages. 

Old school tactics for community activation also play a big role in driving participation. Door hangers, mailers, or signs in areas with high foot traffic are all effective ways to share information about your project and encourage residents to participate online and via SMS or voicemail. Community leaders know how to reach their constituents, making them an important partner in informing the broader community about the project and driving engagement on the platform. 

By engaging directly with community members and responding to their comments on the platform, teams can mitigate disinformation and provide a comprehensive picture of your project.

Step 4: Engage, Evaluate, and Reiterate  

Digital community engagement should still allow community stakeholders to have a two-way dialogue with the project team. Responding to comments and questions not only can curry favor with community members, but it’s a tremendous opportunity to publicly dispel misconceptions and misinformation with facts. 

Response rate is an important metric to evaluate. How often is the project team responding to questions or feedback? How quickly do they respond?

Another important metric is comment sentiment. What percentage of community comments are positive, negative, or neutral? Online or digital comments are often more positive than those comments made at public meetings. Data show that 63% of comments made at public meetings are in opposition to proposed projects. Yet, 80% of feedback on coUrbanize’s community engagement platform is positive or neutral.

Lastly, take a step back and assess who is participating in digital conversations – and who isn’t. If there are aspects of the community not represented, the project team should focus outreach efforts there in order to bring more voices into the fold. 

Step 5: Turn a Vision into Action

Here are some resources to help you craft and execute your community-driven strategy:

  • Activating Silent Supporters | Case Study – This case study showcases how JBG SMITH used coUrbanize’s text-messaging features, moderated comment forum, and digital letters of support to connect with silent supporters and gain approval for their project.
  • The New Community Outreach Playbook | PDF – This guide outlines tactics for engaging community stakeholders outside of face-to-face meetings.

Learn more about how coUrbanize can help your team design and execute an effective community engagement strategy. 

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