The Engagement Playbook

We have been working with one of our clients for over a year now, helping them execute on their vision for engagement with their more important stakeholder groups. A public school district, they have successfully managed to motivate over half of their 6,000 students to participate actively in a district-wide initiative to drive the creation of online content and the participation within peer networks with the objectives of improving digital literacy and moving students into a new approach to assessment and learning.

We hear the term “engagement” frequently with our clients, in many different contexts – employee engagement, client engagement, stakeholder engagement, citizen engagement – and those contexts are all only unique in that the target of the engagement objective is different (with, arguably, different perspective, needs, etc.). However, it always boils down to the same objective – to encourage and sustain ongoing participation in whatever that organisation’s key activities happen to be, for the purposes of furthering a particular outcome or strategy.

Engagement strategies are often lumpy – we recognize a need or opportunity for improvement, spend time thinking about or studying the “engagees” , and then launch a campaign to bolster participation or the development of sustainable communities within our organisation’s ecosystem.

Upon observing successful engagement campaigns in various sectors, it is my conclusion that there are a number of common foundational practices that contribute to success, beyond just a stroke of luck and good judgment on the right day. I suggest that any engagement program has a better chance of success if it has paid mind to these following principles.

  • Have a champion. Depending on the organisation within which the program is being delivered, it needs a champion. Not necessarily an executive champion, but one with influence and reach, who can speak with passion about the initiative and appeal to a wide variety of perspectives. This is your path-clearer, and your advisor, as well as your cheerleader and your defender.
  • Have a common platform. If we are to take make it as easy as possible for our intended participants to contribute, we need to make the way in which they contribute consistent. This way, they are speaking the same language, meeting in the same way, creating with the same tools, etc. and they focus their participation on the content, rather than the delivery tool. Nothing dilutes a participatory initiative like being side tracked by the process or the technology.
  • Have a reason. It is critical that you know why you are embarking on this initiative. Too often I hear organisations talking about the need for “engagement” yet they haven’t even figured out what problem they are solving or which strategy is being bolstered by this initiative. It sounds like the right thing to do but they have yet to define it. As a result, it becomes exceedingly difficult to recognize when/if they have even gotten there.
  • Have a context. Within the example listed above, the school district sought to achieve improved student engagement, which would manifest itself in a number of different ways. However, they knew in order to make it work, they needed to introduce the initiative within a program that was already understood and could be packaged up with some “reality”. The context in this case was “digital literacy” and blogging was a natural fit. Students, parents, teachers and administrators all understood it and the rationale.
  • Integrate with existing work. Everyone is busy. We are all maxed out. We can barely keep our focus on the task list at hand, much less introduce new tasks that, although we subscribe to the reasons why, still cause us to do something more, or new. If we can meet our participants where they currently “live” and offer rewards for engaging behaviour that translate into doing their existing work better, we have a more compelling reason for participating in a community, or as an advisor, or doing something more to contribute because there is something they get back.
  • Make it easy. Net new work needs to be highly justified. Even if you think it’s not net new, it probably is. Figure out how to make it simple to access networks and communities and to participate in those, contributing knowledge and questions or advice and guidance.
  • Know your audience. Clearly, every participant group will be slightly different, and will require different communications tactics, different motivators, different timing and different levels of interaction from your engagement champions and support team. If you’ve identified your objectives, figure out how they align with theirs. Know where they work, how they work, what they do best/most often/least often, what they complain about, what they dream about, how tolerant they are to change, etc. You may need to adjust your approach over and over again as you work through these groups, but that’s just the way it is, as long as it’s people receiving the message, and that are expected to respond.

I’m curious as to your experiences and thoughts on the approach to engagement I have listed above. This is work in progress and, as always, is a composite problem with many varied inputs. Yours is valued and welcome, as we seek to improve these approaches.