What goldfish can teach us about effective community engagement

May 25, 2016 | Community Engagement, Event Strategy, Experiential Marketing

In the last 15 years our attention span has become shorter than that of a goldfish (yep, that’s 8 seconds to be exact). It is little wonder therefore, that it is difficult… ooo shiny… to attract and engage people in community consultation… SQUIRREL!… when there are “so many other important (note: interesting) things to do”.

Poor Little Goldfish

From recent conversations with some of our government clients, it is evident that the community engagement sector is stuck in a rut, or a fish bowl, if you will. It is struggling to increase participation rates in community consultation activities and in empowering communities to design and solve future challenges.

Swim around in the sector for a while and you end up implementing the same community engagement ideas again and again – banging your head against the bowl as most of your community continues to ignore you, not wanting to make eye contact, feed you or [shudder] “take 5 minutes to complete a survey”.

Google the term “community engagement” and the first 2 pages of websites listed are government agencies providing you “innovative” tips for effective community consultation including;

  • brainstorming with sticky notes, dots or anything that sticks to something;
  • conducting an online or offline survey; or
  • hosting a community audit.

Audiences have become sceptical of institutionalised, traditional community engagement activities but this does not mean they have switched off entirely from designing the future of their community.

It’s Time To Find A Bigger Pond

Marketing, PR and media outlets also utilise community management and engagement techniques to promote their message and sell product. Termed “experiential marketing”; this technique immerses consumers in a unique and memorable experience with the aim of creating positive emotional associations, and therefore connections, with a brand or product.

Although marketing a widget is slightly different to consulting with the community on a council masterplan, government policy or property redevelopment, the desired outcomes are the same. Active participation and feedback.

Here are three examples of how experiential marketing could be applied to the principles of community engagement…

Public Art Participation 

Idea 1: Use accessible and fun art activities or installations to encourage people to contribute and express their ideas.

Street art inspires creativity, but public art participation encourages the expression of ideas. American Greetings recently utilised an interactive public art to disrupt, slow people down and increase engagement at their Analog installation as part of SXSW. The company invited passers by to use new technology to create, produce and write their own printed cards, letters or notes to friends and loved ones. All cards featured American Greetings brand and encouraged the audience to share images of their physical card on social media.

Pop-Up Activations

Idea 2: Utilise the element of surprise and interactive digital or written voting systems to attract people to sharing their opinions.

In April 2016, The Pop-Up Co. worked with the Adelaide City Council to increase awareness and gather ideas for its future CBD Laneways Masterplan. We installed a miniature pop-up Adelaide city in a high foot traffic area of the CBD for one day. Passers by were encouraged to write down “how they like Adelaide’s laneways” on their own mini-me poster and stick this onto the pop-up Adelaide installation. This activation received 200 times more responses than all of the previous year’s on-street engagement activities combined. 


Festivals & Events

Idea 3: Events can create media buzz and excitement around an initiative as well as provide a chance for genuine face to face engagement with your community.

Simple, effective and affordable events immerses its audience in a unique, memorable experience and builds an emotional connection with the space they are in. The Lost Dogs Shelter has held “The Human Walking Program” in Flagtsaff Park in Melbourne for three years running. Office workers are encouraged to come out in their lunch break and be taken for “walkies” by a Lost Dogs Shelter pup that is up for adoption. The event went viral on social media and media news outlets nationally and internationally; attracting over 175,000 media views in Australia within the first year. The event was an engagement success too, with all pups being adopted every year within a week of hosting the event!

We’re not suggesting you throw away the community engagement tools that you have, but that you learn from the goldfish in all of us and consider trialling new digital, experiential and marketing techniques to your next community consultation.

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