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We at Conversation Caravan believe nothing can replace a face-to-face conversation, however we recognise the many benefits of using online technology to support your consultation program. Online engagement can capture the momentum and visibility generated by in-person engagement; it can reach more people therefore bring more people into conversations; and it can support those with limited access to have their say and engage on the project being discussed.

Here are some tips to using online engagement to complement your face-to-face engagement:

• Replicate your questions
Create a plan and align your offline and online engagement tools. This means clearly identifying stakeholders, tools to be used and questions to be asked. Ensure you are ask the same questions both online and offline. When it comes to analysing data, meaningful information can be drawn more easily from online and face-to-face engagement when they are easily compared.

• Avoid misunderstandings
Getting identical information to a lot of people quickly and at a low cost is a key benefit of using online tools. This is especially handy when it comes to detailed projects, or projects that are delivered across a long timeframe where visibility across the project stages is important. Consider ways to share information in an accessible way that minimises misunderstandings or confusion. This could include a short video explaining the project or the opportunity for a participant to submit and ask the project team a question to clarify their understanding.

• Remove the barriers to entry
Online engagement is great for reaching people who might not otherwise attend face-to-face engagement (though we’d argue we can make face-to-face activities easy and fun to participate). This could include time poor families, people who work shift work or those that might feel intimidated by traditional in-person methods. Remove any barriers to participating online this includes lengthy intro questions that ask everything from what they ate for breakfast to their annual income. Consider what demographic questions are absolutely needed to understand the data collected. Consider how to make information accessible and legible to those with a visual impairment.

• Choose the right tools for the information required
Data on opinions and reactions can be collected and evaluated easily using online methods, highly emotive content can sometimes be challenging to negotiate online. Whilst there may be opportunities for anonymous feedback, it lacks that personal connection of face-to-face discussions where empathy can be established and people can listen to varying opinions. Decide what information you’d like to gather in full public view as opposed to submitted privately is key to success in this area. It is also important to think about how the information is collected – forums, polls, questionnaires, social media… They all serve different purposes and should be considered along with their strengths and challenges.

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