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Advantages and Disadvantages of Three Online Engagement Approaches

With advancements in the infrastructure and design of websites comes new ways to engage the public. In this article, Karin Brandt, CEO and co-founder of coUrbanize, details what to consider when launching a civic engagement platform.
October 13, 2014, 9am PDT | Karin Brandt
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Civic technology, especially online civic engagement, has attracted a great deal of investor and entrepreneurial interest in the past few years. More and more cities and planners see the value in engaging audiences that are typically absent at public meetings, and they realize that online tools are the way to go to reach those audiences. But with so many options, it's tough to tell which approach is right for your project.

We know how overwhelming this selection process can be. But we’ve also seen the many benefits of a well-constructed civic engagement platform and strategy for our clients.

In this post, we’ll look at three different approaches to online civic engagement and walk you through the advantages and disadvantages of each.

What is Online Civic Engagement? What Can It Do for My Project?

Online civic engagement is a method of connecting with local residents that can be powerful in collecting valuable feedback and engaging in productive conversations about your development project.

You may already be familiar with the value of online civic engagement and how it can help your project run faster and more efficiently. But, for those still learning about this technology, it helps your projects in the following ways:

  • Access the online conversation - people are already talking about your project online, so why not go to where they are?
  • Focus discussions - replace scattered conversations across the web with a centralized forum.
  • Set the agenda - guide the conversations, correct misinformation, and share project updates about new facts and milestones.
  • Reach a broader audience - tap into the opinions of the silent majority—groups who are left out of the traditional development process.
  • Receive feedback early and often - know what people are saying so you can revise plans before the meeting.
  • Improve public meetings - with better information, you can plan and structure meetings more efficiently.
  • Find better data - metrics like sentiment analysis give you insight into what’s really important to residents.

The benefits of online civic engagement are clear, but you may not know the best path to pursue when taking your project online. Below we’ll compare and contrast three common approaches to help you decide.

3 Different Approaches to Online Civic Engagement

Compare their pros and cons so you can make the best decision for your organization.

1) Build a Forum From Scratch

Potential Cost: $20,000-$100,000 for site design, plus server costs and maintenance.

Advantages:

  • It’s completely customizable. A website built specifically for your project can incorporate all the features you ask for. The site is built around your project, not the other way around.
  • Brand it however you want. You have complete control over your project branding and how the site looks and feels to users.

Disadvantages:

  • It’s pricey. Custom website designs can cost over $100,000 without breaking a sweat, especially if you want to gather online comments from registered users. Plus, you need to account for the cost of servers and content management systems. Then you need to have someone on staff maintain it to update the content.
  • It takes longer. More options mean more decisions to make. Designing a website is like planning a wedding. You don’t care about table linen colors until you see all of the different choices, and suddenly you become that person with strong opinions about lavender and periwinkle.
  • You need a tech expert. Many organizations don’t have the technical bandwidth or an in-house developer to streamline the setup process.

2) White Label Forum – build a separate website carrying your branding, but is built and run by a third party.

Potential Cost$3,000-$25,000/year

Advantages:

  • Development cost. This is a potentially cheaper option than building a website all on your own.
  • You can leverage the expertise of others. Let the tech experts build the platform. You get to focus on the projects.

Disadvantages:

  • Too many URLs for residents to find. Residents have to remember different websites for all the projects in your city. That can mean a lot of URLs!
  • Lack of control on features. You can’t customizeeverythingfor your unique project.
  • Not project based. Since these platforms are forum-based, it’s difficult to walk the community through detailed renderings, plans, and impact studies as the project moves forward. This option lacks the unique customization that some projects need.

3) Third Party – hire a third party to build a project-based page.

ExampleThe Cambridge Redevelopment Authority’s Strategic Planning Process

Potential Cost: $5,000-10,000/project

Advantages:

  • You get a mediator. Sometimes, discussions about city projects can drum up controversy and emotions. An objective third party host with privacy protection almost acts as a mediator between residents, developers, and the town, for instance.
  • Leave tech stuff to tech experts. If we learned anything from the Healthcare.gov debacle, we learned that "just building a website" is easier said than done. With a third party solution, you get to leave the tech stuff to the tech experts and stay focused on the projects. Unique visualizations, mapping tools, graphic design, web hosts…you don’t have to worry about any of that.
  • Better user experience. Getting residents involved is hard enough. Using the website shouldn’t be. A third party solution has been designed with ease of use in mind by people who are experts in user experience.
  • Drive more resident engagement. Some white label tools offer separate and distinct URLs for each project, which makes it harder for residents to find all the new local projects and their respective websites. A third party will take a different approach, which categorizes all of the different projects by community to help residents easily discover your project. This makes it easier to increase engagement with residents already participating in nearby projects.

Disadvantages:

  • Fewer branding options. Without a white label option, there are slightly fewer options for branding customization than if you did your own website or did a white label solution. Depending on which platform you choose, you may be able to add your own logo and have the emails labeled as though they are coming from you. With those features, you still get to "brand" these projects as much as it’s necessary.

Choose Based on Your Projects' Needs

The most important distinguishing factors to consider when choosing a civic engagement platform are what type of project you have and how community engagement will add value.

If you are not looking for community engagement, but simply want a place to post documents and images, then Option #1, building a forum from scratch, may be for you. Open-ended, visioning projects may benefit from forum-based tools, like Option #2. Finally, Option #3, or hiring a third party, is best for well-thought-out projects that are ready for resident feedback.

The goal of civic technology is to foster meaningful resident involvement in shaping the future of our cities. To realize this goal, we need solutions that prioritize user experience by making it easy for residents to find local projects, get the facts, and join the conversation. In addition, it’s important that the site looks professional and secure so that users feel safe when engaging there. Prioritize the user experience and know what feedback you need, and you’ll surely find a solutions that fit your project’s budget and goals. 

Karin Brandt is the CEO and Founder of coUrbanize, a civic engagement platform that helps residents, planners, and developers build better cities together. coUrbanize is a 2013 TechStars graduate and is headquartered in Cambridge, MA. Say hi to Karin on Twitter @karbrandt.

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