We've been supporting customers in running great online consultations since 2001. This has given us some tried and tested insights to help ensure success. Often our customers come up with ingenious ideas for engagement, promotion and ways to use the tool. This success guide aims to share those insights and help you get the most out of your Simulator.
Before you go live
1. Who is your consultation for? Ensure your content is easy for them to read
It seems obvious but it's so important: identify who your audience is. Ensure the team assigned to the project know for whom they are writing content and have considered the readability of their copy. Will your audience be able to engage with what has been written?
For example, this paragraph of text scores a 60.5 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Scale, meaning the language used here is well matched for 13-15 years olds, but is likely not to be suitable for a proportion of a UK audience where the average reading age is nine years old.
You can test the readability of your writing in Microsoft Word; this article from Microsoft explains how.
Case study: a Simulator customer said they were thrilled with the site, but disappointed with their low response rate.
The local area in which they were consulting had an average reading age of 11 years old but the simulator content had been written using very formal, bureaucratic language.
It was felt that the content had been inaccessible to the majority of respondents - a theory supported by Google Analytics data, which highlighted an unusually low conversion rate of visitors staying to submit a response.
2. Keep your content consistent
Bullet points? First person voice? Future tense? Consistency will enhance the experience for the participant so whatever your choice, stick to it. It's also worth keeping in mind that this is a simulation, so don't be afraid of using a positive 'this will happen' voice to immerse the user in the experience.
3. State your intentions and demonstrate how you’ve listened in the past
Present some outcomes from previous consultations so respondents know that past consultation activity has contributed to real decision making and change.
Stating your intentions - e.g. when the simulator will close, what will happen with the responses, when decisions will be made, how they can find out how their contribution made a difference - will encourage people to take part and feel like their efforts will be appreciated.
Case study: Calderdale Council
Calderdale did a great job of feeding back the results of the budget consultation to respondents using their council website.
After their Budget Simulator consultation closed, they updated the Simulator's front page to link to their council website. They created a video and uploaded to the council website, providing context about the budget decisions in 2010 and explained the the results in clear, concise language. They also included a PDF of the average expenditure within the simulator ranked lowest to highest decrease in budget.
4. Consult on meaningful issues and give your participants the freedom to express their opinion
The more people feel passionate about the areas available for consultation, the higher the response levels you will achieve. Your residents are likely to feel more empowered to discuss the budget when the issues are of relative importance.
Simulator allows for income and expenditure items for this very reason, enabling participants the freedom to say where they would like to increase spending as well as decrease it. For example, participants might consider raising local tax rates to subsidise further spend in a particular area that matters to them.
There are the other options within Simulator: Bill Simulator which can give participants an insight into how the changes they select would affect their own bills and Points Simulator which allows respondents to 'spend' a certain number of points on their highest priorities.
Case study: Edinburgh City Council
Edinburgh City Council engaged with housing tenants on the subject of investing their rent money, being very clear on what the aims of the project were.
Think about promotion early on: it will be the making of your exercise if you get it right. Remember the tool is just the starting point: you have to get the word out there.
1. Place a direct link on your Council’s home page
A seemingly obvious thing to point out, but this is an easy way to boost the success of your Simulator. The home page is invariably the busiest on a Council’s website. Even if a resident is logging on for some other reason, they might see the link to your Simulator and click through to it.
2. Make the most of council newsletters, staff, visitors etc
Residents expect to hear from Councils through newsletters - which makes it an effective way to let them know about your Simulator. Be sure to include the URL of the Simulator and explain the benefits of engaging with it.
Council staff tend to be some of the most actively engaged of all local residents, ensure your internal comms like emails or staff newsletters are used to spread the word.
Visitors to your offices are a great target for promotion: put a banner up in reception, display posters or hand out flyers in busy places.
3. Organise a briefing with local press and contact local bloggers
Covering all local channels of communication available is the best way to ensure each person has an opportunity to hear about and use the Simulator.
Many residents are likely to read a local newspaper every day whether online or in print, if a story runs online ask for a link to Simulator to be included, as this will improve the site's search engine optimisation.
Most areas have bloggers that discuss local issues. Have a quick trawl of the internet and you may be surprised what you find. There’s a good chance a local blogger would be interested in linking to your Simulator, so drop them an email.
Liverpool City Council
4. Offer a prize-draw for all participants
It doesn’t need to be something outrageous but offering a small incentive is a good way to show your appreciation for people getting involved. Good examples are vouchers to spend at a supermarket - something everyone could do with.
5. Email your Citizens Panel and mailing list
Emails are a great way to promote things as it only takes a couple of clicks for the recipient to access the Simulator or pass it on. Citizens Panels and mailing lists are fantastic - they both represent a pool of actively engaged individuals who have opted-in to being contacted for information about their council's actions.
6. Change your email signature
Add a link to the Simulator in your email signature - an easy win!
7. Distribute flyers to Council tenants, local voluntary and charity organisations, visitors to local libraries and Parish Councils
Any location where local residents congregate offers an opportunity for engagement. By distributing a small leaflet sharing information about the Simulator, where they can access it and why they might want to contribute, you can boost the number and diversity of respondents.
Worcester CC Flyer 2013
Greater Manchester Police Flyer 2012
8. Use social media to keep people up to date
You probably have a Facebook or Twitter account for your organisation. To ensure the communications coming from your social presence are easy to follow, remember to use hashtags and URL shorteners to drop links into your tweets.
9. Facebook adverts
Facebook adverts can be incredibly effective, in one case study, a Simulator customer found their Facebook adverts were the source for one-third of all visitors to the site.
Use pictures and screenshots
'We saw a huge increase in our click-throughs and submissions once we used a screen capture image of the tool in our promoted Facebook posts, ads and tweets.' - The City of Calgary
10. Take it on the road!
As well as Simulator-focused events, showcasing the platform at other events may inspire people who otherwise would not have taken an interest or had an opportunity to. Tablets, projectors and mobile phones all make it much easier to take your Simulator on the road.
Case study: a customer used Simulator at a school event for school council members and encouraged all attendees to follow them on Facebook afterwards. They fed back to us that it had been a really successful way of engaging a younger demographic and getting the word out on social media.
Another customer attended a local county show and asked members of the public to paint pie charts of how they thought the council budget was allocated. Only 2 people nearly got the answer right, but it sparked conversation with a huge proportion of the community, who otherwise may not have taken part in the exercise.
A few extra suggestions worth considering...
1. Use Google Adwords
You can run a short term campaign for people searching for your organisation's name + e.g “finance” or “budget”. There might be a whole host of reasons people are searching for this term, and with a little work you can ensure that the link to your Simulator is at the top of the search rankings every time.
2. Use Analytics or search your Simulator’s URL in Google
Being able to see where you’re receiving traffic from helps you make the most out of your exposure on the web. A number of organisations have chosen to use Google Analytics for this purpose. You can do this for free and we can embed a Google Analytics code into the admin side of Simulator for you if you provide it to us. More info on this can be found in this support article.
Google Analytics can also help you track which devices are being used to access your Simulator; smartphones, tablets and desktops. Knowing this kind of information could influence your approach to promotion in the future.
Reporting back in engaging ways
Your Simulator has come to an end, the consultation is closed and you are thrilled with the response rate - but remember, citizens want to know that their input and time has been appreciated and contributed to the outcome. Effective publication of results will encourage future participation, create trust and encourage an ongoing dialogue between decision-makers and citizens.
1. Easy access to results
In just the same way you made it easy for respondents to find your Simulator, make it easy for them to find results. Simulator allows you to set 'closed' text which will appear on the welcome page when your consultation is over. Use this space to manage expectations around timelines and link to wherever you have, or will be publishing results.
2. Present the results in an engaging way
Throwing a fifty page PDF document online might tick the box in terms of responding back, but it won't win any prizes for engagement. Present the results and outcomes of your consultation in an attractive, easy to digest, engaging way and people are more likely to appreciate the message and feel communicated with on a genuine level. Why not try getting creative with your results by using infographics or charts? Here are some examples for inspiration...
Liverpool City Council, 2013/2014 Budget Consultation Campaign (in conjunction with Budget Simulator)
Sport and Recreation Alliance, 2014 Sport and Recreation in the UK – facts and figures report
The City of Calgary, Flood Impact and Recovery