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Think back to you last digital engagement project outside Facebook. What did you ask people for?

Chances are, you asked for a ‘comment’. Maybe a ‘reply’. ‘Feedback’, perhaps. A handful of you might have requested a ‘submission’.

That’s not necessarily wrong – all of those are valid forms of input and depending on the goals for the project and the audience you’re talking to, may be entirely appropriate. But it’s worth being aware that they’re the language of the office – a world of track changes, loops and signoff – which may or may not suit the audiences and contexts you’re working in.

For instance, say you want to hear from shoppers about how they’d like their rights to be protected. Or from staff on the front line about how a new procedure is or isn’t enabling them to work more efficiently. Or a rail commuter about how services should be reconfigured.

For a while now, I’ve been banging on about the value of taking a layered approach to digital engagement generally, and consultation specifically – in other words, asking different people to tell you different things. While some people will happily comment on proposals, they’re probably a minority in most cases (there are lots of things I don’t feel qualified to ‘comment’ on but still care about; or where I don’t have the time or ideas to write a paragraph or two in response). And putting it gently, people willing to ‘leave a comment’ are not always the people you’d ideally most like to hear from.

Instead of a ‘comment’, how about asking for:

  • experiences: what stories do you have to tell about how you’ve been treated?
  • advice: what advice would you give us on how we could improve things? How would you advise a colleague to do X?
  • examples: tell us about a time when X happened to you. What did you feel, and do?
  • heroes & villains: in your experience, which organisations are brilliant at X? And which ones are awful? Why?
  • help: what practical help could you offer to enable <positive outcome> to happen? (e.g. help at an event, pass on a message to your contacts, give us an interview/case study, keep a diary of your experiences of X…)
  • priorities: what’s the most important thing about X? Which of A, B, C matters most to you?
  • frustrations: what one thing would you change about how X works? What do you reckon could be fixed easily, and what’s harder to change?

I said ‘outside of Facebook’ in the first sentence of this post, because smart Facebook pages are already a step ahead in some ways – for a start, posts can be commented on or Liked, depending on how much a reader wants to get involved. But perhaps because posts are usually shorter and more conversational, it’s often easier and more natural to ask the kind of questions above rather than falling back on the tyranny of the comment box.

What do you reckon? Angels-on-pinheads stuff, or is there something in it?

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Preposterous nonsense.

Only kidding. I think this approach is quite right, and much more in keeping with the way that people expect to be able to share their thoughts online. It requires a little bit of culture change for some organisations, but the more I think about it, the more I reckon this is an administrative improvement i.e. making more time to design engagement around receiving general comments/stories/responses, as opposed to rigid Q&A.

Over on BIS’s Focus on Enforcement pages we explicitly ask for people’s experiences, but this probably isn’t the best test for this kind of approach. The subject matter is quite complicated to communicate, and although it has generated some rich comments about reader’s experiences, there has been a lot of work involved with moderation. This is because there can be legal issues around people’s responses.

Asking people to talk about heroes/villains, frustrations, and experiences in free text is the way forward. But policy makers will need to be reassured by a practical, but comprehensive, approach to moderation.

Good stuff. I think this is an area we could all give a little more thought to. And not just on comment forms (though certainly there).

A way of thinking about this it seems to me is:
– generally people answer the question they are asked
– different questions are different “what do you think about this?” “what do you you feel about this?” “what should we do about this?” will generate different responses
– ask the question you want to know the answer to