Getting Started & How to Engage Communities

Effectively engaging the public is the most crucial element for any program’s success. How do we effectively engage people in this day and age of super-technology, when we are all bombarded by messages, media, and the compelling requests to do more with our time than ever before?

We found that a variety of approaches are necessary, and some of the most effective methods are traditional, tried, and true approaches. However, taking advantage of new technology has also played a strong role in our success. In this Chapter, we will discuss the different methods we employed.

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Section 1.1: Influencing Behavior

Before implementing any type of project or program that relies on engaging the public, it is important to take the time to figure out how to describe and promote your program, to whom you want to promote it, and why you are promoting it to them. Essentially, engaging the public in any effort requires the same process as developing an advertising campaign. You must know your product, make it attractive, and persuade people to accept it by helping them understand why it is beneficial.

The following information will provide an overview of the key components to a social marketing campaign, but for more information we recommend checking out the Community Based Social Marketing resources available at

Identify the Behavior Change Desired

What is the goal of your program? What practices need to be implemented to achieve your goals? The Alliance’s goal was to help their partners reduce stormwater that was polluting local streams and reduce localized flooding that caused soil erosion and property damage. It is important to take the time to understand the issues that need to be addressed and the best methods for solving those problems so you can clearly promote (“market”) the desired behavior change.

Identify Your Target Audience

Once the problem is understood and actions are identified, it is important to evaluate who is likely to take action first. The Alliance partnered with the Reedy Creek Coalition and was able to work with the leaders of the Coalition to better understand the community and how to best engage them. The leaders of the Reedy Creek Coalition agreed to reach out to their neighbors
through a door-to-door campaign and by holding community clean up events, stream walks, and watershed bicycle tours. Through these combined efforts, they were able to learn more about those living in the watershed and develop a target audience to engage in the program.

Once we understood who the target audience was, we knew we had a core base of residents who would likely participate in the program. From there, word of mouth tends to increase momentum, as neighbors and friends begin asking what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to get involved.

Develop Process for Understanding Barriers to Adopting New Behavior

Once you know your target audience, you will have a wealth of information available to you and it is important to use that information to shape how you message your program. The best messages can be formed if you first take the time to understand why people are not already doing what your program is asking them to do. This is also referred to as “barriers and competition”. Barriers are defined as anything that keeps people from voluntarily changing their behavior. Competition is defined as the current counter-productive behavior (or any outside influence supporting it) preferred by your target audience or the general public.

Ensure Goal for Your Target Audience Will Sustain Behavior Change

While the process of understanding your target audience along with the barriers and competition of changing behaviors may seem complicated or arduous, the effort put into this on the front end of implementing your program can save you time and money on the back end. This process will help ensure the behavior change you want to promote is achievable, desired by the community, measurable, and something that can be sustained over time. Our goal is to ensure that we create a lifelong habit, not a one-time trend. In this case, we are asking people to change the way they landscape their yards to reduce the impacts of stormwater runoff and provide habitat for wildlife.

In order to do this effectively, it is important to specifically identify the behaviors you want to change. Then, survey your target audience to learn their current attitudes and behaviors, and what influences them.

Developing Your Implementation Plan and Budget

Based on the established goal(s) of the program and the feedback from the target audience and, perhaps, their local community organization and/or watershed group, develop an implementation plan for your engagement effort. Start with a 1 year plan that includes activities you believe your organization can achieve within that time. This will provide an opportunity to assess progress and determine if adjustments are needed before moving on. Then, develop a longer-range plan (2-3 years).

Evaluating Program Success

Every good plan needs a way to measure progress and demonstrate that your program is successful during and following your social marketing campaign. Grant providers love to hear that you have evaluation plans so you can truly assess and report how your program is working. Evaluating your program’s success will help you spread your message to an expanded target audience. Understanding the program’s shortcomings will also help strengthen it in the future.

Return on Investment

Understanding the return on investment can help when explaining to funders why investing in your program is worthwhile, as well as help demonstrate success. To understand what your return on investment is, list any improvements in social and environmental conditions and assess the value of those improvements versus the money spent to achieve them.

Section 1.2: Social Media

Now that you have learned the process to identify behavior change goals and develop a plan to implement them, we will focus on using social media as an outreach tool to help influence behavior change. Using free social media to promote change may be a great option if your target audience has access to the internet. If your target audience has little to no internet access or experience, you may be better off going door to door (next section). The social network statistics from Pew Research Centers reveal important information about internet users and the social media outlets they choose. Depending on whom you are trying to engage, this is important information to know. In the RiverWise Communities Manual, we go into detail about the various popular social networking sites and strategies for using them.

Section 1.3: Door to Door and Group Outreach

If your organization’s primary way of reaching your targeted audience is the “in person” method, it is important to map out some strategies ahead of time. One of the most beneficial internal documents you can provide to your staff and volunteers is a set of talking points. Talking points are an easy way to keep everyone on track with a consistent message.

Start by developing your story. If you have already completed the Social Marketing steps above, you already have it! Key aspects of developing talking points for your story are as follows:

  • Keep them simple, easy to understand, and easy to communicate verbally and in written form.
  • Avoid long paragraphs; instead use bullets to communicate the main point.
  • Pairing the talking points with a fact sheet can be very helpful to members when answering questions from a target audience. Use compelling images on written information and fact sheets to make a statement, then back it up with factual information and inspiring actions.

Take time to map your calendar events. By creating an Events Calendar, all members of your group will be aware of upcoming events, and you can ensure that assigned individuals are able to attend well in advance.

When attending meetings, be sure your group members bring their talking points, fact sheets, brochures, and a sign-up sheet to collect names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses of attendees. Be sure to post in your social media networks that you are attending these meetings.

Any email addresses collected should be added to a master email list. You can create one using an excel spreadsheet. Send the people who gave you their information a quick “thank you” email and let them know they have been added to your email list. You can do this using a standard free Gmail account or free email marketing program for non-profits, such as Vertical Response.