Community engagement involves marketing, so why aren’t we thinking like marketers?

Community engagement practitioners live by the IAP2 Core Values. As an industry, we believe passionately that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

And to ensure that they can be involved, we commit to seeking them out – most commonly through advertising and social media – and to provide them with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way (communication).

This is, by definition, marketing communication. But we’re doing it in a pretty unsophisticated way. If community engagement practitioners thought more like marketers, we might find it easier to engage with more than just the squeaky hips and the squeaky wheels.

Marketing 101: understand your customer

It’s been claimed that mass marketing is ineffective because it doesn’t target any group well and appeals to no-one in particular. To address this, marketers use segmentation – essentially clustering consumers with similar needs and expectations into a market segment that is different (and approached differently) from other market segments.

Engagement practitioners do something like segmentation. We use demographic and geographic information to distinguish stakeholder groups. It’s through this that we end up with labels like ‘Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD)’ and ‘Youth’, but on the whole, we treat them as homogenous groups. No wonder they’re hard to reach!

What if we used a marketing approach by grouping people, not by stakeholder group, age or geography, but by how significantly they are affected by a decision, what is motivating them to participate, how much time they are willing to spend participating, what their cultural norms and biases say about being involved (especially in government decision-making) and the kind of information and support they need?

We can take some early steps towards segmentation by tapping the power of digital communications. We could exploit the potential of digital platforms to gather information about people’s online activity including site visitation, site engagement and content involvement to better segment our audiences and send more targeted communications (rather than just using the information to justify the rigour of our processes).

There is also potential to adopt a micro-marketing approach and go beyond demographic and geographic analysis to consider segmentation based on socio-economics, psychographics and ethnographics. This approach is underpinned by good data.


"Harnessing the power of data for greater segmentation could solve the problem of how we hear from the traditionally hard to reach."

Mandi Davidson

Executive Strategy Manager - Advisory


It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it (and who you say it to)

Using segmentation in community engagement would enable us to better target and position the opportunity to participate with those who are affected by our work. It could also help us to position our offer based on the needs, characteristics and behaviours of those we are seeking out.

This has two benefits:

  • Better tailored processes and communication. The engagement methodology and the communication that supports it can be customised to the target segment, thus increasing the likelihood of participation.
  • Appropriate targeting of resources. Adopting an evidence-based approach can increase confidence that your project budget and resourcing are being used appropriately and there is a potential for costs to be reduced because communication channels have been selected to reach the audience of interest rather than being wasted on the masses.

So why aren’t we thinking like marketers?

Engagement practitioners have probably been reluctant to adopt marketing techniques because of a perception that marketing is manipulative and therefore not in line with the honourable work we do.

Capability is also a barrier. While the changing ways in which people live, work and play are increasing the data that is available to inform segmentation, and things like smartphones, apps and in-home sensors make capturing data easier than ever, our industry currently lacks the skills to manipulate large data sets and bring the insights they hold to life.

Harnessing the power of data for greater segmentation could solve the problem of how we hear from the traditionally hard to reach.

At RPS we’re embracing data to take an evidence-based approach to communications and engagement. Get in contact to find out more!

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