How to make your virtual consultation a success

Providing a more resilient approach to community and stakeholder engagement, a virtual consultation can help you remove barriers, progress approvals and connect with your audience virtually. Importantly it also makes participation easy for your stakeholders, driving better engagement for your project.

But doing it well means more than just launching a website; Stephen Henderson, Associate in Digital Delivery, shares his learnings of the past six months and the practical considerations for running a successful virtual consultation. 

Stephen Henderson, Associate - Digital Delivery
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Over the last six months we have all been pushed out of our comfort zone in more ways than one. But they say necessity is the mother of invention and I now know that to be true. When lockdown was announced it meant the traditional route for public consultation was out of the question. However, equally out of the question was sitting back and letting projects stall.

We had to act quickly, applying our visualisation and digital expertise to our experience in community and stakeholder engagement. Our virtual consultation solution was born in April and since then we have been continually learning and refining our approach based on how real communities have engaged with real projects.

 

If I could only tell you one thing it would be this…

The key to getting your virtual consultation right is not losing sight of your audience. At every stage in the development we should be asking – how can I make this easier for my audience? And how does this feature benefit them? That way, you make sure the technology is serving the audience at each step, and in doing so avoid a common pitfall: focusing too much on a ‘shiny features list’ at the expense of making it easy to navigate.

 

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One size doesn't fit all

Every consultation is slightly different, as are the communities or stakeholders you’re engaging with. The approach you take for each should reflect this, considering the demographics and local nuances involved in all decisions – from the visuals used to the order in which information is presented.

The unique benefit of a virtual consultation is the data and analytics you gain, and you should use these wisely to make sure the content you’re sharing is resonating with the audience. If people are spending twice as long on one board than any other board, there may be scope to make more information available on that topic. Equally if one of your boards is getting significantly less traffic or dwell time and you suspect it’s not landing right, you don’t have to wait until the end of the consultation to fix it.

 

Guide but don’t control the narrative

Our aim is always to use technology and visualisations to give interested parties the best possible presentation of the proposal. However, we must also not lose sight of the fact this is a consultation and not a cinematic experience.

Guiding those that want it through the narrative is good. But it should also be easy to self-navigate for the rest and for me, putting the community and stakeholders at the heart of the consultation means giving them the tools to choose how they want to attend, engage and digest the information.

For example, instead of giving people the chance to watch a project video – give them the opportunity to navigate their own path inside a virtual model. Let them control what they see, from what angle and for how long; give them the opportunity to understand the scheme and how the project would impact them and their community.

 

People digest information differently

Accessibility is a huge part of any consultation and while we are now able to create really sophisticated virtual environments, digesting information in this way won’t work for everyone. Complementing the virtual room with a more traditional website – as well as offline avenues - is a must in my opinion.

For London Resort  we ran the virtual room and website side by side, and every piece of information was repeated a few times in different places and in different formats – including ‘read aloud’ content, meaning the same information was accessible to the public no matter how they chose to interact. Live signers are a good option here too.

 

Keep communication channels open

While live chat works fantastically for some, sometimes there is just no substitute for a ‘proper’ conversation. Give the audience the opportunity to call up and speak to a real person – and make this easy! We’ve found telephone surgeries work well here.

The audience can then choose the communication method that suits them and feels both appropriate and proportionate to how large of an impact the scheme is likely to have for them.

 

Make sure your IT infrastructure is robust

When technology works, it’s great. But when it doesn’t... With potentially large numbers of people all visiting your virtual consultation at once, you can’t afford for the site to go down. Our virtual consultation for the London Resort had over 14,000 people visit on the first day. Doing your due diligence and vulnerability testing could save you endless amounts of head ache later down the line. It may also go without saying, but you’ll need to ensure you’re following robust GDPR practices before collecting data from respondents.

 

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