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Getting Started with Online Public Engagement

With traditional in-person public engagement events and festivals cancelled or delayed there has been a growing interest in taking planned events and activities online. While it’s easy to be tempted to try and do this like for like (e.g. a public talk becomes a webinar), this approach risks your online engagement becoming the lesser cousin of your in person plans. This doesn’t have to be the case!  This post gives some pointers on things to consider when taking public engagement online.

In person engagement is usually event focused. The activity will run at a set venue at a set time. Online engagement doesn’t have to have these restrictions. Content can be uploaded at any time. Conversations can happen over the course of hours, days or weeks through social media platforms and other online fora. Your engagement is not limited by the practicalities of in person events and does not need to be a like for like replacement. It can be far more creative than a webinar but it starts from the same place as all good public engagement: clear aims and objectives, and a defined “public”. Chances are the aims, objective and audience for your online engagement are the same people as they would be for in person activities! But it’s also an opportunity to interact with new audiences. This blog post discusses some considerations for engaging publics online.

Where’s the audience?

There are a multitude of online platforms you can use to engage with people and which one is best will depend on what you want to do and who you want to engage. Many people are signed up to a number of different platforms but will use them in different ways. If in doubt, stick to one of the big ones such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube and pick one that you feel comfortable using. If you feel strongly that the best platform is one you’ve never used (e.g. TicToc to reach teenagers) try and team up with someone who does use it.

Technical issues

If you’re using recordings in your activity remember that video quality comes second to sound. Some of the most popular videos online were filmed using a mobile, but if it’s difficult to make out what’s being said (and the audio is essential to understanding the video) then people will stop watching.

This video provides some helpful tips for filming on a mobile phone/tablet. This blog post also has some useful tips for filming on a mobile.

Test your content before going live. It must work on Mac and PC, in different operating systems (of different ages, with different updates) on computers, tablets and especially mobiles (iPhone and Android). Check in advance how it will work with multiple people logged in at once. Have back ups for if you end up losing connection and be sure to be able to communicate privately among the organisers to keep things running smoothly.

Accessibility

Will the public that you want to engage with be able to find and access your activities? Around 93 % of UK households have internet access but access is not equal. Some areas are more prone to low bandwidth and dropped connections and some data plans are far more generous than others, and this inequality is important to recognise. You can reach a lot of people online however, and for many people online dialogues are actually more accessible than in person activities. For example

  • People who work shifts
  • People with caring responsibilities
  • People who live in smaller towns or rural areas
  • People who have health conditions or disabilities that make leaving home challenging
  • People who have limited free time

Focus on who you can reach when planning online activities.

You can improve the accessibility of your online engagement by:

  • Making sure that it’s accessible on a smartphone. These are by far the most widely owned internet enabled devices. If you produce any media on a computer, check how it looks on a smartphone before uploading it as this is how many people may see it.
  • Taking colour blindness into account when preparing images or graphics
  • Including captions in any video clips or a transcript for audio files. On social media a lot of people with or without hearing impairments will have their device silenced. The Media Hopper Create team at the University of Edinburgh can support.
  • Checking how a visually impaired person will see your site
  • Producing an accessibility statement to accompany your activity or content. Some people like to know what to expect and don’t like surprises.
  • Trying not to tie the activity to a specific time or duration. This allows busy people to dip in at their convenience.
  • Having “low data” ways to engage. Streaming video content is data intensive. Could there be an accompanying text? Does your video need to be streamed in HD?

Risk Assessments

In many ways the risk assessment is easier! Forget trip hazards and PAT testing the equipment – your audience will look after themselves. They know where the toilets are and they’ll sort their own catering. This doesn’t mean that online activities don’t carry any associated risks. Key things to consider are:

  • Who’s in the room? Is access to your activity restricted in any way? How will you moderate the activity?
  • If participants are joining your activity from home they may feel less guarded than they would in person and share thoughts or opinions that they wouldn’t usually share in public. Consider ways of reminding people they’re not having a private conversation.
  • Screen time. For longer activities build in breaks.
  • Personal Profiles. If your activities are on social media platforms be aware of how much personal information you are sharing. Consider setting up a new “work” profile rather than using your private accounts and remember to check what the privacy settings are.

Some useful websites to consult:

 

Evaluation

Online evaluation has different challenges to evaluation in person. Quantitative data is easier to get using analytic tools available for most platforms and websites. Make sure you know in advance what tools you want to use and are signed up to use them.

Qualitative evaluation is harder. Survey requests are easier to ignore online and pop-ups are annoying. Observing how people are responding is much harder behind a screen. There are things you can do online though that you can’t do in person. For example where people are leaving comments you can look at the words they’re using.

Check out Evaluation Support Scotland for lots of tips and resources.

 

Good luck and have fun taking public engagement online!

“You don’t make a film by filming a play from the best seat in the house”

Thanks to Sophia Collins for her hints, tips and insights in taking public engagement online that inspired this post. Sophia has been engaging audiences online for years. She founded I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here! and ran the Welcome Trust funded Parenting Science Gang and Nappy Science Gang predominantly through Facebook.

 

Further Resources for online engagement

NCCPE Online Guide

YouTube series on science communication

 

(This blog was written by our Public Engagement Manager, Fiona Murray. Later in the summer we’ll be running a Pop-Up session to help you start your thinking about public engagement. Our programme of engagement opportunities has adapted to social distancing, including  The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas .)

 

This training was developed to support our research staff including our Train@Ed cohort of fellows. Train@Ed has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska‐Curie grant agreement No. 801215

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