While some Citizen Observatories are focused on a local or regional issue, others aim to address a global issue and need to build a movement and active participation at that scale. When this is the case, the engagement strategy should focus on building communities, rather than being a distribution strategy focused on channels and platforms.
Citizen Observatories are powered by participants. It therefore follows that engagement should focus on building communities that support active participation instead of platform‐based communities that support passive information spreading. There should be a fundamental link between communication, engagement strategies and participant pathways, and a plan for how these will change as the Citizen Observatory matures.
The plan should respond to the following broad stages:
- At the beginning of the project focus on using communication through partner channels with social media to raise awareness and encourage participants.
- Then, as active participation begins, focus communication between participants to build sustainable, active communities.
- Finally, as the Citizen Observatory produces real results, move to broadcasting only to the participant communities to wider audiences, using the Citizen Observatory’s channels and PR activities in mainstream media.
The use of social platforms and traditional media channels are most effective when they tightly focus on achieving the goals of building an active community at the heart of the Citizen Observatory, not building large groups of followers just for the sake of it. Over the last few years in particular, organic reach on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook has made it much harder to meaningfully engage participants.
The GROW Observatory Narrative Design and Storytelling
GROW built its engagement plan around ‘circulation’, encouraging participation, engagement and knowledge sharing between communities, rather than a traditional ‘distribution’ model.
Narrative Design is at the heart of the GROW engagement strategy and is linked to research on the drivers for participation commissioned by the BBC in 2006. This report showed that while existing micro‐communities were the most important triggers for participation, storytelling plays a crucial role in upscaling, activating large audiences by serving as Catalysts, Instructions and Celebrations.
GROW developed the Narrative Design process to create, curate and amplify stories, developing effective stories for each audience type: grower, policy/advocacy and science and specialist users. This is a user‐centred process, building on well-known personas and scenarios, looking at existing behaviour within GROW communities and using this information to make decisions about story formats.
The broad structure for the Narrative Design process is detailed below:
- How are stories shared in this community?
- What are people discussing in this community?
- What stories are already being shared by the community on this subject?
- How can we add value to the community?
- How will we listen to the responses?
Finally, using an open research model, methods, tools and emergent results were iteratively evaluated and circulated as the Citizen Observatory matured over time. GROW developed different ways to circulate these materials to the full range of active participants. These included a programme of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), webinars, focus groups and community gatherings specifically to support peer-to-peer knowledge exchange across 24 communities. Insight workshops were a particularly successful approach to bringing all stakeholders together to share knowledge and results and to enable a more agile and responsive observatory at a large scale.