Effective online consultation – part 2: content

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Online consultation is only effective when its content is effective. This blog provides some suggestions for creating great content.

Create compelling and useful content

  • Create an enticing home page. Consider the use of video as an icebreaker.
  • Bear mind that people have shorter attention spans online. Write content specifically for the website: do not be tempted to simply install the content of a document or leaflet online (although there is no harm in including these documents in a document library).
  • Ensure that text is crisp and clear at all times.
  • Break substantial information into manageable chunks.
  • Ensure that information presented in a variety of different ways.
  • Provide enough information to enable people to make an informed response.
  • Create content that is suitably compelling for people to engage with and share.
  • Use images, illustrations, maps, videos and slideshows to bring the content to life.
  • Link surveys and forums to background information to ensure that those responding are adequately informed.
  • Provide ample visual material. Mapping can enable residents to zoom in on an areas in detail and add text, video and comment.
  • Consider the use of slider bars. This is a visual and effective means of determining relative levels. It works well in budget setting but could also be an engaging and useful tool for community input in landscape design or other decisions.


Blog: a powerful way to provide regular updates and invite responses

  • Post regularly and on behalf of various members of the development team but determine how comment on blogs will be fed into the analysis prior to permitting comment.
  • Consider allowing members of the community such as representatives of a stakeholder engagement group to blog.
  • Ensure that those who blog on behalf of the development team understand the key messages and the scope of the consultation.


Use information to demonstrate transparency

  • Document libraries can be used to hold complex planning documents such as relevant local planning policies, or at the end of the process, the documents which make up the planning application.
  • Use hyperlinks to enable consultees to access extensive information if they choose to do so (ensuring that the hyperlink opens a new window rather than taking the residents’ attention away from the consultation website).

Engage via online forums

  • Use online forums to invite comment and discussion on a range of issues.
  • Determine initially to what extent the development team will interact and if so, whether to do so in a corporate character or individual’s name.
  • If taking part in online forums aim to facilitate, but avoid arguing at all costs.

Use issues ranking to gain statistical results

  • Put in place a mechanism whereby residents can select a preferred option from a list of choices, and second and subsequent lists are selected by routing software in relation to the initial choice.

Ensure consistency throughout the consultation

  • Ensure that the online content is in keeping with offline content – this is particularly appropriate if the two parts of the project are being run by different teams.
  • Ensure that messages are consistent throughout the website and the wider consultation.

Focus on results

  • Avoid the temptation to ask open questions which may deliver results which are difficult to monitor and analyse.
  • Ensure that the consultation website provides a means of quickly extracting information from the website for reporting and evaluation.

Finally, remember that the internet is much more than the means of publishing a document online. The web provides the opportunity for genuine two-way dialogue, the stuff that good consultations are made of.  Make the most of that opportunity!


Penny Norton

Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge in June 2017.  Please email Penny to receive notification of its publication.

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