What’s the future for digital consultation?

We’ve all heard the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”. When lockdown came last year, all face-to-face contact had to stop. Suddenly.

But the urgent needs of the built environment are such that tackling the sector’s key challenges has given rise to a range of innovations.

For those of us in the communications industry, we have had to find new solutions to age old problems – how to engage the right people in the right ways on the issues that matter to them. All without the benefit of in-person interaction.

We have been at the forefront of digital innovation in the sector, and over the past 12-months, we have been innovating digital solutions. Our offer has evolved rapidly as we have developed new products to meet project requirements.

From immersive virtual exhibitions and traditional town hall experiences through to webinar and virtual meeting platforms, we delivered more than 120 digital consultations for our public and private sector clients.

In recognition of our work, our digital consultation for Bradwell B new nuclear power station was cited as an example of best practice by the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA).

But like all innovations, there comes a time when something that was once new and novel ceases to become so; it becomes “the new normal”.

One year on from the first lockdown, we’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learnt about digital consultation. By analysing the trends in data from our digital consultations, we have been able to ask questions to help us better understand future patterns and trends in digital consultation:

  • Engagement: Do virtual town hall consultations provide the best digital experience for users? Replicating the traditional approach is often popular, but our data suggests that for certain projects, users less time on consultation portals of this kind and are less likely to provide feedback.
  • Feedback: We’ve experimented and tested different ways for users to provide feedback, and have seen increased uptake when we add pop-up questions up front. Moving forward, how can we use interactivity to make it simpler and more engaging for users to have their say?
  • Accessibility: We are still seeing the majority of users accessing the websites from desktops. But as we develop more ways of encouraging younger people to engage, particularly using Spotify, will mobiles become more popular? How will we change functionality to deliver a ‘mobile-first’ experience?

So is the future of consultation digital?

A recent survey of marketing professionals from across the sector revealed that 67% said that their ‘digital spend’ has increased in the last 12 months; and there is evidence to suggest this trend is reflected across most demographics.

Moreover, digital consultation has shown itself to be a uniquely powerful tool in engaging and empowering communities on projects in the built environment. For built environment professionals, digital tools have enabled faster and smarter targeted community engagement. At times during the pandemic, their ability to break down many of the traditional barriers to inclusion in the built environment, particularly among young people and hard to reach groups, has defied conventional wisdom.

The unique benefits of digital tools also include their ability to provide intuitive and accessible solutions that reflect how modern audience typically access information. What’s more, they enable developers to harness the ‘power of data’ and provide data-driven insights to drive better decision-making.

However, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Consultation activity should be as diverse as the communities in which you are operating. Rather than being viewed as a substitute for more traditional engagement methods, digital methods deliver the best results when used to complement and augment traditional methods. Understanding how to seamlessly blend traditional and digital methods is, without doubt, the future.

From immersive virtual exhibitions and traditional town hall experiences through to webinar and virtual meeting platforms, our digital solution, Built to Engage can provide you with a seamless way to digitally engage around your project.

Find out more here