Ian Thatcher, co-founder of Dangerfield & Fortune, explains the opportunity cost of failing to engage with communities as a business.
Developing new, commercially focussed ways for communities to work in partnership with construction, telco and utility businesses could revolutionise community liaison and public consultation, providing the catalyst to bringing about lasting change to the systems that control our communities.
Research shows an emerging disconnect between people’s increased sense of community and enthusiasm towards engaging with their environments, but feel they have no, or little ability to affect the places in which they live. With challenges such as increased OPEX, skills shortages and a focus on diversity and inclusion facing all industries, businesses could gain a competitive edge by looking upon communities as ‘always on’ commercial territories.
Enthusiasm is up, but effectiveness is down
Research from The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK, showed that the pandemic helped to reignite people’s interest in their local community and sparked a desire to be more involved in 2021.
Across the UK, almost seven in ten people (69%) feel like they are part of their local community, with around a third acknowledging that COVID has increased their sense of belonging (35%) and made it more important for them to feel part of it (33%). Whilst people gained the appetite and motivation to take a deeper interest in their environment, their willingness to partake in activism to develop their communities declined. Only 19% of respondents to the Government’s Civic Engagement and Social Action survey said they had engaged in civic consultation, and only 7% engaged in civic activism in 2020.
A reason for such contrasting metrics could be a lack of channels and a poor engagement process. The controversy surrounding the introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods during COVID lockdowns serves as an example of just how poor local authority consultation processes can be. Residents were driven to protest over fait accompli decision making.
By contrast, BT’s recent community fibre scheme can be hailed as a positive example of empowering communities to take collective action. The scheme provided an opportunity for communities to have fibre broadband installed by arranging themselves into groups and applying for a government grant. At the point that a specified target number of people joined the group, it became commercially viable for BT and fibre would be installed. The scoping and fund-raising leg work was done by the community and the investment was de-risked for BT.
If we look to the wider business world, communities have been aggressively monetised for centuries. Since the advent of social media, the sense of community has evolved into something in which businesses typically invest 72.2% of their annual marketing spend (Gartner’s State of Marketing budgets survey) on studying, managing and promoting for commercial gain.
Building community engagement into business models has ultimately led to the success of multi-$billion fitness brands such as Gymshark and Peloton whose products are merely a token to become part of a community.
Could ‘always-on’ community engagement provide a competitive edge?
From recent interviews Dangerfield and Fortune conducted with senior leaders within government and local authority on behalf of our engineering and construction clients, top priorities were consistently listed as better community involvement and providing social value to the communities in which projects are delivered. All cited that they wanted a hassle-free engagement and looked favourably upon contractors who had prior knowledge of the communities in which they were working.
It strikes me that if businesses could align with the values of communities and instil an appropriate hierarchy with assigned champions and targeted commercial milestones, it would be possible for a contractor to connect with and have ‘always-on’ business development roots in the community. Why would a community not engage with a contractor in a shared vision to highlight a potential scheme and evolve an environment, and perhaps even play a part in organising funding as in the example with BT?
Housing Secretary Michael Gove is seemingly considering action along these lines, having recently backed a new proposal called ‘Street Votes’ to allow residents to join forces with neighbours and hold referendums on developing their streets. The scheme proposes to give local people the power to set their own local development rules in suburban areas.
Here are three steps Dangerfield & Fortune recommends to its clients for better community engagement:
1. Consider your brand positioning – We recently worked with specialist design engineering consultants Tony Gee and Partners on developing a more accessible and inspiring language for its brand. Thought strictly to be a specialist B2B business, we were able to connect the services that Tony Gee provides with answering climate challenges and societal needs. In doing so we broadened the appeal and broke down barriers between B2B, B2B2C and B2C audiences. Adopting a distinctive and accessible approach is especially important within the physical community, where a business’s brand could be nestled amongst a diverse range of established players in the community from Starbucks and Greggs to The Post Office and a Water company as examples.
2. Consider your channels of engagement and an accessible product or service you could offer the community. Offer community groups a standardised way of interacting with your business and inspire the community. I recall the example of BT incentivising the community with faster broadband and then empowering it through simple processes and commercial milestones to achieve the commissioning and installation. Provide the community with the art of the possible and the mechanisms, schemes or channels for them to bring the custom to you.
3. Use the resources within the community. Our construction client Alun Griffiths has very strong regional roots and is renowned within communities across Wales and the South West. Their clients cite Alun Griffiths workers’ friendly, helpful, and accommodating interactions with the community as a key strategic advantage. For those businesses, especially in construction that face challenges with gender disparity, you may also be interested to know that from the Civic Engagement and Social Action – Community Life Survey 2020/21, women are found to be more likely to engage in civic (community) participation than men (44% vs 39% respectively).
One final anecdote on the power of community
Back in 2013, I was involved in a business that developed a series of educational gaming apps for the emerging children’s app market. One of our challenges was accessing a very protected network of mums who had the power to make or break app sales. If successfully penetrated, the network would keenly promote products via word-of-mouth. Our solution to access this network was to licence children’s entertainer Justin Fletcher (Mr Tumble) as the face and brand, who had a weekly audience reach of around 11 million viewers and a fiercely loyal following of mums. We were able to take control and grow Justin’s online community of fans to the point where selling the apps switched from a relentless (and expensive) media push to managing audience demand. On one occasion a troll slipped past the spam filters and verbally abused the community. The community mobilised and worked against the threat, resulting in the need to moderate the mums and community members more so than the original instigator! Never underestimate the efficiency and power of loyalty and engagement.
About the author: Ian Thatcher is the co-founder of Dangerfield & Fortune, a consultancy that delivers programmes for optimisation, efficiency, and growth.