The launch of a participation platform can have a decisive influence on the rest of the project, but it’s often overlooked for lack of time or resources.

In order to reach as many citizens as possible and reflect a wide array of voices within your community, digital platforms need to be actively promoted to citizens. A successful launch doesn’t require a huge budget or a large team, and you can go a long way with social media and emails. Here’s a practical overview of how to promote a platform regardless of your city size and budget, written using our experience working with over a hundred cities and governments.

Guiding principles: clarity, continuity, diversity

Communication for a citizen participation project relies on 3 key principles: clarity, continuity, and diversity.  

Even if there’s a lot of information to share, try to focus on the essentials: Why should citizens participate, and how should they participate? Having a simple call to action and a clear value proposition will help the message stand out. This is especially important in short messages you’ll share on social media and in print.

Once you’ve defined a clear message, spread it using different channels. This will help you increase awareness of the platform, and reach different audiences. Keep in mind that having a unified message doesn’t mean you shouldn’t communicate differently across channels – you should adapt tone of voice and length to fit the different channels.

Finally, continuity is making sure that you’re communicating with citizens on a regular basis. Once the launch has passed, it’s important to keep updating citizens informed about what’s going on with the platforms and where the ideas are headed.

Key channels

After launching over a hundred platforms with cities and local governments, we have found that what works best is a combination of the 3 following channels: emailing, direct traffic, and social media.

1. Direct web traffic

Direct web traffic is usually the main driver of visits to a website. You therefore want to make sure that the platform is well referenced and easily findable by citizens who look for it in search engines. Keep in mind that when websites use relevant keywords, their search ranking increase. It’s therefore helpful to use words like “citizen participation” or “participatory budgeting” (if relevant) in prominent places on your website. Finally, the more web-pages link to a website, the better its ranking gets. Make sure to add links to the platform on your own website and on partners’ websites.

2. Email campaigns

Email is the channel that generates the most engagement. Since citizens trust and recognise the city, opening rates are high and the emails can drive a lot of traffic to the platforms. Citizens coming to the platform via email are also more likely to create an account and spend time interacting with the platform.

Think about the email lists you already have: do you send out a newsletter, in which you could introduce the platform? Have you already assembled a list of citizens interested in participation through other projects, to whom you could send out an invitation to your new project? Before sending emails, just make sure the citizens on these lists have previously consented to be contacted.

Emails campaigns shouldn’t be just a one-off: they can be used to promote the launch, but also to keep citizens updated and to promote the results. Cities communicating about the results a few weeks after the launch usually see a new surge in account creations. The city of Kortrijk for instance managed to give participation a second boost by communicating about the first wave of results a few weeks after the initial launch campaign.

Good to know: You can import contacts to your CitizenLab platform and send out invitations directly from your admin dashboard. You can also easily contact all the participants to your platform to let them know about updates or results. Get in touch with your project manager to learn more!

3. Social media

If your city is on social media, we definitely recommend you use your channels to promote the platform. By choosing channels and tailoring your message strategically, you can make a big impact with little to no budget!

The first step is to think about the channels you should focus on. LinkedIn is for professional communities, Instagram has younger users focuses on image, Twitter is for instant news, Facebook has an older demographic and is a good place to share information and events. Many communities already interact with each other via Facebook groups: think of neighborhoods associations, community groups, or simply residents of the city… Posting informative messages about the platform in these targeted groups might help turn these users into ambassadors.

The second step is to think about the messaging. Posts that demonstrate clear value are better at driving traffic.  We recommend highlighting specific projects, showing things to vote for or to decide on, and sharing citizen ideas.

Finally, think about sponsored ads! Targeting can help you reach specific age or interest groups in defined geographical areas. We’ve seen it helps boost the platform’s awareness and drives traffic to the site.

What about the rest?

These channels are a good place to start if time and resources are limited. However, there are plenty of other options! Don’t disregard traditional press: local news  will often be keen to cover the launch of a platform, and can be a great channel to gain visibility. They can also perhaps also offer free advertising space for the platform. Blogs and influencers are also a great way to increase visibility. If you’re launching consultation about a school or a park, it could for instance interest a website that writes about family activities or education in the region.

Finally, think about offline! Promoting the platform at offline events helps reach communities which are not always connected. In order to bring your offline citizens to the platform you can share the URL at neighborhood meetings or city councils and add it to print materials you usually distribute through the city. Think printed newsletters, flyers in public places such as at the reception, in the library, stickers at the local bar…  We’ve seen very interesting case studies of cities combining online and offline communications to involve older citizens and get truly representative participation – see our article on platform launches in Mol and Temse.

Final checklist

  • Is your website easily findable? Think about picking a memorable URL and using relevant keywords in titles. Having links to this website from other websites also helps increase the ranking in search engines.
  • Is your message clearly defined? Can citizens understand the value in participating? What’s your call to action?
  • Who are the partners that could support you? From adding a link to the platform on their website to writing a press article or including the platform in their newsletters, local partners can help you reach audiences you’re not usually in touch with.
  • Have you planned follow-ups?

For the full guide on how to launch your participation platform, download our free communications toolkit here or head to our resources page.

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