Corporate outreach sounds like a great idea that every business should embrace, right? What could be better for your business than creating more authentic, sustained relationships with the customers and communities that keep you in business? Nothing! And that’s precisely why corporate community outreach efforts almost invariably fail.
Corporate community outreach: Those words don’t mean what you think they mean.
In my experience, I’ve seen over and over again efforts of community outreach by businesses expecting to better connect with communities. And every time, I’ve seen them fall short of creating real engagement.
So if community engagement is so important to sustained success and growth for every business, why do so many businesses fail at community outreach?
Community outreach efforts fail because the concept of community outreach is inherently flawed.
In fact, you shouldn’t even be doing outreach to begin with.
At the core of our work at Stratiscope, we help our clients and audiences avoid the trap of thinking that “outreach” equals engagement or activation.
The trap is that corporate community outreach is actually a facade that makes you feel like you’re connecting and reaching your audience—your community—when in fact you’re merely advertising. Outreach is the insubstantial appearance of community building and engagement.
On our Community Activation Ladder, the lowest level of community work you can do is outreach. Outreach is one-way communication—pushing out or posting unrequested (and often unwanted) messages without really knowing who you’re talking to.
Think about it: How closely connected do YOU feel to businesses or organizations that send you their pitches in the mail? Do you respond to everyone, or do they go straight to the recycle bin?
That’s why you shouldn’t even be doing outreach to begin with.
Avoid these outreach tactics—they’re not true community engagement.
Here are ways we’ve seen engagement, under the guise of outreach, fail. See if you notice a theme:
- mailing letters or flyers
- buying Google ads
- putting up billboards
- buying ads on the local radio station
- sending out eblasts to purchased or borrowed lists.
These tactics aren’t bad for raising awareness, but they don’t support the outcome of community engagement.
Engagement is about the formation of relationships—that’s what’s required. Outreach is simply raising awareness. And what does that get you? Awareness.
Engagement gets you a relationship. Activation gets you action. Strive for activation.
So instead of futile community outreach tactics, what do you do?
Instead of mailing letters or flyers to neighbors/residents,
- You can knock on doors to have conversations.
- Or even better, you can host a block party or set up a neighborhood group for long-term engagement and community activation.
Instead of buying social media or Google ads,
- You can host a facilitated, online discussion that elicits input from stakeholders. (We created this webinar on wildfire preparedness in August for Gaspar Insurance of Los Angeles to allow direct access to the experts.)
- Or even better, you can create an interactive website that allows stakeholders to make real-time decisions that can modify the output of the project (size, scope, etc.).
Instead of putting up a billboard,
- You can put up butcher paper on the side of a building and ask folks to fill in the blanks on key phrases for the community to engage with.
- Or even better, you can create a community-developed mural to address a blighted wall and bring long-term inspiration.
Instead of buying ads on local radio,
- You can earn meaningful recognition by sponsoring a local school or nonprofit event.
- Or even better, you can co-host a segment with the local radio station and local schools and nonprofits to talk about community needs, leading to the creation of a point-in-time community snapshot of needs and opportunities which leads to an action plan.
Instead of sending out eblasts to purchased or other people’s lists,
- You can work with a respected, credible partner to have them send an email on your behalf.
- Or even better, you can work with partners to create interest in your efforts so that people want and are eager to be on your list. That requires creating and sharing content with the community’s needs in mind. Your community.
There’s a common theme here: True engagement begins with authentic interaction with the community and its stakeholders. That interaction is critical for paving the way to effective, sustained community activation.
Better engagement, better business outcomes.
These better engagement tactics, which are just a few of the many we’ve implemented for clients across the country, have beneficial spillover effects: Other people will speak positively about your business, your work, and your project. Creating opportunities for people to connect with each other and you empowers them to share the experiences with your company that they’ve had.
And here’s a bonus: the right community project is an opportunity for earned media coverage, which you would have paid for if you just did outreach. PLUS, the community is better for the work you did, not just the advertising you paid for.
Next step: Advance from engagement to activation.
People move the world. The more people you have engaged with your business at a sustained level—and the more that you demonstrate your sincere commitment to the betterment of their community—the more effective you’ll be as you pursue your business’ goals (selling more, adding or expanding locations, applying for permits, etc.).
You can do more, go farther and faster, all with fewer headaches, when you and members of your community are all on the same side. That’s community activation.
I’ll leave you with this: Community engagement and activation aren’t so much about gathering support around issues you’re facing right now—don’t expect to authentically engage people at the last minute. You’re building a supportive community that will be ready and on your side for the community issues and conflicts of the future.
Outreach doesn’t connect you to the people you want to buy from you, support you, refer you, or otherwise advance your goals. Outreach is out.