As we move beyond COVID lockdowns and the uncertainty of Brexit, one thing is clear: our communities have held us together. When challenged by obstacles, we turn to those we trust to support us and rebuild.

by Kathy Kyle

We at DigiKind were initially brought on at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM) at the beginning of the COVID lockdown in 2020 to build local confidence in shopping locally, reopening the highstreet safely, and are now helping to build resilience in the local business community with a comprehensive place making, training, and digital support programme. 

We are realising our initial vision of creating a digital ecosystem for the business community. But here’s the secret: Technology is not the answer. 

Building a community is the answer.

Ok, technology is part of the answer. Tech should support and enable transformation and rejuvenation. But you can’t rely on tech to solve all of your problems. Tech can provide data and insights but you must plan, design, build, implement, promote, share and then do something with the insights that are generated. 

I’ve said before (in my recent MJ article) that cities and towns should invest in technology to help reach more people and create a more transparent consultation process, but that is only part of the solution. We must also build trust and partnership between communities and local governments to achieve common-ground solutions. And when we ask our residents to talk to us, we must listen and then act. 

Projects are more likely to succeed with community support. It is kind of a no-brainer. 

I am really excited to see other innovative organisations and public bodies like Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), councils and agencies use tech for good tools like Hello Lamp Post for their resident engagement projects. Hello Lamp Post is a playful, human-centric conversation starter that connects people to their town or city. By encouraging residents to chat with everyday objects in their local environment, Hello Lamp Post is making local information more accessible, whilst gathering valuable, real-time community insights, feedback and sentiment that can be shared with local decision makers.

Our client at RBWM (the Economic Growth Service Team) is using the platform, as well as other engagement tools, to gather insights from residents and visitors to: inform decision makers with critical feedback on what people want to see on their high street; understand how they are feeling; and to share information that is informing the local recovery plan. In addition to using Hello Lamp Post, RBWM is using innovative tools to engage our audience and seek out resident feedback for our communications campaigns and training programme. In our effort to create a word of mouth economy and build brand ambassadors from the local community, we are also using multi-channel campaigns to build brand awareness and a business-led community called My Royal Borough

Our digital and placemaking work supported positive outcomes in the real world. We saw more shops open in Windsor (25) and Maidenhead (5) in 2020 as well as some gains in footfall compared to previous years. According to last month’s footfall report, the total number of visitors in Windsor for the year to date was 3.4M, which is 35% up on the previous year. (It should be noted that footfall in Windsor is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. Maidenhead is recovering; footfall levels are at around 30%, which is down compared to pre-COVID. This could be attributed to people working from home.) 

From a comms perspective, we are happy with our results: we generated well over 4,000 pieces of user generated content on Twitter and Instagram and had a 91-95% positive sentiment score on our branded hashtag #MyRoyalBorough. We had healthy open rates on our email campaigns and we consistently achieved — and almost always — surpassed our week on week social media targets (you can view all of this here). My Royal Borough, along with our brilliant partner channels Visit Windsor and Make Maidenhead, worked (and continue to work) collaboratively together and all have performed exceedingly well, reflecting the collaboration across teams to share one unified message. 

Our team was recently shortlisted for a 2021 Drum Award for PR for our work and have generated national coverage with our “Don’t Let Your Guard Down” campaign. The wider RBWM communications team received two PRide/CIPR East Anglia awards for their fantastic work on HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s Funeral and for staff wellbeing. 

 We are now running our business-focussed digital training programme for the Council, which features Breakfast Briefings weekly and Lunch and Learn masterclasses fortnightly. And we are counting down to Small Business Saturday with our Indie A to Z Shop Local Gift Guide and campaign, designed to help locals shop locally, anytime. We are collaborating across teams to implement placemaking activities like an “Illuminated Instameet” with community and business partners. We are helping to embed business community engagement with our teams and it is exciting to bring together our word of mouth economy. 

Indeed, we work and collaborate with a brilliant team and I am proud to say that we are beginning to realise our vision of creating that “digital ecosystem” we set out to create back in July 2020. 

What’s next?

“It’s adapt or die,” said Emma Howard Boyd, the head of England’s Environment Agency. According to the Washington Post, this was said earlier this week in a statement about England facing devastating flooding relating to climate change if we don’t act. It is empowering and thrilling to see other local and central government agencies embrace digitalisation to not only engage their communities but to take positive action to engage their local communities on important topics like this. Forward-thinking organisations like the Environment Agency (EA) are using Hello Lamp Post and digital platforms to engage residents, build communities and educate the public.                                                                                                                                                                                                   

EA has launched a 12-month pilot, in five different locations, with the tech for good company – one of which is focused on gathering feedback on their Exmouth Tidal Defence Scheme. They are enabling residents and visitors to have conversations with flood defence objects, to learn more about the impacts of tidal flooding on their community and ways to minimise flood risk. Talk about making a difference in the local community in East Devon and the southwest. By the way, both EA and Hello Lamp Post are up for two Digital Leaders 100 awards right now for this work, one for AI Innovation and one for Digital Public Service Innovation. Brilliant! (At the time of publication, EA and Hello Lamp Post had been shortlisted for AI Innovation – congratulations!)

Technology is truly an enabler for transforming the world around us, but without the amazing comms teams and local community feeding the tech with insights, where would we be?

Community engagement tools bring us together in meaningful ways and I hope that councils and BIDs will continue to see the value in them. Investing in digital and print media, place making, ads and search engine optimisation, social media campaigns, media pitches, live broadcasts and email are all necessary but simply not enough anymore. We need powerful approaches and tools to help shift public opinion, gather insights, and move people. 

Think about any and every comms campaign you’ve ever worked on. You develop your goals, plan, strategy, tactics, measures of success and ensure your brand is authentic and resonates with the community you are seeking to move to act. Sound about right? 

That’s because a strong, engaged community is always a key determining factor for every successful movement.

Kathy Kyle Bonomini is a multi-award-winning Director and Co-Founder of DigiKind. She is currently working with the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead on their economic development programme and reopening the high street safely. See DigiKind’s work at Connect with Kathy.

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