Limitations of Online Engagement

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If you have been following the evolution in stakeholder engagement in recent years, you’ve probably noticed that there has been a clear shift in mentality. What was once viewed as an obligation to comply with legislation or market pressure is now being embraced as opportunity to create value for the organization, its projects and/or brand – starting with more meaningful and productive relationships with key stakeholders.

This shift has also been accompanied by a rise in online engagement, particularly through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

It’s certainly easy to appreciate the potential benefits of online engagement: It’s cost-effective, it’s relatively easy to connect with stakeholders just about anywhere (provided they have a device with internet connection), and if desired, you can connect with multiple stakeholder groups in different locations simultaneously.

With these benefits, however, also come certain drawbacks. This article looks at some of the dangers of relying solely on online engagement to secure social license to operate.

Securing social license to operate

Among the many hoops that need to be jumped through to secure social license to operate, companies must be able to demonstrate two things:

  • That it has made numerous attempts to reach project affected people (PAP).
  • That it has used a variety of techniques to reach these stakeholders.

Side note: Having a powerful stakeholder engagement reporting tool will make demonstrating such efforts much easier.

Understandably, a growing number of organizations are turning to online stakeholder engagement to support their efforts in meeting these two requirements. When implemented as part of a global stakeholder strategy, online tools can help you engage with certain stakeholders who may otherwise be difficult to reach.

But be warned: Engaging with stakeholders online can also create unwanted problems.

Potential drawbacks of online stakeholder engagement

Anyone who has ever spent even a brief time on social media can attest to the potential pitfalls of trying to engage with others on sticky or complex issues. More often than not, such conversations quickly escalate into what can only be described as a verbal fistfight.


Without the help of visual and verbal cues like tone and body language, the intended meaning of comments can be easily misinterpreted. That’s when conversations quickly veer into unwanted territory. It’s the rare soul who leaves such conversations feeling satisfied – a situation no company ever wants to become entangled in.

The mass outreach made possible with online engagement can also greatly increase grievances. Online platforms have made it easier than ever for people to ask questions or voice concerns – and that’s a good thing. But it also means that companies need to be ready to respond quickly and meaningfully to comments, whether they are relevant or not. Whether they come in by the figurative handful or truckload, too.

The instantaneous nature of the web can make any time lag between commenting and receiving a response feel like an eternity to stakeholders eager to engage meaningfully with you. Not only will you perhaps need to allocate more resources to online stakeholder efforts, but having to weed through what could quickly amass to a pile of irrelevant comments can draw precious resources away from your project affected persons. This will dilute the impacts of your stakeholder engagement plan and risk steering its focus away from your strategic objectives.

Achieving meaningful engagement

Real engagement is an empowering exchange that entails commitment on both sides. Experience shows that achieving this typically requires face-to-face negotiations, which can be extremely difficult – if not impossible to – achieve online. To engage meaningfully with PAPs and, ultimately, achieve their requisite support, you need to knock on their doors and sit down with them, one-on-one. Face-to-face conversations are the best way to get honest feedback from key stakeholders, which is what any good engagement plan should be solidly built on.

Once you have obtained the support of project affected people, you will be in a better position to handle the mass opposition that your project could potentially face online.

When viewed through the strategic lens of creating value while also securing social license to operate, online engagement can and should play a positive role in your stakeholder engagement strategy. However, engaging solely online will rarely produce the desired results with those stakeholders who have the biggest influence on your project’s successful delivery.

Want to learn more about achieving meaningful stakeholder engagement? Read our article on the 12 steps in building a solid engagement plan. Or contact our team today for a free demo of our stakeholder management software.

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