We learned something rather counterintuitive this year about response rates when communicating with a virtual network. Our unit coordinates an expert network of communicators and educators with over 600 people particpating around the world. This network from time to time is asked to contribute their thoughts in planning and decision-making, so their response is important. You would think that interacting with a network of communicators would be a breeze. As it turns out, it is, if you ask the right questions in the right way – therein lies the learning.

Every four years this network gets a new Strategic Plan, a process lead by a Steering Committee of 15 people and validated by the network. Our first message to the group in this process seemed simple enough – the Steering Commitee had identified 3 options for a tag line for the Commission – pick your favorite one. That message went out to 600 people and one week later we had, wait for it, 8 replies. That is a response rate of 1.3% – not statistically relevant. So we did not have our tag line.

Our next challenge was to get inputs to the Strategic Plan itself – a 25-page text document. How could we possibly get a better response rate on a dense document, when only 8 people answered a one-liner? Well, what we decided to do was to NOT send the whole document as an attachment to the group of 600 asking “Dear Commission Members, please find attached a 25-page document for your comments”. If you really did not want comments, that would be a strategic way to do it.

Instead, we wrote a short email that informed people about the draft document and asked for volunteers to read it and give comments. Now this was a very different question, and demanded a different response. People needed to write us back first explicitly that they wanted to read the document, and would send comments. This extra step, effectively a commitment statement, proved to be important in terms of getting people’s involvement. What they got back then was a personalised email from me with the document, instructions, and a sincere thank you in advance. This time our initial response rate was over 100 people (asking to read the document) and of those over 80 sent in their comments, which were extensive, thoughtful, and significantly strengthened that important document. The final response rate was 13% – it might sound low, but when it’s you that’s incorporating 2000 pages of detailed comments to a document, it is quite sufficient.

What’s more – on page 13 of the document, in the middle of the page, we listed the three tag lines and noted that the Steering Committee requested Commission members to vote for A, B, or C. This time amazingly everyone wrote their vote into the document, and we have our tag line (and most importantly some new learning about) – Creating the Climate for Change.

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