Posted by Jim Craner on December 11, 2018

As someone who has worked on community technology projects for nearly twenty years, it was always conventional wisdom that we had to reach people offline to bring them online.  In other words, we couldn't solely do outreach via the Internet when we were targeting people that were, often by definition, completely offline.  As librarians in an increasingly digital world approaching 2020, it can be frustrating to see low uptake of digital services or low participation rates in online programs, like summer reading. When studies show that Americans of all ages and economic groups go online in increasing numbers, why is the online use rate of our digital services not skyrocketing?

No organization knows more about reaching out to every member of a community to get input and buy-in on digital government services than Code for America ("CfA").  The organization has spent nearly a decade working to bring modern digital services to local, state, and federal government agencies across the United States.  (Disclosure: I spent 2012 on sabbatical from The Galecia Group as a Code for America Fellow researching and writing about open data in government.)

CfA recently released their Digital Outreach Playbook, a guide intended to show that many of the populations that we're trying to reach -- populations that are still thought of as offline -- can be targeted through effective online outreach.  From the Playbook's introduction, emphasis mine:

"...we’ve observed that most people who work on programs that serve vulnerable populations approach outreach and marketing efforts to them with the assumption that they can’t be reached effectively online. But that’s no longer true. And those who do recognize that online outreach may be effective also believe that analog tactics — flyers, billboards, events — are more effective than digital outreach for their marketing budget. In this playbook we hope to bust that myth, with concrete examples from our ongoing projects and programs. We will also emphasize that an understanding of the kinds of technology that vulnerable people use is a critical success factor in effective outreach and conversion to digital service obtainment."

One of the more striking examples in the playbook is the switchover to text- or email-based systems of client management for case workers in the social work or criminal justice arenas. Older management processes based on calling landlines and sending letters and forms via postal mail are difficult to use for people that are often transient, that frequently change addresses and only use mobile phones. By transitioning to text-based reminders, clients were less likely to miss appointments and court dates.

There are also some good thought provoking passages for libraries considering new technology applications, services, or programming in their local communities, especially on outreach.  Your library's needs aren't the same as the case studies presented but you'll find the overall topics and coverage quite informative.

Read Code for America's Digital Outreach Playbook here: