Online consultation

Online consultation can provide an opportunity for a large number of people to comment on an issue.

It can be useful where it would be difficult or inappropriate to bring your intended participants together physically, and allows participants to contribute in their own time.

Purpose

Online consultations can serve a number of purposes including:

  • to remove barriers to engagement such as time, cost, mobility or geography
  • to provide people the opportunity to engage on an important societal issue
  • to elicit feedback on a recent study, activity or discovery
  • to generate feedback from stakeholders or beneficiaries that can feed into the direction or priorities of research 
  • to engage the local community, students and interested stakeholders in a university policy or strategy

Process

Before you start, take some time to think about your purpose and audience. What do you want to achieve with this consultation and who you would like to be involved. 

Top tips

  • Consider the complexity involved in set up. What technology will be required? Do you have the time and skills to design and deliver it yourself? Could you get a colleague or external expert involved to support you?
  • Consider the complexity for users. Any perceived complexity in technological requirements, browser speeds, or set-up or registration requirements can act as a barrier to participation.
  • Think about the time involved. Will your intended participants have the time and inclination to complete your online questionnaire? You will need to think carefully about how long it will take and what the motivations of the participants are? It is often better to reduce the number of questions to ensure you get more people taking part.
  • Promote and use incentives to recruit. Think about ways to advertise widely, for example using social media, and provide adequate time to respond. It can be helpful to provide an incentive in order to recruit participants. You could pay a set amount per participant or set up a prize draw of a higher value.
  • Provide alternative ways to get involved. Not everyone has easy access to the internet. Make sure you provide alternative ways to get involved, such as written questionnaires or telephone surveys. This will ensure you're not excluding groups on the basis or disability, age or disadvantage.
  • Keep people informed. Be transparent about how you will use the results, and plan how to share your findings with participants. 
  • Ask for consent. Make sure your participants are fully aware that this is a formal consultation and have given consent to their data being used. Make sure you comply with data protection regulations.
  • Plan carefully. Think about your research questions carefully, and about other sources of existing data. How much material do you have the capacity to analyse? Is it important that your participants are representative? 
  • Don't reinvent the wheel. Research free or pay-per-use online software and survey sites. If they have the capabilities you need this can oftent be more cost effective than building a website or survey yourself.

Common approaches

Online consultations can take different forms and have different levels of complexity. Different forms of online consultation include:

  • Making an offline questionnaire available online together with an email address to send completed forms to
  • Using an electronic survey programme to construct and distribute a questionnaire, and collect responses, for example Survey Monkey or BOS (Bristol Online Surveys)
  • Use social networking sites to pose questions and promote online discussions, for example Facebook
  • Interactive consultation websites, for which you may need specific software
  • Other online methods you can use to inform and consult the public include, online forums, webchats, wiki’s and new tools that are emerging for gathering detailed comments and discussion (line-by-line) on documents

A useful beginner’s guide on how to use new technologies for engagement, with examples, benefits and disadvantages of a wide range of technologies – from Avatars to Webinars - can be found on the NHS Armchair Involvement website.