Thanks to Kristan Boudreau of BC Hydro for pointing me to a paper by Carol Adams and Geoffrey Frost on “Stakeholder Engagement Strategies: Possibilities for the Internet.“(PDF) The authors undertook a comparative study of how companies in Australia, Germany and the UK use web sites as a tool for communicating with stakeholders, based on more than 100 questionnaires completed by web managers and content creators.

While the report primarily focuses on one-way communication of information to stakeholders, rather than interaction with stakeholders, it’s a interesting picture of the starting point for any shift towards online engagement. If organizations want to use the Internet to engage their stakeholders, they have to begin with using the Internet as an effective channel of information delivery. And according to this research, they don’t always pull that off.

Adams and Frost do a nice job of summarizing both the advantages and drawbacks of web-based communication and as a way of delivering information to stakeholders. The advantages include instant availability of information, flexibility of information delivery, and environmental benefits (through reduced paper use). Disadvanges include lack of Internet access among some stakeholders, lack of ability to target information to specific users, difficulty of delivery large documents efficiently online, costs of maintaining a site, effectiveness of the communications medium, and concerns about the authenticity of online information.

To me, this list of advantages and disadvantages underlines two key points that I bring up over and over again in conversations about online engagement. First, that good technology can’t make up for poor strategy: online as well as offline, effective communications depends on a solid understanding of your audience, medium and tools. The net can be a poor communications medium or a great one, depending on your strategy, implementation and goals.

Which brings me to my second point…which is that the choice of medium must always be informed by one’s communications goals. In most situations those goals will best be served by a combination of on- and offline engagement channels. The concerns that Adams and Frost raise about web-based information delivery will generally be addressed with a communications strategy that uses online information as a complement to traditional channels like print, phone or TV. Most crucially, effective online communications can help to address the shortcomings of these other media by providing the very strengths of information availability, flexibility and resource conservation that are noted in this report.