The best answer to “What’s the ROI of public engagement?” is three questions. (The allegory of the running shoe sales clerk.)

Such a familiar situation: your counterpart, the county planner, real estate developer, or civic entrepreneur asks, “so, what’s the ROI of public engagement?”


So tempting to dig out all the spreadsheets you can lay your hands on, tracking, say, meeting attendees, comments received, and social media likes, and then calculate sums, differences, and ratios.

Your counterpart legitimately needs more information, but “What’s the ROI?” won’t help them get it. (Your counterpart wouldn’t actually be satisfied with “25%”, even though that’s a great ROI.)

But before we explore further, let’s consider the context.

The bad news: your counterpart doesn’t understand what you do.

Worse, although they’ll be polite about it, your counterpart cares much less about public engagement than you do. Your focus, as a facilitator and public engagement specialist, is on the dialogue and deliberation process. You care about what’s going on now, in the room, figuratively. Your counterpart cares much more about what happens later, outside the room.

So your counterpart will be more focussed on concerns like the cost of building a bridge, delays in the re-zoning process, or the safety of police officers than on the niceties of group process.

Your dilemma gets worse: your counterpart holds the keys to the success of your efforts:

  1. In how they define the project requirements and what they reveal (and don’t) about the social and historical context you’re stepping into,
  2.  In what they tell you and don’t about what else will be going on in parallel to your process that will influence its success, and
  3. In whether or not they follow-up on the letter and the spirit of your process and its results once you’ve left the scene.

So your counterpart doesn’t speak the same language, has a whole set of different concerns, and yet controls your success. A nightmare.

That’s why it’s so tempting to pull out the spreadsheets. Surely the language of numbers will bridge the gap and bring your counterpart into alignment with you.

The allegory of the running shoe sales clerk suggests a different approach.

Running shoes and ROI, a cautionary tale

You’re a sales clerk in a sports store, and a prospective customer is demanding that you tell them the ROI of a new pair of running shoes.

There’s no way for you to come up with a useful answer, when what you really need to know is their running history, their shoe size, where they plan to run, and indeed whether they’re likely to run at all.

Even more basically, you’d want to know why they want to buy a new pair of running shoes in the first place. Someone replacing the running shoes worn out over a year’s worth of marathons presents a very different situation than someone who wants to impress an upcoming date with the Nike swoosh.

Megabytes of track and field spreadsheets won’t help you in either case.

Imagine, instead, responding with three questions.

1. “How will your life change if these running shoes perform as you expect them to?” (VISION)

  • “I’ll put on my running shoes.”
  • “I’ll run five miles a week”
  • “I’ll go hiking with my nephew, now  that I know I can keep up.”
  • “I’d go jogging in the park, knowing that I look stylish. It’s a great place to meet people.”

The last two answers are particularly helpful, because they give you insight into your counterpart’s “later, outside the room” concerns. She’s a doting but out of shape aunt of a fit nephew and she wants to do better in social situations.

2. “What if you couldn’t buy new running shoes? What would you do instead, and what do you think would happen?” (BASELINE)

  • “Well,  I wouldn’t run.”
  • “I’d just make sure to keep walking to work every day, so my stamina would keep improving, slowly, as it has been.”
  • “I’d try to persuade my nephew to go to the movies instead, but we can never agree on what movie to see.”
  • “I’d keep spending my Friday nights in bars, chatting people up, and buying drinks.”

The second answer reflects a pattern you’ll see often: your prospective customer might not be that committed to getting a new pair of running shoes. The status quo, even when that amounts to “doing nothing”, may seem like a reasonable alternative. Indeed, “Do nothing” is often your biggest competitor.

The third answer provides a hint that there may be other, deeper obstacles to success. Better to discover them now, when you can address them, than later, when they have sabotaged the investments you and your counterpart have made.

3. “What’s going on that will make this happen, if you don’t buy new running shoes?” (DRIVERS)

  • “My current shoes are so fiddly to lace up. If I get it right, the run is a joy. If I don’t, my feet hurt for hours afterwards. And they look so old-fashioned. I’m embarrassed to put them on.
  • “My muscles get so stiff and painful after I run. After a week off running, I feel so much better that it’s hard to get back to it.”
  • “My nephew really loves the shoot-em-ups. I can’t stand them.”

Again, as you get more insight into your counterpart’s world, it’s likely that you’ll discover that the biggest challenges have little to do with shoes (stretching works wonders for soreness) or even with running at all (the nephew may not want to be seen with his old-fashioned aunt in public).

At the same time, the third question is likely to surface some questions that can be directly addressed by an appropriate choice of running shoe.

Most importantly, with these three questions, you’ve gotten some insight into the shoe buyer’s situation. You have a better sense of why they want running shoes in the first place, what else is going on that might even the most appropriate running shoes a bad investment, and what additional responsibilities your customer will have to take on to ensure that the running shoes lead to the desired result.

And you’ll actually be in a better position to answer questions about value and ROI in terms that make sense to the customer. For instance:

“You’ve said you’d like to be more social. These shoes are easy to lace up and they’re perfect for the weather around here, so you’re more likely to get out to the park and jog every day. And when you do, this pair will make you look stylish, so you’ll be comfortable chatting with other runners. And so there’ll be no need for you to spend Friday nights in the bar. Jogging is a better social scene. So you’ll save $100/month on bar tabs alone, and get a better result.  And you can spend some of your savings on exploring the outdoors with your nephew.

“I’d say that these shoes, at $100 the pair, are a bargain.”

The key thing is that you and your counterpart now have a shared understanding of the their situation and how a new pair of shoes can make a difference. And that will be more helpful all around than “25%”.


So what is the ROI of a pair of running shoes? If it lets the shy aunt avoid $1200 in annual bar spending, it’s 1,200% ($1200/$100). If it doesn’t actually get the couch potato to the jogging track, it may be 0%. So the answer is still “it depends”, but now you and your counterpart have a much better sense of what it depends on.
Of course, these questions can’t guarantee a shoe sale.

The would-be socializer may decide that breath mints and Sunday coffee at church are a better, less strenuous option than running (and you’ll find out that in some situations “breath mints” are a competitor to running shoes). And some prospective customers may decide that “doing nothing” is just fine. But the questions will help you surface this more quickly.

And, if you’re grumbling that “public engagement” is much more complex and nuanced than running shoes could ever be, you’re right.  It’s quite reasonable that sports store customer and the sales clerk have the same kinds of products in mind when they talk “running shoes”.

In contrast, “public engagement” may refer to “three minutes at the microphone”, voting on Election Day, charrette sessions, online surveys, and on and on.

That makes these questions even more important as a tool for developing a shared sense of the context where public engagement, in some form, might be helpful.

An illustration of how this applies to what used to be called Gov 2.0.

Photo credit: Arek Adeoye on Unsplash