It’s really simple. You sell to the people who are listening, and just maybe, those people tell their friends.“ — Seth Godin, marketer.
Diffusion of Innovation changed my approach to community assessment. I now focus primarily on identifying the following three things: the key problem that the program or product (the innovation) offers the target community; key community members who will benefit both from the innovation and promoting it; and the best channels for capturing the attention of the majority and laggard segments of the group.
I now purposely use the term “community” rather than “needs” assessment because you have to assess much more needs. You must learn the key components of an entire social system. A community could be faculty or students in a particular department, staff in a given organization, or an online support group of people with a challenging health condition. All of these groups fit my definition of “community” by virtue of their connectedness and ability to influence each other.
Key Evaluation Questions
No matter what type of evaluation I do, I always start with guiding evaluation questions. These questions lead my investigation and help me design data collection methods. Here are my most typical community assessment questions:
- What problems can the innovation solve for the target audience?
- What are their beliefs, lifestyles, and values; and will the innovation fit all three? (Marketers call these characteristics “psychographics.”)
- Who in the group is most likely to want to use the innovation and talk about it to their friends? (These are the early adopters who fit a second category: opinion leaders.)
- Who among the early adopters will want to work with the project team and how can we work with them?
- Where are the best places to connect with community members?
- What are the best ways to communicate with the larger majority?
Answering Evaluation Question
I also have a series of steps that I usually take to gather information about my key evaluation questions. This is my typical process:
- Talk to “advisors” about their ideas and their contacts. Start talking with people you know who are part of or had experience with a community. I call this group my “advisors.” They don’t have to be high-level officials, but they do need to have solid social connections. It helps if they are well liked within the target community. They will know about the daily lives of target community members, as well as the influential voices in the community. They also can help you gain access.
- Look at publically available data: Local media provides clues to the concerns and interests of your target community. In a town or neighborhood, newspapers and websites for television stations are good sources. Inside an organization, you should look at public and employee relation publications to see what is on the minds of leaders and employees.
- Interviews with key informants: Get your advisors to recommend people they think would be early adopters and opinion leaders for your innovation. But don’t stop there. Early adopters are different from those in the “later adopter” segments. You need to talk with people from the other segments to understand how to get their attention and participation. The best way to find community members in the other segments is to ask for recommendations and introductions from the early adopters. This is called “snowball sampling.”
- Visit the community: More specifically, visit locations where you are most likely to connect with members of your target audience. Visit the venue of a health fair where you could exhibit. Stop by the computer lab in an academic department where you might teach students. Check out the parking and building access at the public library or community-based organization that could host a consumer health information workshop. If your community is virtual, see if you can visit and participate with group members through their favored social media channels.
- Put ideas together, then present them to early adopters for feedback: If at all possible, bring together a group of early adopters and potential partners to listen to and respond to your ideas. Early adopters are the people that companies use for beta testing, so you can do the same. It may be the same people you interviewed or a different crowd (or a mix).
For the most part, I tend to rely heavily on qualitative methods for community assessment. Diffusion of Innovation describes how ideas spread through a system of relationships and communication channels. You need details to truly understand that system. You need to talk to people and understand how they live. Interviews, focus groups, and site visits provide the most useful planning information, in my opinion. You may have to include quantitative data, though. Library usage statistics might indicate the best branches for providing workshops. Short surveys might confirm broad interest in certain services. In the end, a blend of mixed-methods gives you the best picture of a community.
The downside to mostly qualitative data collection methods is that you get an overwhelming amount of information. I like to use an information sheet that allows me to summarize information as I conduct a community assessment. A version of this worksheet is available in OERC’s Planning and Evaluating Health Information Outreach Projects Booklet 1: Getting Started with Community-Based Outreach (downloadable version available here.). See Worksheet 2 on page 19. You should see how the evaluation questions I posed above are related to this worksheet.
Seth Godin said ideas that spread are remarkable, meaning they are “worth making a remark about.” Use community assessment to find out why your innovation is remarkable and how to start the conversation.
If you want to see an example of a community assessment that used this process, check out this article in Public Libraries.
You also might be interested in Seth Godin’s TEDtalk How to Get Your Ideas to Spread.