The difference between Community Engagement and Marketing

Community engagement is a process where an organization (or coalition or organizations) acting for community benefit (such as saving energy in multiple buildings) works to build lasting relationships in order to apply a collective vision that benefits the community. Community engagement is a much more active method of implementing change than the more static method of standard marketing techniques. Marketing is when a company (or group of companies) communicates to a (perhaps targeted) consumer audience with the intent of inducing a behavior change on a short-term or permanent basis. Non-profits and governments often use marketing to deliver an ethos or social purpose message about what services their organization could offer to an applicable audience. 

Marketing often (but not always) has a sole purpose of money making in mind whereas honest relationship building is an irreducible minimum for community engagement. That is why a telemarketer calling on behalf of an energy efficiency program offer tends not to illicit as much trust and positive reaction as direct contact with an organization which makes it clear it has the interests and the needs of the community factored in.

In the case of energy efficiency, there is just enough overlap between marketing and community engagement to where the two terms are often confused and used interchangeably. Sometimes community engagement programs for energy efficiency programs are mistitled as “Marketing Strategies”, while other times they are correctly titled as “Community-Based Outreach”. 

Outreach is one word that lies in between the dichotomy of marketing and community engagement. The utility companies may conceive community engagement as of tabling at events about their energy efficiency programs or speaking at an event about rebates they offer. But that is actually outreach. While community engagement indeed starts with an initial outreach, a lot of outreach we see is actually closer to marketing rather than community engagement. The word outreach implies that whoever is being reached out to are outsiders with the outreacher in the center. Outreach is done for the outreacher’s organization to extend its reach. Meanwhile community engagement is done with the community for relationship building.

Real community outreach takes capacity and effort. For organizations unaccustomed to community outreach, putting so much emphasis on cultivating 2-way relationships sounds very time-consuming and cumbersome of a process given that we as individuals have a limited capacity to keep track of all the connections they make. However, community engagement works rather than collapses when you have a coalition of many people and organizations collaboratively sharing the work load. Community engagement pays off in the long term, particularly in the case of energy efficiency.


 The Clean Energy Partnership work plan already contains overall goals that provide a necessary starting point for community engagement. In addition, the partnership has also approved a set of metrics that are an essential way to monitor the progress toward meeting those goals. A next step for the Partnership is to figure out which community to do a pilot project in and who should carry it out. By its own definition, those who are doing community engagement will develop community engagement strategies as they go along and find out directly from the community what their needs are. Then at a later time, those where were involved can step back and figure out which strategies work well, which activities to further prioritize and how to further refine the implementation plan in place.  Lastly, those doing the engaging have to maintain relationships they build.



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