Connected Residents: Removing communication barriers between cities and the people who live and work there.
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Cities everywhere have a true need to more effectively connect with their diverse population groups. Municipalities are looking to overcome language barriers and shift to zero email without adding multiple communication platforms that only proliferate the problem.

The challenge is evident, but are the solutions just as clear for connecting with residents?

Cities throughout America and the world are a diverse population melting pot. It’s clearly evident in the languages spoken within these municipalities – whether it’s a major metropolitan area, a suburb or even a small town or rural community. And it’s not going to slow down soon. In fact, according to a 2022 article by Language Network, it’s going to continue to grow at a very high rate and present all cities with some very challenging issues:

“As the United States becomes more diverse, the number of residents with limited proficiency in English is growing. For these people to access important services and fully participate in American life, language access services are essential, and city agencies are often legally required to offer these services. Creating an effective language access plan leads to better and more efficient use of your city’s resources than reacting to needs as they appear.”

A U.S. Census Bureau report found that at least 350 languages in the United States are spoken in homes across the country. The most commonly spoken dialects were English, Spanish, Chinese (including Cantonese, Mandarin and other varieties), Tagalog, Vietnamese, French and French Creole. Of course, this is not to discount the enormous number of people who prefer to speak in Italian, Korean, Russian, Portuguese and so many others.

“The U.S. is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and those patterns tend to be magnified in cities,” says Mark Mather, a demographer with the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau in a recent story in U.S. News & World Report. This is further supported by the Census Bureau’s most recent 2020 estimate that about 8.3% of the U.S. population is of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) with upwards of some cities with population areas of 44% and higher LEP.

The language gap. Can it be bridged?
Language diversity may be stating an obvious fact that most city leaders and municipal management realize. Or maybe not. What they most likely don’t realize is that the technology solutions they turn to are very limited in the effectiveness at best.

For example, it’s common for a city to invest a few minutes to install the Google Translate widget on their website. This can be ok for website visitors who come to see general content promoting why a city is a great place to live, raise a family and operate a business. All the visitor has to do is simply click on a button to read that content in their own language. Perfect. Or is it actually an imperfect communication technology tool?

If your city utilizes a robust communication technology solution the messages should appear in the residents preferred language such as Spanish, Russian, Chinese and countless other languages. This should be automatic and a no-brainer. Translation: a city shouldn’t have to think twice about a message being translated into the resident’s preferred language based on the language preset on their smartphone.

City departments need to connect with residents. Real-time communication starts now.
What does a city do to alert people of road closures, school snow schedules, bulk trash pick up, board meetings, or more importantly, an emergency such as a flood or tornado? Yes, there are warning sirens. But these just alert people of a non specified situation that they should be aware is happening or may happen. It doesn’t convey the nature of the emergency, timeframes, or who/what it affects. Emergency information should include the following communication points as recommended by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Math:

“Time and location are important content for a message because it informs people when they should begin taking a protective action and by when they should have it completed, in addition to saying exactly who should and who should not take action in terms that the public can readily understand (i.e., physical geographical boundaries of those who will be affected).”

Remember, it’s important that a technology translation feature allows for essential city department messages to be received, understood and acted upon in real time. That’s how a resident stays connected with your city. Because what happens when a city needs to broadcast a message (especially a timely issue such as special trash pick up schedules or an emergency notification) without relying on people to visit the city’s site to get that update in their own language? This is when the communication breakdown starts, but it’s not the end of the challenge. This is especially alarming since many cities think they have solved the language gap.

What do we mean? All too often cities have on their website some variation of a Subscribe for Updates button or link. Where do they place that link? On the home page front and center where it’s easy to find? That would make sense, but instead it tends to be tucked away in some random spot as if the city doesn’t want anyone to find it.

And if, by luck, a visitor can find their way through this maze and locate it they usually bounce out before even completing the process. Why? It’s burdensome. Time consuming. Plus the fact that there are just too many fields to fill out. So, instead of removing the language barrier it just puts another obstacle in place since it actually forces the visitor to accept whatever language default that comforts the city.

Then add the issue of when Google Translate is reading and translating website content, it can be seen as duplicate content and ding the effectiveness of your search engine optimization (SEO). The negative impact is evident when your city doesn’t show up in a search by people looking to move to the perfect place to raise a family or start a new business.

This is not saying that technology is not a solution. It’s simply pointing out that the communication tool has to be a technology platform that lets a municipality send out the right message at the right time. It should also be a SaaS based communication platform and offer a unified portal where the city can create and then deliver messages across a growing number of channels and delivered to city residents and businesses in the right language of their choice through their smartphone. Again, this is what a connected resident requires to be part of an inclusive city.

News update: E-Newsletters are not great ways to communicate.
When a city emails an E-Newsletter it usually contains a bundle of unrelated information such as community updates on construction and closures, upcoming events, elections, board meetings, local news etc. How much of this information actually speaks to all city recipients in a compelling way? A recent APAC survey found 65% of their respondents were more likely to unsubscribe from emails if the E-Newsletter content didn’t align with their interests.

Let’s just point out the fact that E-Newsletters sent out via email are an archaic form of communication that can’t even come close to competing in a real-time world that demands instantaneous information accessed through a smartphone. Pew Research states it very clear:

“97% of Americans now own a cellphone of some kind.”

In early 2022, noted that 70% of Americans check their phones within five minutes of receiving a notification. So, how can a city expect E-Newsletters sent via email to get that kind of near real-time interaction with their residents? They can’t, especially when considering the likelihood that an electronic newsletter will even reach and attract the intended audience considering these problems:

  • Usually delivered in HTML email (or PDF attachment) that are full of privacy issues because HTML assets can be tracked by an advertiser
  • Only available in one language, two at the most
  • Over-communicates with what is generally website-like content
  • Can easily get caught in Spam filters

What’s required is a communication technology platform specifically created to send targeted messages to city audiences more transactionally and in a language they can understand. In the perfect situation this technology solution would give a city the unique ability to only send out information residents and businesses requested and not send them communication they don’t want.

This same communication would link back to the city’s website for more detail. Then imagine if every message sent by a city were actually a shareable object. It would be even better if the message acted as a standalone website available in every language and contained just enough information the receiver wanted for mission success.

Let’s get back to language differences and remove communication roadblocks to connecting with your residents.
In the same U.S. Census Survey cited in the beginning of this blog, it was found that 67.3 million of all U.S. residents (including those born in the U.S. and those who immigrated here) spoke a non-English language at home. Of those, a massive 41.5 million speak Spanish at home. And get ready for this number: This means that of the 327.2 million residents in the survey, only 256 million of them only spoke English.

The number of people speaking non-English languages at home has tripled since 1980 and has more than doubled since 1990. We might expect to see the numbers reducing over time, but instead, this trend continues to grow. And there’s no end in sight.

This begs a question: As our country continues to diversify, why do cities continue to ignore the language needs of its residents? It’s understandable why cities are slow to adapt. It’s difficult. Who’s going to translate all of that newsletter content and then verify its accuracy before sending it? It’s not who, but what technology should you use to translate this information?

Plus, how can a city possibly know which languages are required by its population anyway? Is it enough to follow the 80/20 rule and ignore the 20% who speak an “odd language”? How do they handle the variances in French, Spanish and Portuguese? Do they continue falling back to European Spanish for their Mexican population? Without the right communication platform that’s proven and robust, addressing these language issues is a challenge that can be next to impossible to resolve.

The right communication tool needs to be a simple platform that handles translations automatically. The sender wouldn’t need to know who needs what language. Ideally, the authoring language used to create the message could be received by the reader in their preferred language.

Email is an option, but not a good one.
All too often cities send out communication in mass quantities in the hopes of having mass appeal. How does a city get their outgoing information volume right? Accompanying that overabundance of information is the lack of information diversity. It’s only made worse by municipalities that keep sending this information via email only. And research indicates that this is a failed communication mechanism.

A recent survey done by HubSpot found that the average open rate for email in all categories was 20.94%. The average click through rate (people who actually click a link in an email) was only 7.8%. So, if a vital piece of information needs to get to people within a city, most will not even know about it.

For any given city that translates to approximately 80% of the emails sent to residents and local businesses end up in the digital graveyard. A failure rate exceeding +80% is not a very smart communication approach. That can be especially alarming when a city is dealing with anything from an emergency weather situation to dangerous road conditions or a delay in essential city services such as trash or power. Other communication hurdles associated with a city using email communication:

Information overload: the result can be messages that are unopened, dismissed or unread, especially if there are a lot coming in

Life disruption: When a person has a lot of email to go through it can require a lot of work, time and can lead to frustration so they just avoid dealing with the communication.

Non timely response: If a person disregards their email messages, especially those that require a timely response, urgent and important messages will be left unopened.

When searching for the perfect communication platform, it should contain features that make it easy for users to choose what topics interest them the most. It should also let them change those topics of interest without the need to have a city employee make those changes. Let’s face it, people are different. Some people may want to know everything their city wants to communicate. Other people only want updates about specific topics such as tax initiatives, city budgets, pandemic updates, road and school closures, utility disruptions, emergencies, or voting and election matters. The right technology should allow for this type of segmentation.

Send and they shall receive. It’s made possible with omnichannel communications.
Omnichannel, or multichannel communication allows for message delivery success because it can reach audiences via a growing number of channels with a single post. These messages can be delivered through a communication platform app, SMS, email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Omnichannel is a single-point of entry system that optimizes interactions collectively regardless of the channel used by individuals with a group audience.

G2, a leading technology analyst organization, backs up the fact that omnichannel enhances the effectiveness of a city’s communication:

“Omnichannel provides a strong presence on the channels your customers use most. You can simplify this process by learning more about your target audience and their communication preferences. Real-time engagement is the cherry on top of omnichannel communication.”

Communication platform providers offering omnichannel solutions are receiving a lot of focus from investors. It makes a lot of sense why since people want options and investors know this and like this, a lot. After all, who wouldn’t like to have choices of where they receive weather updates, road closure status, voter registration updates or school related notifications?

Rethink communication strategies. It starts by thinking smarter through technology.
It’s more important than ever for cities to take another look at their communication strategies for the multicultural world in which they exist. This means sending out more frequent updates in multiple languages, allowing people to choose which topics interest them the most, and delivering that information in the various ways people want to receive information. With the right communication platform this is made possible today, not sometime in the distant future. Not only do you become a more inclusive city, your have connected residents who feel like they belong where they live.

Learn more about the best communication technology platform available for major metropolitan areas, suburbs, small towns and rural communities. It can help make the people who live and work there feel more informed, secure, happier, and connected.