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Reach NC Voices: Becoming the platform for community conversations

Our dream?

To become the best in the world at facilitating community conversations.

What is Reach NC Voices? This question comes up as we travel the state to visit schools, colleges, and communities. We tell our fellow North Carolinians that Reach is our attempt to put the public back in public policy, but inevitably people want to know what that means for them.

Your experience with Reach will, in part, be defined by how you engage with the platform and the process. At its core, Reach is our attempt to build a more civically engaged North Carolina. We believe your voice matters and that our state will be stronger when your voice is amplified on the issues shaping the present and future of our state.

Reach was born from years of research around the changing trends of how we consume and spread content. We are in the third wave of the social media era. The first wave gave us the opportunity to connect and broadcast our preferences on platforms such as MySpace and Friendster, the second wave led to mass media on large scale platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and the third wave has given way to a more decentralized approach, which includes an emphasis on one-to-one and group messaging on those large scale platforms. Entire Instagram accounts, for example, are now dedicated to debating the news, but much of the debate occurs in Instagram direct messages.

This era of conversation provides the possibility for Reach to connect North Carolinians across the state in a two-way dialogue around public policy.

What Reach looks like for each person

Many people engage with us through our Question of the Week, which sparks conversation through a question we believe is relevant to North Carolinians. Sometimes, it is a pressing policy issue that is in the news or being debated in the halls of power. At other times, it is an issue such as school start times or calendar flexibility that matters and has been debated for years in various venues.

We deploy the Question of the Week on, social media, traditional media, and also through our texting group.

Thousands of people interact with us through the Reach Roundup, which is our weekly email newsletter on the pulse of public policy in our state. The Roundup showcases what your friends, family, and neighbors shared during the Question of the Week. It also provides you with facts and articles placing the issue in context.

Reach powers our listening and engagement efforts on but also throughout all of our other sites and platforms. Our reporters use it to gain feedback on their stories and to source voices from across North Carolina. Our researchers use it to go deeper and add a layer of citizen voice to traditional policy research.

Reach also powers surveys and other listening efforts for partners, including the Hope Street Group of North Carolina, PTA, and NC Early Childhood Foundation. In a few weeks, the Institute of Emerging Issues will use it for their ReconnectNC forum in Asheville.

Reach also includes community events.

We co-host Cultivating Change in Tarboro with community residents and leaders who come together to discuss pressing issues and utilize our technology.

We have hosted conversations around food security, chronic absenteeism, and information needs. In each case we strive to share meals together as the foundation of gathering, utilize our technology so we can continue the conversation after the event, and emphasize dialogue. Most importantly, we strive to always practice radical hospitality.

Every August we look back on our last fiscal year and document our work.

We are proud of the number of North Carolinians we brought into the conversation around public policy this year.

We are also proud of the accomplishments of our technology team who worked diligently to build tools that would better support our work around listening, conversation, and engagement.

What is Reach NC Voices? from EducationNC on Vimeo.

Building new technology to support our efforts

Goal: Ditching sterile surveys for engaging content and questions

To support our efforts to build more authentic conversations across North Carolina, Reach built out a flexible, new multi-step conversational format mixing content, questions, and interactive data visualizations. The result is online interactions we believe can be tailored to educate, engage, and listen.

Our early prototyping has shown us people are more likely to engage with question sets which either contain data relevant to them and their community, provide visualizations, or give people information before asking them to weigh in.

Stepped content + data + question experiences.
County Likert Analysis
Understanding the geography of public opinion

Goal: Integrate SMS and email conversations in one dashboard

One of our primary goals for Reach is for the platform to serve as the pulse of North Carolinians on the pressing policy questions of the day. This requires bringing more of our interactions with our fellow North Carolinians together in real time. To better understand the full breadth of interactions, we brought our text messaging and email correspondence tools under one dashboard to manage our relationship with you, survey results, and subscriptions in one hub.

Today, the Reach dashboard tracks every communication with members to manage and measure the work we’re doing as we grow a statewide conversation.

Email and SMS Dashboard
Data visualizations and localization.

Increasing our ability to manage our relationship with you to collect and connect the dots

Reach asks you to share a number of key questions about yourself so that we can serve you more efficiently, which will eventually include the ability to personalize and customize content and questions as well as show you the pulse of your friends and neighbors.

We ask people to share the following data at different times:

  • Location
  • Question responses
  • Demographics
  • Event RSVP’s and attendance
  • Name and contact information

We also track the following across EdNC in an effort to better understand our audience as a result of our work with the Knight-Lenfest Initiative:

  • Article views
  • Email subscriptions
  • Email opens, clicks, and views
  • Social media comments and reactions

For all of this data, the whole is more valuable than the sum of its parts. To move toward capturing that value, Reach now has a ‘Participants’ section, which manages our relationship with you. In time, the goal is for us to be able to better serve you with the data you need, and for us to better serve the state by being able to share location-specific comments, stories, and votes showcasing the pulse of our communities.

Launching the data lookup tool: Turning big data sets into personal, relevant info for North Carolinians

Reach’s new data lookup tool is designed to help journalists and researchers take large data sets and make them accessible to people.

Using this tool, one of our team members can import data sets connected to geography (such as zip code, county, city, or census block) or specific entities (such as schools or demographic groups) to provide interactive access to participants. Here is a fun example we used to pilot this technology:

Data lookup tool.
Data displayed based off of zip code.

Users receive tailored, relevant information that might otherwise be buried in reports or in large, inaccessible data sets simply by providing a location. In this example, readers shared a county name to find out how likely it would be that that they would see snow last holiday season.

Moving forward, we are going to take our data tool and apply it towards weightier subjects, including chronic absenteeism of students, equity, school performance grades, and other policy issues.

Looking ahead at the technology we are building

As Reach looks to define its place in the ecosystem of listening and engagement tools, we see the need to continue to build tools that facilitate engagement across any number of interactions, online and off. Two areas we believe will be strong differentiators are managing offline events and integrating email and text outreach.

Integrated event management

This past year, we have worked on statewide events with groups such as the myFutureNC Commission, and we have facilitated events around chronic absenteeism, both of which showed us how important it is to collect and manage data associated with meetings and events. By integrating key data points like RSVPs, meeting sign-ins, in-meeting responses, and event communications into the Reach engagement dashboard, we will begin to understand the full spectrum of community member interests and needs.

The plan moving forward will be to build structured event data directly into the Reach dashboard to fully capture conversations that unfold in gathering spaces across North Carolina.

Integrated email and SMS to nurture conversations

Reach will be working to build out and improve our email and SMS outreach tools to simplify regular communications and manage replies as individual conversations. To put it simply, we can now handle sending and receiving emails and texts in one dashboard so that we can manage all of our conversations with North Carolinians.

This will include building common conversation threads from email and SMS responses and assigning those conversations to our team members so they can truly engage in a two-way dialogue as we have promised from the beginning.

We look forward to continuing to build tools that support the efforts of our team to deepen relationships, humanize interactions, and build trust with the communities we serve across North Carolina.

We want you to feel like these tools were built for you because they were.

Our goal is to connect you with our whole state, to connect you with one another, and to ultimately make sure that your voice is heard.

What will Reach end up meaning for the state?

Apathy and a lack of engagement flow from a belief that the future just happens to us as opposed to something which involves us. I believe firmly that we — all of us — can shape the future of our schools, our community, and our state, but our participation is required. We have to show up and speak out. We must engage in dialogue with our friends, neighbors, and policymakers — even those with whom we disagree, as our friends at the Duke Endowment discussed last week at their Rural Convocation.

Reach will provide you with the tools you need to be heard. Reach will provide you with the ability to engage in a dialogue around the future of our state and our communities.

Dialogue matters.

Dialogue is the core of our work to place the public back in public policy. We recently launched a new project, the Reach Roundup office hours. These office hours involve us sending out the Question of the Week via text to thousands of North Carolinians, and then instead of just pressing send, we are there to respond in real time, to ask follow-up questions, and to ask those who respond to share their opinions by writing a perspective for and the state. Office hours also make it possible for anyone to text in a pressing question, story, or comment. We are there to answer those questions, respond to those stories, and play a role in connecting people.

This is the core of Reach: to ask, but also to listen; to engage, but also to do something with the engagement; to tell stories, but also to provide you with a platform to tell your own. We aspire to connect and catalyze North Carolinians around public issues and pressing questions. This is what we mean when we discuss EducationNC’s architecture of participation.

The architecture of participation is about you. It is about your ability to be a force multiplier for our state in order to shape our shared future. It is about the power of your voice and the strength of many voices amplified together.

We believe the future of North Carolina is bright. We are deeply optimistic because of you and the many North Carolinians we meet along the way. Thank you for joining us on this journey.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.