In today’s hyper-connected world of texting and content on demand, the phone is often overlooked as an engagement tool. While social media and email blasts might steal a considerable amount of the spotlight, the reality is that today’s most successful politicians and campaigns are leveraging the phone in a big way.

Over the last decade, the telephone town hall has evolved into a staple of the political engagement handbook, and for good reason—it offers the sort of insight into an audience that many digital tools cannot match.

Telephone town halls empower thousands of concerned voters and constituents to interact live (over the phone) with their elected officials and leaders. It’s also a powerful tool for engagement if campaigns and organizations leverage it properly.

As with any medium of its kind, there are best practices and crucial metrics that can be applied to optimize success. Just as a website must not be measured solely in terms of the volume of its traffic, a telephone town hall’s success may be impacted by far more than the number of participants.

Many campaigns utilize telephone town halls to efficiently make quick impressions on large numbers of constituents in a condensed setting. This is a proven and effective strategy. At the same time there are a growing number of campaigns focused on utilizing telephone town halls in a more targeted fashion with a major focus on participant engagement.

The philosophy that we preach to clients: There’s a place for telephone town hall events focused solely on volume and for events focused more on engagement, but the focus ought to impact the production. As they plan each event campaigns need to ask: Would we rather have 20,000 people on a line together for one minute, or 8,000 engaged constituents actively participating in a lasting, meaningful conversation?

Creating Engagement
Historically, telephone town halls have emphasized quantity of participants at the expense of participant engagement Attracted by the widespread publicity a “100,000 person telephone town hall” could garner, many campaigns have focused exclusively on boosting numbers. Telephone town hall producers would claim success, even if the average participant spent a mere sixty seconds on the call. While that is not all bad, when a significant number of participants are dropping so quickly, town hall producers ought to explore tools to create a more engaging event.

Our media drenched culture has given rise to event participants with high expectations for feedback, interaction, activity and entertainment. As a result, producers of effective telephone town halls are becoming experts in creating engagement.

So how do we ensure participants remain engaged throughout a call and don’t drop of the line after one minute of hearing your message? While the answer is certainly different for each campaign, here are some proven strategies that you can use to engage telephone town hall audiences:

Plan Ahead
Define the purpose and tone of your event. Ensure that your invitations to join the call match the theme. Make sure to select an appropriate moderator for your topic and audience. Debating a hot topic? Consider adding a host with an alternative perspective.

Offer a call to action
People want to feel like they are making a difference and momentum is important to maintain during a call. Make sure to conduct live polling. Encourage petition signing and social sharing via Facebook and Twitter. Set fundraising or website sign-up goals as well.

Provide Instant Feedback
Share with your audience what other participants are up to during the call. Make them feel like they are part of a movement by sharing how engaged others are. Tally the number of tweets, funds raised or signatures for a petition. In addition, highlight and play key audio clips during the call.

Minimize Boredom
Switch up moderators or speakers during the event. If you have a variety of topics to cover alternate between the provocative and the mundane. Consider saving hot topics for later in the call with reminders that they are to come.

Optimize the caller experience
Managing callers is a combination of art and science. It’s important to know your audience and what they want. It is also equally important to ensure a proper flow throughout the call. Take care to ensure callers are screened properly and know when to listen and when to mute them so a caller does not control the call or bring up subjects that are distracting or irrelevant.

Measuring Engagement
Gauging the success of a telephone town hall can be more nuanced than simply counting the number of participants. When evaluating your telephone town hall, be sure to consider the following metrics:

  • Poll participation
  • Average amount of time a caller spent on the line
  • Drop off moments
  • Website traffic
  • Social shares
  • Number of questions asked by participants

Comparing events over time is another critical evaluation tool. By examining trends in participation campaigns gain valuable insight into their constituent base. This data will not only help you in assessing the efficacy of your event, but also provide key insights into what motivates your audience. Savvy producers are constantly evaluating data to see what messages and content brought about the most engagement from the audience.

Conversely, examine at which points, if any, participation declined. A telephone town hall is a unique opportunity to interact with a live audience and gather valuable, real-time data that static websites and Facebook pages can’t match. A properly-produced telephone town hall focused on eliciting and measuring participant engagement will make a powerful and lasting impression on constituents.

Elisa Henry is co-founder at Shoutpoint, Inc., a leading developer of interactive communication technology, including innovative telephone town hall services.