A recent report in the U.S. shows that on any given day, teens spend nine hours a day online using media for their enjoyment. Teens are not the only age group spending their days (and even nights) online. I have been following this growing trend in recent years, targeting young professionals ages 18-35 from different walks of life, gender, and culture, to engage in online offerings (from water-themed webinars, to career-specific courses and self-help coaching).  I have been asking myself: can online engagement replace in-person, “real-deal” participation? Meaning, can we guarantee participation and engagement solely via the e-world, including: e-workshops, e-courses, etc.?

There’s no doubt that online tools for social engagement are fantastic. They enable any organization doing the kind of capacity-building work we are doing in the water sector, to reach a broader audience geographically. When we work on national (or international) projects, these tools help us connect youth from Vancouver to St. John’s, Gjoa Haven to Quebec City, and also young water leaders from around the world with Waterlution opportunities, programs, and other network members.

This brings me to a big learning moment. When we first set out to design the Great Waters Challenge as a gamified online process to engage youth (in showcasing how water has played a large role in Canadian history), we knew that for a Canada150 program of this national scale, online engagement was necessary. We were experimenting in the best practices for online participation retention, and quickly realized that online engagement alone could not sustain participation. We had young Canadians (as young as 10 years old through their school teams to 29-year-olds) sign up for the Great Waters Challenge as players. They were required to complete a set of 4 challenges (over 6-8 weeks) to move to the next round. While these challenges often invited them to go out into their community—they still required a substantial amount of online research and blogging about their experience.

We used attractive prizes to incentivize online participation, but it was still not enough to retain this age group. What we learned was that those who had signed up because they were initially excited and were attracted to the prizes, still did not feel as committed to complete the assigned challenges once the activity became slightly more challenging. We saw a significant dropout rate after challenges 2-3 especially (half-way through!) However, those players who were already connected to Waterlution (i.e. those who had met a team member in person, participated in a previous program, heard about us through a personal contact, or had a player in their area with whom they could connect) were much more likely to stick around till the end.

We could say this was initially part of the design as with any competitive game—to weed out players who are not eager enough to win the final prize! But our goal for this program is more than just reaching the finish line. We want to enable youth to become agents of change in their community through learning and sharing their knowledge about water.

Online engagement alone can trigger a sense of isolation where a sense of community is not already present. This insight sparked an idea to host “online campfires” where players could meet one another. We also included local training workshops to build local communities of support for our players, and we know for a fact—especially following Waterlution’s WIL experience—that this model works best.

Youth are yearning for physical communities of support. If you’re looking to engage youth online, make sure you build community around them locally first, so they feel supported and not isolated.

Thinking about online engagement? Now think twice.


Happy engaging,

­Dona Geagea, Waterlution Project Lead and Engagement Designer 

Congratulations to our Great Waters Challenge Level 1 Top Finalists: read their blogs here

PS: Waterlution is now recruiting a new Youth Advisory Board from across provinces and territories in Canada, for the second year of the Great Waters Challenge!  Are you who we are looking for? Click here to learn more.

Don’t miss next week’s blog where Greatness/Waterlution researcher and freelance journalist Andrew Reeves discusses water, culture, science and the nature of connection.