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Zencity Pushes a Digital Future for Community Surveys

Citizen surveys made gains during the pandemic, and now the Israeli startup wants to ditch paper and phone responses in favor of a totally online experience that is also statistically sound.

A person taking a survey on a tablet.
The community survey space, which gained a fresh spotlight during the pandemic, is about to get more crowded thanks to a new offering from Zencity.

The Israel-based startup is about to launch an online tool designed to help local officials conduct resident surveys in a method that is more efficient than paper mailings or phone calls, according to Eyal Feder-Levy, the company’s CEO and co-founder.

As he tells it, the new Zencity NextGen Community Survey tool — set for official release at the end of the third quarter — will bring more digital efficiency and statistical reliability to one of the most meaningful functions of local governments. Community surveys, after all, often help officials decide which capital projects to pursue, events to hold and departments to beef up, among other tasks.

HIGH BAR


The problem, according to Feder-Levy, is access.

Community surveys that are sent to residents — often on an annual or biannual basis, or after elections — are relatively bulky paper documents that require a fair amount of commitment from the recipient. Phone surveys, he said, often reach people at inconvenient times such as dinner, and can still be tilted toward residents who use landlines.

Those methods “set a high bar for people who want to give their opinions,” he said. “It can also take a long time, perhaps 45 minutes.”

Zencity aims to not only digitize that process, but, in Feder-Levy’s words, meet people where they usually are — that is, on social media or blogs or other online platforms.

“We want to lower that bar, and have short, concise questionnaires that take no more than five to 10 minutes to fill out,” he said.

PRECISION MARKETING


The key to Zencity’s effort is online targeted advertising.

It continues to get ever more precise as more people live more of their lives online and via mobile devices, leaving digital breadcrumbs used by data analysts for marketing that can sometimes be so personal it can feel creepy. E-commerce and social media offer the most obvious examples of that.

Zencity clients will pay to put survey links in those targeted ads, which can also be written in languages other than English to increase the chances of more useful survey responses. A person reading a cooking blog, for instance, might see an ad in Spanish for their city’s latest survey effort, and then can click through to answer questions without feeling as though the effort resembles homework, as Feder-Levy explained.

FEWER QUESTIONS


He said Zencity employs researchers and behavior experts who have come up with a template of questions that can form the backbone of any community survey.

“Twenty percent of questions provide 80 percent of the value,” he said, adding that clients who use the new survey tool can also insert their own custom questions.

He said he envisions conversion rates of between 3 and 5 percent for the tool, based on testing — indeed, that would be very respectable, even strong, when judging by the broader, retail-centric standards of online marketing.


The Zencity survey tool launch reflects a broader trend to bring more statistical accuracy, digital efficiency and a wider range of voices to community surveys conducted by local governments. As more cities buy software to boost data analysis — and as more cities base more decisions on those deep dives into data — community surveys are taking on bigger roles.

Kansas City, Mo., provides an ongoing example of that, according to previous reports and the city’s own website, as do Tulsa, Okla., and other municipalities.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has increased the demand and the supply of community survey tools. For instance, Polco, a Wisconsin-based civic engagement firm, last year offered a full suite of free COVID-19 online response surveys to local governments.

“Using our vetted tools, you’ll be contributing to larger research endeavors, and gain the added benefit of comparing your results to benchmark reports,” Polco said in its sales pitch.

Two years ago, in fact, Polco merged with the National Research Center (NRC) — an organization that considers itself the “gold standard” for public opinion research in government — to offer survey tools for local and state governments. They can now tout NRC’s quarter century of experience running surveys — and the data that comes with that — along with Polco’s work with more than 500 U.S. jurisdictions.

While Polco offers free survey tools, it also sells premium services on a subscription basis. The more a government pays, the more detailed the data and demographics become. As for Zencity, the company’s cost structure charges more to larger communities, and more for agencies that want to run multiple surveys each year instead of annual benchmark efforts, Feder-Levy said.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.
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