As we near the end of another year characterised by COVID-19, Annabel John, Director at Copper Consultancy, unpacks the highs and lows of communications in the infrastructure and construction sectors, and looks ahead to the top four engagement opportunities afforded by a fresh start in 2022.

Predicting the future of communications and patterns of engagement behaviour is not an exact science. There is no industry crystal ball that tells us what is on the horizon and how we should work with those in the construction and infrastructure sectors to prepare.

However, we live and breathe this world. There are some predictions we can make with relative certainty. For instance, as the government continues in its bid to ‘level up’ swathes of the country, generating political, community and stakeholder buy-in for major investment projects will be crucial to their success. This push-back from local people is not new, but we could be doing more to translate policy visions into tangible realities and encourage greater participation – and minimise the risk of blowback.

Here are my five trends to watch in 2022:

1. Data and digital – the driving force of engagement

As an industry, construction and infrastructure adapted relatively hastily to the requirements brought about by virtual engagement. The sector made great strides in communicating and engaging with individuals and communities online. But there is still work to be done. Work to ensure that the sector doesn’t slip back into what feels comfortable by relying heavily on face to face and traditional means of engagement or consultation. It makes it harder to reach wider audiences or to measure success. This is particularly important, not only to make sure projects reflect the people they are for, but also, as our sector becomes increasingly political, it’s more important than ever to reach broader audiences to build support for projects.

Digital also opens the door to better data and trackable metrics. This helps measure the genuine impact and effectiveness of activity in real time. This doesn’t need to be costly or time consuming either with built in analytics, social example on social channels or Google Analytics, giving the basics for free.

Regardless of whether COVID continues to impact our lives next year, continuing to maximise the use of digital communications techniques – which are already readily adopted by other sectors – is going to be key.

2. Personalisation

Knowing your audience, their wants/needs and aspirations can go a long way to understanding what type of content will appeal to them and encourage engagement. People care about the experience they get from companies they are interacting with and want to see and read things that directly appeals. More consumer-focused industries utilise many and varied techniques to appeal to their customers and we’re increasingly seeing that a one size fits all approach isn’t cutting through in the infrastructure sector too.

People want content and communication that’s at a level of experience, interesting and relevance to them – and on a communications channel where they are already engaging. We must work to deliver content that’s more personal to individuals. 2022 will see the infrastructure sector embracing more rich content and needs to keep pushing to become more ‘mainstream’,

3. Get the look: The importance of visual communications

Study upon study will demonstrate that individuals are increasingly spending more time-consuming content, but less time consuming each individual piece of content. We’re in a battle for attention, so creating content that captures individuals within the first two seconds and holds their attention has never been more critical to the success of your key messages cutting through.

High-quality, impactful content that is visually compelling will come to dominate engagement in 2022 and will be the centre-piece of communications in infrastructure and construction. Eye-catching materials such as gifs, CGIs, videos and animations will capture audiences and tell an engaging story at a glance.

Short, sharp and engaging content is but one layer and is not designed to usurp face-to-face engagement, it is designed to complement it by being available 24/7 online. These materials will provide layers to engagement that go beyond the realms of leaflets and brochures and technical information, helping our sector to reach broader audiences.

4. Value of engagement goes beyond profit

The general public are alive to the issues of the day perhaps more now than at any point in recent history. Social value and environmental concerns are routinely key drivers of public opinion, and their views and comments can make or break the success of a project.

Our recent public attitudes to net zero report demonstrates that we must do more to communicate the role of infrastructure in our pursuit of net zero carbon by 2050. While important, this is about far more than simply supporting biodiversity in an impacted area, but is about conveying the use of low carbon materials, and the role of the project in supporting public behavioural change.

Passions run high when it comes to environmental concerns and protection. As we move into 2022, we should move to convey what we are doing in a more business as usual manner. The public expects environmental considerations to be communicated as the norm, they should not be an outlier in our engagement strategies.

The same is true of the public’s view of social value. Individuals, investors, local authorities and the government pay close attention to projects that add value to society. The government’s levelling up agenda for instance, is about more than just bricks and mortar, it is about supporting economic development in left behind areas and providing opportunities for seldom heard groups.

Our sector is a driving force for positive change. We need to commit and tangibly demonstrate how our projects are reducing inequality, building better communities and supporting post-COVID growth.

5. Unpredictable futures

What 2022 holds is still yet to be revealed. COVID-19 continues to linger, making all of our lives more uncertain and challenging the things we hold dear. The peaks and troughs of the year will dictate which projects kick on and which ones are shifted to 2023. But, what is clear are the steps we can take to communicate effectively, in a visually appealing, narratively compelling manner to help reaffirm infrastructure’s critical role in solving some of the UK’s challenges.