Editor’s Note: Joseph Porcelli is the director of engagement services for GovDelivery, a provider of automated solutions that deliver government content through official email, text messaging, RSS and social media.
The public’s growing expectation of transparency and access to information from all levels of government has radically changed how government needs to communicate. Improved communication can have a significant impact on a public-sector organization’s ability to achieve its mission. To be successful, most organizations must be able to reach large and relevant audiences quickly with new information.
Digital communication channels create new ways to address this chronic challenge — along with higher expectations and new complexities. Potential outreach channels include traditional media as well as a mix of digital channels, ranging from email to social media. How can public-sector communicators find the most effective and efficient ways to engage their citizens and stakeholders cost effectively?
With 92 percent of adult online users using email, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, it’s apparent that email is still the central hub of all online communication. In fact, it’s worth noting that while there has been some discussion as to whether social media will replace email, the data confirm that more social media use leads to more email consumption, underscoring the importance of email as the cornerstone of any communication strategy.
The critical role of email within the overall communication mix is the basis for a comprehensive guide compiled by my colleague, Lauren Modeen, after a review of best practices and results from more than 500 local, state and federal government organizations and agencies. These insights are based on observations from organizations that sign up between 10,000 and 30,000 citizens daily for email updates, allowing us to present best practices that drive results.
Here are three tips that can be implemented immediately to maximize direct connections with citizens and stakeholders, using the principles of effectiveness, efficiency and engagement.
Effective digital communications require the largest possible audience or stakeholder base. With regard to email, this means leveraging existing contact lists and promoting sign-up options across government organization websites and through partners.
One of the best times to capture subscribers is during an exciting or critical time for your organization.
For example, in early 2012, Seattle experienced four straight days of snow and ice. Citizens in King County poured onto the city’s metro transit homepage to get the information they needed about the storm. This was a perfect opportunity for King County to ensure that a call to action to subscribe for email updates on severe weather was prominent on its home page.
Meanwhile, the IRS knows that the first quarter of the year is its busiest time. The agency gets a surge of website activity, which is the perfect time for the IRS to get more email subscriptions, offering to push out important tax information to citizens instead of expecting them to seek out that information on the IRS website.
When’s there’s a huge spike of visitors on your site, seize the opportunity to sign up as many stakeholders as you can. Once you are connected to them, you can proactively communicate in the future. Organizations that work together to reach more people can cross-promote content during critical moments — even if the issue of the day is not affecting their organization. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cross-promote content with the Federal Drug Administration (FDA); thus, a peanut recall that drives interest in FDA content will actually lead to more people signing up for men’s and women’s health updates from the CDC.
Building a large audience is the critical first step to driving value from email, but agencies also must focus on efficiency, which means streamlining and automating complex communications across email, SMS and social media.
Organizations today are creating content in many formats and across many channels. National Public Radio staff created an acronym called COPE — Create Once, Publish Everywhere — that can be very useful in managing digital outreach. In many cases, this strategy makes sense and saves time. For example, you should be able to create an email alert or update on a road closure, send that alert to your email subscribers and repurpose that same content to be distributed simultaneously as an SMS message, Twitter post and Facebook post.
In addition to saving time, an effective COPE strategy will lead to additional content views by a wide range of people who you may not have reached through a narrower publishing channel. This allows you to focus on creating more impactful messages and content that engages citizens and stakeholders.
For government organizations, engagement is mission critical. Engagement in government is like revenue in the private sector, but engagement is harder to measure. Government organizations should define engagement as any action resulting from a communication that creates value for the public, the agency, or both. This can mean a range of things depending on your organization’s mission and goals, such as moving a car off the street in a snow emergency, adopting a pet, renewing a license, or gaining a better understanding of a policy or benefit.
A great example of engagement is the success demonstrated at the CDC during the H1N1 outbreak. With a broad reach through email and other digital communication channels, the CDC was able to share accurate symptoms of H1N1 and the benefits of receiving a flu shot. This significantly increased the number of people signing up for and receiving flu vaccinations — and contributed to the successful containment of the H1N1 virus.
In another example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources used to mail reminders to existing boat permit holders, and noticed a drop off in the number of renewals. Revenue lagged as a result. In 2010, the agency emailed the same people and suggested they sign up for a fishing or hunting license at the same time. “Within one hour, we generated more revenue than we did in weeks with the old method. People here were elated — we had reduced a truckload of work processing checks as well as printing and mailing costs,” said Margie Damgaard, the department’s Web Division coordinator.
These are just three tips from the comprehensive guide, Public Sector Digital Communication Management Best Practices: The Critical Role of Email. For detailed tips and strategies, such as how to cross-promote your government organization’s content across other departments or agencies to dramatically increase your outreach, download the full guide.