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Know your competition: How to stand out in a crowded digital world

Workers at public sector organizations often don’t think of themselves as competing in a marketplace—but they absolutely are. It’s not that they are competing for greater market share, and they aren’t trying to drive other agencies or municipalities out of business. Nevertheless, you are competing with a growing list of new media channels. A government organization that isn’t competing for a share of their attention span is going to struggle.

For example, an email reminding residents of local recycling pick-up days could get lost among the dozens of marketing messages coming from online retailers. A mobile app to allow residents to keep tabs on local legislation is just one of the more than 5,000 released each day in Apple’s App Store. The city council’s video stream of a meeting uploaded to YouTube is vying for eyeballs with other suggested content.

To succeed in an increasingly crowded digital world, the public sector needs to adopt the same sophisticated techniques found in the private sector. These include understanding their audience, knowing how to leverage appropriate channels, and providing powerful calls to action.

Knowing the audience

To effectively reach and engage citizens, government first needs to do something they’re already good at: research and planning. While a city may have a good grasp of the overall makeup and demographics of residents, they need to be clearly defined into specific groups that can be targeted. Good questions to ask: Who is currently being engaged through outbound communications, events and meetings? What target segments are not reached at the moment? Who is in the greatest need of the agency’s services?

In the modern world, a generic message is unappealing and fails to convince an audience that is bombarded with text messages, emails and targeted advertisements every day. To effectively compete, an organization must understand its audience, that audience’s problems and their interests. This information should be used to target information to those who are impacted by it.

Determining the appropriate channels

Once a target audience has been identified, a government organization needs to determine how it will reach that group. Updating and modernizing the organization’s website—effectively the first impression most constituent-consumers experience today—should be the first step. Public sector workers need to consider who is most likely to visit the site, determine what information they are seeking and how people will navigate to find that information. Citizens have high customer service expectations, and an organization’s website should reflect that reality.

After that, it’s important to determine which channels a public sector organization wants to use to reach its audience. Traditional media and mailers are expensive and often inefficient at reaching people. By shifting channels and adopting digital mediums such as e-mail and SMS, an organization is reaching an audience where they already are: on their mobile devices, tablets, and computers. Through digital messaging, government can track open rates, click rates and other important metrics to understand the people consuming content and further refine what it sends and to whom.

Crafting the message

Through careful consideration of target audience and digital channels, government can draft a singular message with a focused call to action. Cluttered, complex messages are confusing and ineffective, so the goal should be to provide important information right up front, as well as various ways for citizens to sign up for services, respond with comments or take appropriate action.

Important to note is that every organization should anticipate how residents will consume the information. Are they more likely to be using a mobile device with a smaller screen, or do they prefer a larger desktop or tablet? A user’s experience with messaging relies in no small part on how its presented. It can be the difference between a person taking further action or moving on to other priorities.

With the continued growth of mobile devices and the general shift to digital media, the public sector has an amazing opportunity to reach and engage residents on the platforms they already use. Nevertheless, an agency’s message is lost in the crowd if it doesn’t correctly identify its audience and tailor its outreach. Understanding the competition—whether it be retailers, marketers, entertainment, or news media—and adapting communications to stand out from the crowd is a vital first step to making sure a message is heard.