Marketing: Cleaning Up a Dirty (Government) Word

By John Cook, Vice President of Marketing, GovDelivery

ralphieWhen you hear the word “marketing” in the context of government do you cringe?

As a marketing director, marketing is not a dirty word. It is what I do. However, I fully understand that in government circles, marketing has traditionally been deemed unnecessary and even undesirable. But the world has changed, and government employees need to rethink how they view the role of marketing and how it can drive citizen engagement.

I would like to show you some trends that impact the way the public consumes information and the role marketing can play. Hopefully you will change the way you think about the concept of public sector marketing. And as an added bonus you may learn how to become a more effective marketer as well.

Before I outline these trends, let me lay the foundation. You may think, “Nobody needs another slick marketing campaign telling people that they need something new.” And that may be true. But marketers, when they do it right, always address the needs or pains of their audience. They don’t simply blather on about themselves, their products or their services. Rather, they communicate benefit statements that are directly tied to customer pain. In short, they educate their audience on possible solutions to their problems.

Clearly there is a need for this in government. Different agencies may offer different services, but they all provide some solutions to citizen stressors. And citizens do have problems that government can help alleviate. From needing the latest information on the flu and vaccinations to the public’s need for information on emergency services when the next hurricane unleashes its wrath on the coast to a simple reminder that there is a snow emergency and to not park on the even-numbered side of the street if you don’t want your car towed.  The public is thirsting for information – information that you as a government employee have. And this information is exactly what the public needs to solve their problems and resolve their pain. Best of all, in most cases, what you offer is free for the taking.

So why wouldn’t you want to market that?! Why wouldn’t you want to the world to know? The average citizen can’t take advantage of what you offer if they don’t know about it. Someone needs to tell them. That is precisely the role of marketing. So with that premise, let me lay out the first of several trends that have turned government marketing from an undesirable into an imperative.

Trend # 1: Content Marketing content marketing

Content marketing is simply the creation and proliferation of informative content online. If you think about the audience you serve, odds are good that only a tiny fraction of them have ever visited your website. But the vast majority of them have probably ventured online at some point to look for information that you likely have. If you have compelling content online that is indexed with appropriate keywords, you increase the likelihood that they will find your content when searching you’re your agency’s information.

If you want information on new flat-screen TVs, what is the first thing you do? You go online and Google it. If people want information on snow emergencies, what is the first thing they do? They go online and Google it. Therefore content that drives engagement must be digital and posted online.

For example, let’s say the City of St. Paul put out a “Snow Emergency Guide” and posted that online. Google will index that piece of content and serve it up to anyone searching for information on this topic. As a part of the guide, the city could give several tips and also provide instructions on how to sign up for snow emergency alerts via text or email, with an active hyperlink to subscribe. Just like that, content captured the audience, drove them to take appropriate action, and solved their pain.

Good content provides timely and relevant information on what your audience is thinking about and searching for online. There are a ton of different types of content that government agencies can leverage to capture a greater share of their targeted audience and drive engagement. You can create guides, checklists, papers, infographics, e-books, reports, newsletters, videos, brochures, blog posts, etc. With skillful distribution, your content can expand well beyond just your website to social media and other channels. This allows you to capture your audience where and when they are searching for information to address a problem that you can solve.

A sub-trend here is the proliferation of visual content. Infographics are a tremendous tool to draw folks to your website or blog. Here is a great example of visual content by FEMA on preventing whooping cough in babies.

Trend #2: Storytelling

john steinbeck quoteAs outlined above, content is critical to effective government communication. With that in mind it is important not to overlook the power of storytelling. A story can engage your audience like nothing else. Depending on your organization’s mission, this may be a tool you could leverage in a very compelling way.

The customer success story may be the best kind of story for a marketer. The storyline typically goes something like this:

1)      Outlining the pain and problems with which the customer struggled.

2)      The solution they found to solve the problem.

3)      The positive outcomes after using the solution.

This may not apply to every government organization, but it could apply to many. Citizens with similar issues or problems would love to learn how others solved the issue. In some respects it is very similar to a product review or endorsement. It allows their peer to tell how your organization helped them out. That is powerful stuff.

In fact, why not leverage your blog, or create one if you don’t already have one, as a way to communicate “happy citizen” stories?

Watch for more trends and more of my thoughts over the next few weeks on why you should reconsider the role marketing can play in your organization. Citizen engagement is a meaningful goal and I believe that marketing can help drive that engagement like nothing else. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your thoughts on marketing in your organization.  Are you expanding your marketing efforts? What challenges are you having in this area? What successes? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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