Government and marketing? Just be useful, the public will follow

By Tom Burton

Monday August 31, 2015

If you wanted to make a movie of your archetypal modern American marketer, Jay Baer is your man.

For the last couple of weeks Jay has been touring Australia courtesy of Sitecore, an enterprise level web content publishing and marketing system. (Sitecore markets itself as a global customer experience management provider and is a content partner of The Mandarin)

Branding to the extreme: Jay Baer's personal logo.
Branding to the extreme: Jay Baer’s personal logo.

In a world where personal brand is everything, Jay even has his own personal JB brand mark, complete with stylised quote marks as the B. Jay’s hatched dark brown suit matched the brand palette, and his web site — with videos about how to convince and convert — is a testimony to how to sell yourself, as a speaker, coach and thought leader. Cheesy, some might say, but is also a salutary lesson for how, in this modern era of engagement, professional design and presentation really matters.

These days Baer has jumped on the content marketing bandwagon, or what the Americans like to call native solutions, using content to engage your users. He, of course, has a New York Times bestseller book, titled Youtility, which is what he was here to talk to about.

Last week I caught up with him at his Canberra presentation at the National Gallery of Australia. Before his presentation I wondered just how relevant he would be to the room of government people who had come to hear him speak.

Some public agencies, the National Gallery of Australia being one of them, have relatively sophisticated marketing programs to promote their work. The NGA, like many collecting agencies, are investing in their digital channel to bring the collection to life and engage with the many who will never get to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin to see first-hand some of the wonderful works. (These days the world of museums, galleries and libraries is being fast mashed together — I am told NSW State Library has the largest art collection in NSW  — more than five times the size of the collection at the Art Gallery of NSW).

But in the main, public administration is a marketing free zone — and to many in government, almost a voodoo sport practiced by rapacious corporates who just want to make money.

And herein lies the problem. At a time when everyone is extolling government agencies and departments to become citizen-centric and to focus on user needs rather than government needs, the practical challenge for many agency executives is how to do this.

In the commercial sector this professional practice is broadly known as marketing, and applies techniques such as audience segmentation, personas and a bevvy of analytic approaches to first understand the needs of consumers and then to correctly respond with appropriate products and services.

“They join the public service to be useful to their communities and to help them, and here is a simple, but powerful way of engaging with their stakeholders and users.”

Consumer needs can fall into the practical — ‘I am thirsty’ (water) — or deeper emotional desires — such as ‘I want to feel younger’ (Coca-Cola), or ‘I want to belong’ (clubs). In government the needs can be practical too — ‘I want my tax refund or Centrelink payment’. But identifying needs becomes much more problematic when agencies are policy-based or regulators administrating a set of rules for industry and consumers. Especially when industry are not enthusiastic about the very rule base they are being required to comply with.

Add to this that many in the public service find the whole idea of “selling” anathema to what they do. They went into public service to further the public purpose, not to flog stuff. And in the case of regulators to manage and enforce a set of rules.

This means there is very little marketing capability within government. In some cases there remains deep hostility to employing or building this capability that is going to be critical if government is to successfully engage with the newly empowered citizen class.

Hence why my instinct was that Jay’s slick presentation would fail to resonate with the government officials who had come to hear Jay talk about Youtility.

How wrong I was

Yes, the presentation was slick as, but in a highly professional way, mixed with wry personal jokes, good Australian examples — such as the excellent Army recruitment website — and a simple, but highly effective message which the audience got and digested.

Youtilty, as Jay told us, is about using your marketing to be useful. Instead of pushing your brand and services, focus on being helpful. In so doing, you will begin to search for things users need, instead of focusing on logos, tag lines and self-congratulatory statements that mean nothing to consumers and citizens.

A good example of this approach is the Twitter service Hilton Hotels provides called @HiltonSuggests. As Jay explained, this is a worldwide traveller service Hilton staff provide free of charge to any one looking for recommendations in places they are visiting — for restaurants, bars and clubs or any other visitor questions.

The service is provided to anyone and does not promote Hilton Hotels other than through the Twitter handle. They have provided nearly 38,000 suggestions.

And as Jay observed, all in real-time. Being helpful is about being timely.

His other examples were more product ideas, but equally demonstrated how private sector brands were really focusing on how to be useful. The first was a device from Huggies to clip to diapers that tweets to parents when the baby needs changing — called, wait for it… tweetpee. The second, a doll from Nivea that goes red in the sun and provokes kids to slap on their sun cream.

It was at about this stage of Jay’s presentation that I had my ah-ha moment. Utility is exactly what many government workers do. They join the public service to be useful to their communities and to help them, and here is a simple but powerful way of engaging with their stakeholders and users.

A pro-active, engaging government

If your job is to promote health then look for as many ways to offer advice and insight as you can. This can be for medical professionals or the patients themselves. Ditto regulators; rather than act like old Chicago cops, do what the Community Watch programs do and seek to stop misbehaviour before it gets to lock-up stage.

And even for the big policy departments. How refreshing would it be for Treasury to reach out and help citizens and industry understand what is behind, say, a new data release from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. On the day, and in public, so everyone could learn and understand. And then even engage in an ongoing conversation online about the data. Treasury already writes a quick brief on almost every important economic stat for the Treasurer.

The latter would of course be a big step — not just to take on the task, but also for the openness it would require. Call it what you may, but the modern world of public utility is a much more open proposition than traditional government communications.

This suggests a far less risk-averse approach and a willingness to actually engage. In New Zealand they now release cabinet documents six weeks after the meeting! That’s right, go onto the NZ Treasury site and you can read the actual cabinet submissions and minutes 42 days later. This is light years ahead of Canberra where post-it notes are still being used to avoid FOI requests and where cabinet documents remain under seal for 30 years.

“This suggests a far more activist play than simply placing content on a website and hoping people will find it.”

This change can happen quickly if permitted by political masters. In South Australia there is a mini-evolution going on of the same sort where Premier Jay Weatherill has declared the default position is to “publish, publish, publish”.

According to the chief executive of the South Australian Premier’s Department, Kym Winter-Dewhirst (ex-BHP) this has ushered in a whole program of early and consistent engagement with the community. Winter-Dewhirst told a recent Australia and New Zealand School of Government conference “things clearly were not working under the traditional approach to government, so we had to try a different approach.” Winter-Dewhirst also said that rather than winding back on comms and so called spin doctors, governments need to substantially increase their engagement resources.

 ‘Content is the fire, social media is the gasoline’

Back to Jay Baer. Baer told the audience in Canberra that in a fragmented and very noisy and contested media world, content that is genuinely useful has far greater chance of cutting through than hype. A statement of the obvious, but a quick read of the Australian Government press release feed suggests many agencies could do worse than buy a copy of Jay’s book.

He also made the so true observation that involving as many people as possible in the direct engagement helps improve the authenticity of the content. This brings the credibility centralised communications units struggle to provide.

Baer also makes the point that if you look at people’s social feeds, organisations are in direct competition with consumers, friends and family for their attention. These popular platforms (eg Facebook) now force public and private organisations to think about how they too can be trusted.

Trust becomes a hugely powerful proposition in the modern market place for attention. Governments were once well-trusted. But these days less than half the population trust government, while friends and family have scores of 70% in the latest Edelman trust survey. Government officials in contrast are trusted by only 37% of the populace, on a par with CEOs.

Baer also underlined just how important it is to distribute your insights and information to your key audiences. “Content is the fire and social media is the gasoline” he told the Canberra group.

The key point is that agencies have to consider deeply how they are going to promote their ideas — be they research, advice or policy issues. This suggests a far more activist play than simply placing content on a website and hoping people will find it.

“With so many now relying on their social media feeds and instant messaging, email is starting to look like yesterday’s technology.”

And that in turn compels agencies to have to think about the format and native messaging BEFORE the content is prepared. Distribution leads content in the modern media era. If the audience is in Facebook (over 10 million Australians use Facebook actively) then the content needs to be developed in a style and approach that is easily accessible. That might be, for example, a list, or an easy-to-understand infographic.

My own observation is that playing in the multi-channel, fragmented world requires an infrastructure to support, manage and most importantly ensure the customer/citizen experience is as easy and engaging as possible. This is very much the domain of marketing and is an important capability for all agencies as they press into the world of direct communications.

Sitting with Jay over lunch after his presentation, it was apparent he is no dope. The opposite. In fact a very shrewd observer of the sociology of the Internet.

One prediction worth repeating: email is rapidly declining as a means of communicating. With so many now relying on their social media feeds and instant messaging, email is starting to look like yesterday’s technology. Tell that to government (and many corporates) where email remains the primary comms channel for most things.

Jay’s next book: Hug your Haters. For another day.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Mandarin Premium

Insights & analysis that matter to you

Subscribe for only $5 a week

Get Premium Today