Digital Marketing in the Public Policy Space

In the previous dark ages of marketing and advertising we had very few sources of performance info. Two of the most prominent of these were: focus groups/surveys and GRP’s. And for those of you in the industry know, taking these as your only sources of data can be highly problematic for a variety of reasons (although they are very good for specific purposes). And while this isn’t a rant about the merits and pitfalls of GRP’s, it’s always nice to reflect on how far we’ve come in comparison to the modern digital marketing era.

One of the great things about social media is that modern digital tools gives us so many more data points. But what I’ve increasingly found is that, even though now we have a plethora of metrics available to us (impressions, reach, engagements, approximate recall, negative reactions, consumptions etc), we still haven’t gotten to a point where things become actionable insights.

In the beginning of the social media age, everyone was gung-ho on impressions. The idea of reaching the vast reaches of the internet for practically nothing in cost (compared to traditional mediums) was so tantalizing. Then we moved on to reach, then engagements, CTRs, conversions etc., but to me it just seems year to year we just keep moving on to the next metric without approaching a broad consensus on how do we know we have made an effective ad?

And I think one of the biggest issues that come out of this is that some people are expecting one broad rule that says: do x and measure y. This is highly problematic because posts/ads have so many variables that affect performance. Audience, copy, creative, time of day/week, and many more can fundamentally change the types of measurements you need to do; and furthermore highly dependent on the industry and problem space you work in.

Having worked in government digital marketing, I see so many professionals try to use private sector insights and recommendations on what is effective. And I think this is fundamentally the wrong approach.

The government has very different intentions and audiences it wants to reach when it conducts marketing. In the private sector you’re often trying to sell something to the most profitable customers. And while some things may translate properly, we can’t expect everything to.

In the public policy space, our efforts aren’t just to drive product sales or service sign ups; our end goals should be, and need to be, more aspirational. Are our efforts legitimately translating into meaningful change in society? That should be the bar we are testing against.

There’s been plenty of news in recent days about how can we justify the public sector spending money on social media posts. And I would argue, right now, the way current government communications departments are set up they are not justified. Marketing departments are t(ypically) structurally broken off from the rest of the public service like operations and policy.

My solution is this: link up communications to the rest of the policy process. Experiment and collect data to say with statistical significance, spending these ad dollars meant society was better of in a certain way. Don’t spend money on consulting with ad companies that tell you to do things that won’t work in the public sector. Develop strategies and insights so that government marketing becomes truly effective in tackling structural societal issues. That is how you properly justify advertising in the government.

And that is the only way to know for sure whether or not making a post with a certain type of messaging, audience segmentation, ad creative etc works. In the private sector digital marketing can be quantified in dollars and cents. The government can’t, and shouldn’t, necessarily approach generating communications insights in this way.

With the plethora of digital tools available to us, this sort of analysis is possible. But it takes people/teams well versed in navigating the three realms of policy, communications, and data. This won’t be an easy change. It takes a fundamental rethinking of the role of marketing departments with the government org chart. But I believe this could mean huge positive gains for both: the services the public service is trying to provide, and give more accountability to constituents about why communication departments are needed.

We need to do better, and we can.