Tuesday, 26 February 2008
Online marketing and UK eGov Frontierspeople
In January my fabulous egov webbie colleague Jeremy Gould organised the first UK Barcamp for government, held at Google HQ. BarCamp is a newish way of organising gatherings that's a breath of fresh air over the usual stale conferences.
It was an enormously successful event, for the first time drawing in a significant non-government input from the, often isolated, other people in NGOs, SMEs etc as well as bloggers with an interest. I was very sorry I missed it, not the least because it's exactly the sort of event I've wanted to see for - actually - years.
However ... and not having been there I recognise the limb I'm climbing onto (I used to review concerts and this is a classic, don't review if you weren't there) ...
One subject which I noticed was absent from discussion and follow-up and also didn't appear in the stated interests of the attendees was online marketing although I'm sure Search was discussed - it was @Google UK HQ after all.
Of course this is a first, so everything wouldn't make it in, although the 'agenda' at a BarCamp is all about what interests attendees, but it wouldn't surprise me if marketing was completely absent as my experience is that the area just doesn't register in the UK GovWeb scene. It wouldn't have been a focus for attendees because Social Media (in particular), online democracy and similar 'frontier' areas are 'subjects du jour' and there hasn't been the prior resonance, the history, with marketing as a topic for the people in this scene to put it on the agenda.
Elsewhere, it's never been a subject of interest within eGov. What there has been has been either irrelevant or dated (see DirectGov marketing and paulcanning posts passim) but - largely - notable by its absence. There is still no basic advice for government webbies on basic webbie things like Search Marketing / Search Optimisation (though government will advise SMEs on it!).
I hate to reuse the same word but here we go ... this is another disconnect. Marketing and especially Search Optimisation is an absolute essential for any web project.
Simply put, the 'findability' of any site is dependent on it and if something can't be found it won't be used. It precedes Usability.
I can't put it any simpler: if you don't market, how are you going to get used?
The eGov prism through which this topic is missed can be seen in something like discussions about whether councils or specific services (like Youth) should have a Facebook or Bebo page. The eGov discussion would revolve around what you would do with it, how you would use it to 'engage', policy etc. Wonky stuff.
But look at how Presidential candidates (and now some UK candidates) use these huge sites — it's mainly about extending their web presence. Making themselves more 'findable' because they are there in as many places as the potential voters might find them. That first, then maybe they might actually do more with that presence. That's how candidates have behaved online.
Never mind what you might do with a Bebo page, for example, if you simply stick one up that links to somewhere else that helps someone - especially the Youth - find you, boosts your overall presence and promotes your landing page(s). Just doing that is credible to audiences, anything more is pre-empting and assuming attitudes - you don't need to do more.
This is just the beginning, the very basics of online marketing - extending your presence.
Any web site manager looking through their logs will see a host of traffic sources. Looking at my blog; it's bits of traffic which adds up. Different posts finding different audiences through me pinging, links I've asked for and links which self-generate, referral, even one Wikipedia link which has brought lotsa traffic. And Email isn't insignificant as a traffic source. This is exactly how any other site builds traffic.
I've written a lot about how massive efforts like DirectGov really don't help punters through thinking themselves 'special' and not behaving like the rest of the web. How people use lots of different search terms and most won't find them what they want from government via Google, (which is how most people find anything online). Search is not easy (the mighty BBC is screwing it up right now) but it's not like others don't know how to do it and it's not like government doesn't have inbuilt advantages (trust).
The simple fact is that marketing is largely absent from the projects not just devised by big bad bureaucratic government but also those of the Frontierspeople: hence the gap at BarCamp. (Relative) successes tend to come from unsought viral promotion or exclusivity. They don't come from any thought through online marketing strategies because - put bluntly - there are none in eGov.
Any comparison with other sectors just shows this gap in its sharp relief. Who else would keep building sites with no strategy to drive traffic, let alone target an audience?
What actually is depressing is that, without wanting to sound martyrish, I'm scratching around to think of who else is raising the topic. There just seems to be very little resonance for marketing within eGov.
Am I wrong?
I'm scratching around for reasons and the only one I can think of which makes sense is look at the personnel. Who is coming from online marketing backgrounds into eGov? How does this knowledge make its way in? By contrast geeks. tekkies and wonks (of which I'm at least one meself) we have a-plenty.
Solutions? Again, I'm scratching but I think the quickest is to connect with the Frontierspeople equivalent in online marketing and not wait on the bureaucracy. I would also guess that this sector - being citizens and tax-payers themselves - wouldn't all be disinterested in contributing. It's just a shame that we'd (eGov) be coming from such a low base in that potential engagement.
But first we, eGov, just need to recognise online marketing as a vital, core part of creating websites. That hasn't happened yet.