Marketing Government or Government Marketing?


This topic isn’t really about the New Zealand government like all my other posts but it’s related to my work in the public sector so I thought you might find it interesting as well.

So I’m doing something radical that I wanted to share with you: I’m taking my own advice.

I know. You’re thinking, “That’s crazy talk!” but let me explain. Back in January I wrote a blog post on our Web Toolkit titled, “Lessons to learn?” that covered a few online options for continuing education. One choice is to take classes through a MOOC or ‘massive open online course’ which I’d done once before. Although it turns out that I have no real aptitude for writing code in Python…

But while I was researching the blog post, I noticed that a new series of classes on Digital Marketing was listed on Coursera and scheduled to start in April. Always optimistic about how much time I’ll have in the future, I signed up for it.

I’ve been absolutely gobsmacked at how relevant it has been so far to the public sector focus on moving services into digital. [FYI: gobsmacked is Kiwi slang for astounded.] Let me start with the basics. Like communications or engagement, marketing is one of those terms that isn’t well understood. According to Aric Rindfleisch, the instructor for the Digital Marketing course:

Marketing is the process of promoting a product, service or other thing to people who will understand its value, and are willing to pay for it.

Which in many ways is the antithesis of government. After all, if you want to renew your passport it’s not something you can do at a local big box store or add to a shopping cart at your preferred online retailer. There is no competition: the only option is government.

But the world is changing and government agencies just can’t stay in the 20th century and expect to meet the obligations and responsibilities that we have.  Part of that change is how our ‘customers’ want to get information and services from government.

Can you market government?

Maybe. See if these marketing ideas resonate with you:

  1. Authenticity. This is a genuine portrayal of a product / service / organization’s origins, features, benefits and limitations. This applies to the stories associated with the brand as well. The key word here is ‘genuine’.
  2. Omnichannel. These are all the communications channels you could use (or should at least consider) – digital, in-person, phone, print – combined. An integrated omnichannel strategy is important for consistency, credibility and efficiency.
  3. Open and transparent. In the commercial marketing sense, this means being clear about what you want from users and what will happen once you get it. For example, a company might ask customers to help design a new logo. The company needs to set up the process, explain it well and clearly articulate what’s in it for the customer.

More about authenticity. The benefit of being authentic is that you’ll improve the perceptions about your brand (ie agency, service, organization) by clearly showing the benefits you offer. People understand that not all of their societal obligations are fun but if you can sincerely show them the value of what you do, then they’re more likely to participate if it’s relevant to them. Think about a trip to the dentist: there’s no way it’s something you’ll enjoy. But if the dentist gives you an informed realistic view of what needs to be done and why, you’ll probably just get on with it.

Omnichannel is about reaching more people through more channels. It used to be that TV ads were the best way to make sure your messages were heard. Today, there’s a plethora of channels – social media, YouTube, apps, websites, email, blogs, gaming, movies and services to name a few – demanding attention. Not to mention the hardware:

US New Zealand

So if you’re still thinking old school, a lot of people are going to miss out on what you need to tell them. Omnichannel is also about consistency across channels, cross-marketing and metrics. For example, if you send out information about a new service via Twitter, you can measure who responds to the tweet and gain a better understanding of who to target using that channel. But the details need to match what your call center, frontline staff and website say as well.

The value of marketing

This isn’t just intellectual curiosity: these insights will let you spend time and effort on marketing that reaches the people you want to engage. Many companies are spending a lot of money to build this knowledge. Governments are doing the same. The difference is that governments are sharing: check out the UK Government Digital Services User Research blog, New Zealand’s Web Toolkit blog and the User Experience Toolbox built by British Columbia in Canada.

With caveats, I think that openness and transparency is something that we all expect from our government. In the marketing context, these concepts are probably more important in setting expectations when you engage people. For example, if you’re looking to push a service online, let people know that the digital approach will save government money and so the cost to the consumer will reflect this by being $xx less than the paper forms. That signals the intent, sets the expectation and points out the direct benefit to person applying for the service.

I also think that this aspect can be useful in engaging people to co-create with government. At a small scale, this could be reporting road problems with a stated goal of fixing potholes within 3 business days of receiving a report like Seattle’s “Find It, Fix It” smartphone app. At a larger scale, you could ask people to re-design your country’s flag, which New Zealand is doing right now.

Final thoughts

In a way, governments do have competition. Maybe not for renewing passports, but we sure have to compete for people’s attention these days. The more that I learn about marketing, I can see how useful it is in a public sector context. So I’m focusing on learning the material and thinking about how I can use digital marketing principles in my own work, for my team and as something I can share with others that might get some use out of it.

Whether digital marketing or writing Python code is something you find useful as a public servant, the main point is to keep an open mind about new ways of working and looking for better ways to deliver services to our customers. Just because you’re the first person to see the possibilities, doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

The inevitable disclaimer: I have no personal or financial stake in Coursera, except as a student participating in the learning environment. There are lots of options for similar classes through MOOCs.



Susan Carchedi is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Christine Burke

Susan – I love this post! As a marketer myself, I understand the misconceptions about the field. This meme sums it up well: http://accelitymarketing.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Don%E2%80%99t-Believe-these-3-Common-Marketing-Myths.png

If we take a broader definition of marketing as “methods of communicating ideas/products/services to people,” then I think the value of marketing for gov is more apparent. Keep us posted on your class! And if you ever want to talk about GovLoop’s marketing, I’ll tell you all of our secrets!

Susan Carchedi

Hi Christine – thanks for the positive comment! Marketing is definitely in the misunderstood camp but I’m finding the study very intriguing. My intuition tells me that marketing, communications and engagement are combining into something new as more people see the overlaps. Since my background is in 2 of the 3, I’m keen to see if I’m right about that.

And I’d love to take you up on the offer of hearing about GovLoop’s marketing secrets. It would be illuminating to hear about a very established program and how it was built.

Steve Ressler

Curious – how was your experience taking the Coursera course? What parts of the set-up did you like/didn’t?

Susan Carchedi

Hi Steve – I have mixed feelings about Coursera. The Python class I mentioned in my post was well run, the lectures were clear, I understood what the instructor was talking about… but the exercises and quizzes didn’t match up to what was covered. Perhaps I couldn’t fill in the gaps or make the right leaps in logic due to my own limitations (liberal arts degrees but project management background as well). The marketing has obviously been more successful for me but even that has had some glitches. For example, one of the quizzes mentions a topic not covered until the video AFTER the quiz. And some tech problems such as video cutting out a lot when streaming.

I think this is just part of the learning curve though for MOOCs just like any class. Things I like: being able to watch on my own time or re-watch a video if I didn’t get a concept; the pace of this class; being able to sample a gazillion topics that sound interesting; online access – I travel about an hour to work so going to a class afterwards and still having some work/life balance would be tough but I can download these lectures to my tablet or watch at home. What I don’t like: peer reviews – these can be very useful but many people don’t really know how to write critiques; no real access to the instructor – I know this isn’t practical with thousands of students but a discussion forum doesn’t quite hit that mark for me.

A friend of mine has taken a number of programming classes. For him, these work really well but he’s had similar feedback.

Have you had good or bad experiences yourself?
Cheers, Susan