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Marketing something meaningful: the Government

This is a very quick read with a very good lesson for gov’t agencies—telling a story about how you serve citizens (and vice versa) is far more powerful than trying to get a cheap laugh or gawk:

(from Seth Godin’s Blog)

The Super Bowl hype is blissfully long gone, and lazy media outlets can no longer reprint press releases and dissect multi-million dollar wastes of time and money.

The lesson of these ads is simple. Putting on a show is expensive, time-consuming and quite fun. And it rarely works.

The Gatorade commercial, or the guy clipping his toenails or someone throwing a rock through a vending machine… it’s all show biz, it’s not marketing.

Marketing is telling a story that sticks, that spreads and that changes the way people act. The story you tell is far more important than the way you tell it. Don’t worry so much about being cool, and worry a lot more about resonating your story with my worldview. If you don’t have a story, then a great show isn’t going to help much.

(And yes, every successful organization has a story, even if they’ve never considered running an ad, during the Super Bowl or anywhere else.)


Seth’s post is also a reminder that one age-old media mantra is still true, regardless of technology or pop-culture trends: Content is king. Info and resources that are compelling, useful, and usable will always matter, and the government is loaded with that kind of content. Humor, strangeness, the gross-out factor, etc., can be great hooks to get people’s attention, but they’re rarely a strategy on their own, and they’re often just fluff.

Chances are, your agency can do more than simply entertain to stand out; it has stories to tell.

I want to get better at helping my agency tell its stories. How have you been doing it?

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It is only in the last year or so that the word ‘marketing’ was ok to use in my agency. The culture is that marketing is somehow a bad word in government; that it is some form of inappropriate chest puffing or show boating and totally inappropriate for a ‘serious’ agency. The acceptance of the word has more to do with the reality of the communication revolution washing over the leadership than with the groundswell from rank and file staffers that has gone unheaded for years. The communication revolution was not started by our new president- but his successful use of it certainly got the attention of many long-standing “that’ll never work here” folks in government, not to mention that he clearly stated that modern communication technologies and (emphasize) methodologies will be a part of the government. Rather than being inappropriate, I think effective marketing is our duty to inform the public and Congress in a way that they will hear and understand our programs. How else can anyone make decisions on whether a government program is working, or determine its value? We do a diservice to the public if we do anything less. In today’s world, modern marketing techniques are effective (and expected) tools for communicating, and should be used effectively in government. What a shame for the public to fund new programs simply because they are unaware of decades of investment in existing programs for the same purpose! The start-up phase of any program is often the most expensive phase. It is one thing to transfer responsibility for a program objective from a failing or ineffective work group to a new group- but it is a huge waste to invest in a ‘new’ program as a start-up because you don’t know you already have a similar program and expertise buried elsewhere in the organization.

Dave Hebert

Government has been a strange bird that way, eh? Most other lines of service and industry formally incorporate things like marketing, advertising, and/or communication (among other things) into their operations because it’s simply the smart thing to do. People have to know who you are, what you do, and why it matters to them. And it seems that your experience is a gov’t that instead says, “Nope, we don’t do that. We just do government.” I think a lot of it is simply perception. It’s the same reason that blogs have been a tough sell in gov’t agencies until recently. “Blogs!? Those are those things on the web that get people fired!” Yeah, and so do e-mails and telephone calls if you say something worth getting fired for in them. It’s not the technology or the marketing itself; it’s the content choices. And we control the content. Some blogs have gotten people fired; don’t run that kind of blog. Lots of marketing is sleazy and cheap; don’t do that kind of marketing. You said: “How else can anyone make decisions on whether a government program is working, or determine its value? We do a diservice to the public if we do anything less.” I completely agree.