Golden non-rules for government communications

Wednesday, November 11, 2015
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

We’re past the days of people calling for government writ large to be “more like the private sector.” It might still come up for certain areas or practices, but the view that private sector techniques are a panacea is fortunately out of date.

But private sector practices have a more subtle, distributed influence too. In fields like marketing, communications, or community management it’s far easier to find books and resource directed at the private sector. The software we use is almost invariably designed for the private sector (e.g., customer relationship management, web publishing, and analytics platforms). We have to mentally convert terms like “sales leads,”disregard some irrelevant ideas, and bootstrap some missing ones.

With the private sector comparison in mind, I’d like to look at some reasonable rules for government communications - and their limits.

Measure engagement

Last year I was getting advice on analytics from a friend in the private sector. She suggested mapping website pages out on a 2x2 grid to start analyzing content against views and time-on-page. It looked like this:

You can see how the logic applies to a company’s blog or product page. If people rarely find a page, but when they do find it they spend a lot of time on it, perhaps it should be promoted better. But what if your “best content” - i.e., where visitors spend the most time-on-page - is an FAQ explaining how a government program works? Or guidance on how to complete a transaction with government? If they’re reading text because they can’t figure out how to do something, that’s not good content, that’s bad service.

Consider the idea of a retail sales funnel, below. The idea is that a number of people will keep taking steps towards buying something, and you want to minimize the number of people you lose at each stage of the funnel (via losing interest, bad UX, etc.):

This isn't what we do, but the logic behind it is pervasive. I’ve heard people talk about “driving traffic” to government websites. Why? We’re not selling anything. We're not necessarily trying to get more people into the funnel. 

Maybe a stakeholder seeing a tweet and simply knowing that there’s a policy that says government data and information is open by default is exactly the ideal outcome. For many people, I don’t think clicking on that tweet and reading that policy adds to their experience. They actually shouldn't go any further into the "sales funnel". Which means that Twitter’s engagement metrics might be precisely backwards sometimes; maybe it means we didn’t write the tweet clearly enough and we forced people to waste their time finding an explanation.

Community is king

“Kent, we haven’t seen you in a while.” “Kent, X, Y, and Z people are all talking about #exln42.” “People are looking at your profile.” Etc. We get emails like that every day, plus tons of straight-up content marketing. Community is king, they say. Create a relationship with your customers. Every business wants a relationship with you. Buying show tickets in a city you don’t live in? Heck, may as well make you choose a password and verify your account for the next time you happen to be swinging through Sao Paulo. Why not.

“Kent, check out these shows that are happening this weekend [8,000 km from you]!”

But really:

“I’m not here to enter into a relationship. I just want to buy something.” [source]

In government, we want to maintain regular communications, write engaging social media content. Of course.

But maybe, we actually want to design for transience, not community. Maybe, we don’t actually want people coming back regularly, because maybe they don’t want to come back regularly. Maybe they don’t want to “check back” or “stay tuned” or “keep watching this space.” Maybe we should contact them only when we have something really meaningful to share, while erring on the side of being forthright for the sake of transparency.

Don’t make me think

Don’t Make Me Think is a wonderful book that everyone should read, regardless of whether you work in digital communications or not. It’s about designing websites, and the golden rule is that everything should be easy for visitors. They shouldn’t have to search hard for the information or task that they’re most likely to be looking for, and things should work intuitively.

But in government we have to nuance even this bible. Nick wrote last week about how government’s role may appropriately be a platform for slow, deliberate dialogue, and he’s right (see: Thinking Fast and Slow About Online Public Engagement). That will often be the approach we want. In a crowdsourcing world, a high volume of people that click Like is probably not our goal. In the private sector it's about lead generation. For government, it’s about better decisions, people feeling involved, and decisions being legitimate.

Are single-click upvotes the right way to gauge sentiments on, say, where we build power plants? It’s a sensitive, complex topic.

An example: the Brooklyn Museum asked their community to help curate an exhibit called Click!. They designed the engagement platform to slow people down. No Likes, no Favourites, no Upvotes, no thumbnails of art to scroll through. Participants had to view each piece of art at full size, one-by-one, consuming their screen, and enter a number out of 100, slowing them down just enough to make the process deliberate and thoughtful.

To be clear: the functionality was still smooth. The task was still easy to complete. They just defined the task as “thoughtfully review and rate art” instead of “rate art.”

The future is visual

Tweets with images get more engagement. Posts with videos get linked more. Visual content drives engagement. On Facebook, photos get more Likes and Comments than other content types. Youtube is apparently a whole big thing. (Here’s a bunch of stats.)

40% of people will respond better to visual information than plain text.”

What does that even mean?

Yes, of course, if we as government officials have important information and visual content is how we get people to view it or understand it, great. How to file taxes or awareness campaigns about online bullying are good examples.

Here’s a framework for how we interact with information (h/t):

We can present information such that people interact with it in a purely conceptual, abstract, rational, and language-based way. Or, we can present it in a very perceptual, visual, and even visceral way.

The rise of visual content in political campaigns and product marketing is often based on the desire to elicit an emotional, rather than rational, reaction. The images and music in some political ads (particularly in the US) are designed precisely to avoid having our language processors kick in.

More people will click on content that fits in the bottom right of that graph.

But maybe, the future of government content will often still be to elicit deliberate and rational reactions. Which means that we might find ourselves in positions where we could build an infographic, but we rightly decide not to. The future might occasionally still be text-heavy, and we’ll be okay with that, knowing that it’ll serve the needs of the country.

Lastly, plain language

Just kidding. This rule stands. Plain language is the way. Stop writing like that. (That goes for me, too.)

Non-rules are made to be broken

I'm not suggesting that we don't try to engage people, or that we skip visual content, or that we should be protecting citizens from our web content. Not at all. But we live in world where the state-of-the-market and much of our professional guidance is an imperfect analog for government's goals - and citizens' goals interacting with their government - and we must be conscious of that.

This post owes a lot to last weekend’s CanUX conference, particularly the presentations from Marsha Haverty, Leisa Reichelt, and Shelly Bernstein. Feel free to check out my rough notes.