Producing content in the public sector may seem, at first glance, like a completely different beast than marketing content for the private sector. However, once we look at the reasons for publishing content, the “marketing” aspects aren’t all that different. Private industry may have bigger budgets and more technology know-how to create cutting-edge websites, but in both sectors the content being produced is meant to support the organizational goals and the goals of the constituents and other stakeholders — in other words, the content consumers.
Content changes behavior
Taken to the highest conceptual level, content is created for the purpose of effecting a change in behavior. In private industry, the behavior involves the support of marketing, brand and, most importantly, sales; while in the public sector, the behavior involves the support of civic initiatives, government direction and, eventually, votes.
Engaged constituents are more likely to be supportive constituents, particularly when they see government bodies operating as transparently as possible and they understand the civic processes that lead to eventual outcomes. Moving up the engagement continuum requires considerable effort as it is usually only a small group within any constituency that makes the effort to gain more than a passing awareness of an issue and becomes engaged enough to get involved. So a main goal of your content should be to help them see and understand how initiatives come into effect and directly impact their lives.
The engagement pyramid
A general framework for constituent involvement is the engagement pyramid. It involves a three-tiered approach to providing just enough information, just in time, to educate constituents about the civic cycle and to encourage them to learn more and become involved in constructive ways.
In the engagement pyramid, there are three levels of content that encourage constituent involvement. This means providing content that:
- Is relevant, accurate, informative, timely, and engaging
- Supplements transactions to help constituents carry out their civic responsibilities
- Demonstrates opportunities and explains benefits of civic engagement
Let’s look at each level of content in turn.
The most basic level of providing content is publishing information, and this should comprise the largest number of pages on any government-related site. Most government bodies have an obligation to provide information about their operations or, at the very least, provide instructions to the public about their obligations.
At the risk of stating the obvious, government bodies have long-standing reputations for being labyrinths of procedures that span multiple departments. People bring external expectations with them when interacting with an organization based on their accumulation of experience with other sites. To be useful, content needs to be presented in ways that cut through bureaucracy. To move constituents up the engagement pyramid, content needs to go further; it needs to create contexts. People should not only be able to find the information they came for, but also find related information that can enrich their connection to the agency. For example, home owners should easily be able to find the recycling pick-up schedule and information about the recycling program in their neighborhood — what can be recycled, how to set out their recycling bins, and what to do in case of a missed pick-up.
Transactions, such as submitting an application or making a payment, make up fewer content pages on a site, but those content pages support a higher number of visits as each visit is for a transaction. The instructions and terminology inside the application also needs to be coordinated with the content on the site to make it easier to understand and complete transactions.
The goal here is to explain the context and instructions of the transaction clearly enough that every person who needs to complete the transaction can do so with success. The larger the numbers of constituents unable to complete their transactions online fewer of them will associate with the website — and the agency behind it — with frustration. To build on the example of homeowners recycling, each home owner should be able to order a replacement bin online, and get a confirmation message that informs the home owner when they can expect the replacement bin. There should be no site crashes, cryptic error messages, or other feedback messages that would necessitate a phone call to City Hall. They should be able to “do and go.”
Organizations can be assured that, whatever level of transparency they feel they’ve achieved, the public generally thinks of government bodies as impenetrable mysteries. Encouraging engagement means presenting content that presents opportunities to get involved, at opportune places on the site. To do that, the architecture of the website needs to be well thought out, and the content should always appear in consistent ways and in consistent places. In the case of home owners recycling, a home owner interested in a greener community should be able to find information about how the recycling program fits into the larger sustainability initiative, and ways they could get involved, from participating in a neighborhood initiative to sitting on an advisory committee. The logical places to show these opportunities is not only on a community advisory page, but in the places where interested constituents might go for other information such as on a neighborhood page, on a page with other recycling-related information, in a Facebook post that links back to information on the site, or in a sidebar on a page about green communities.
Providing a clear path
In the example we used, it becomes clear how having the right information ready and presenting it in the context of the constituents makes it easy for interested parties to get involved or, in some cases, makes apparent opportunities that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The decision of whether or not to engage with a government organization is a choice on the part of the constituent; providing that opportunity is the responsibility of the organization. Under the old guard, calls for participation in civic processes were often through word of mouth or mailing lists of “interested parties.” In the “new order” of our information age, the process starts by publishing calls for participation in areas of the website most likely to be noticed by constituents who are interested in certain civic issues or activities. The process continues when those constituents are provided with an easy way to get involved, likely started by some form of transaction, such as an online form or information on a social media page.