Have you ever tried to get information from a government website about a specific topic? Did it make you wonder if anyone at that government office understood how to make content available to consumers?
While governmental entities do not market products or services in the same sense as most businesses do (many government services are not duplicated in the private sector), by their very nature they compile a great deal of information. In fact, the websites of local and federal government entities in the U.S. are often designed specifically to share content that informs and educates — just like the best B2C and B2B content marketing does.
Unique considerations for government-related content
Though the purpose may not be to sell anything, content created for a government website must still engage readers and earn their trust. To make sure the content you create in the public interest fulfills its responsibilities, there are a few standard rules you should follow:
- Use plain English and avoid jargon, as the diversity of the audience will likely span the socio-economic spectrum.
- Focus on what the consumer needs to know, and how the particular services or information offered on the site can help. Limit information about why or how the government entity achieves its goals, as this extra information can confuse or frustrate people who visit the site looking for answers.
- Format content in a clear, compelling way. Government websites must compete with consumer websites that offer similar information (and all the bells and whistles they offer such as compelling graphic design, widgets, social media icons, and content rich blogs).
- Check — and double check — your facts. For many citizens, information shared by the government has an innate relevance and gravity, while others automatically doubt information from any level of government, and dismiss it as self-serving. To gain the trust of both audiences, it is critical that the content be factual, accurate, have transparent input, and be beyond reproach. It may also be appropriate to have your content reviewed by experts to ensure accuracy.
- Information needs to be easily accessible and relevant, even though government services rarely compete with private sector services.
- A .gov (or equivalent such as gov.au, gouv.fr) extension provides an air of authority, so be sure to reserve these URLs for your content, if possible.
What government sites are doing it right?
When it comes to best content practices for government entities, there definitely are government-owned or sponsored websites that do a great job of sharing information and educating the public. However, many government sites seem to be stuck in the internet of a few years ago, in “government 1.0”, so to speak.
Here are three examples of government websites that make educational content available to constituents, with varying levels of success.
Baby Your Baby
Baby Your Baby is run by the Utah Department of Health in conjunction with two non-government entities. The site is designed as a resource to help mothers understand how to take care of their newborns — and themselves after giving birth.
Content description: The content is created by nurses, medical doctors, and public health professionals. There is not much information to validate the trustworthiness or expertise of the articles, though that is likely not an impediment to the target audience.
Some of the articles contain links to source articles (though some links are broken) and the name of the author of the article. However, most of the articles lack a publication date or information about peer reviews (as is the case with many medical sites).
User experience: For the most part, it seems that users are expected to only use one way to navigate to any piece of information — via the site’s navigation bars.
- Navigation: Each page includes a top navigation bar, with drop-down menus of subtopics. The right navigation bar remains the same on all pages (except for the blog page).
- The topmost navigation bar provides links for the entire Utah Department of Health, as well as a link to search the state website, Utah.gov. This provides a high level of access to the state sites, if desired.
- Search: The search function searches the entire state website and other Utah government websites, rather than just Baby Your Baby, and results can be less than satisfactory. For example, in a search for the term “breast feeding,” results from the site were fifth from the top.
Content: Content is freely available to all who visit the website, and users do not need to register before accessing content.
The information is divided into topics that make sense for the audience and make it easy to hone in on the information needed. Topics and subtopics include:
- Pregnancy — Before, During, and After
- Infants — Overview, Breastfeeding, Dental Care
Format/Layout: The overall format is clean and simple and remains the same on all pages, making it easy to navigate. However, there is limited use of graphics or photographs, and some topics could be more useful if presented as video content, rather than text.
Social media: The Utah Department of Health has its own YouTube channel and Twitter account, which are both accessible from the department’s website (linked to from the topmost navigation bar) but not the Baby Your Baby pages. Yet, Baby Your Baby does not have its own dedicated social media channels, and the link to the Baby Your Baby blog takes visitors to a page without any blog posts.
Nutrition.gov is a U.S. federal government website run by some pretty powerful agencies with a focus on promoting health and nutrition: The National Agricultural Library of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in conjunction with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Unfortunately, this is an old-style website overflowing with information that is difficult to find and isn’t presented in a graphically interesting way. The information may be useful, but it is hard to imagine a consumer spending much time searching for the information they need before becoming frustrated and, possibly, abandoning the search. The site could use a makeover to be more contemporary and user friendly.
Content: The subject matter is broad across the general topics of health and nutrition. The site organizes the content into categories such as:
- What’s In Food
- Life Stages
- Shopping, Cooking & Meal Planning.
However, the content itself is a mishmash of links to next-level pages, other government websites, and PDFs. While the federal government does indeed provide a wealth of information, a site like this would be most useful if it curated its content and focused on providing the best and most recent information available. Deeper-level pages and links to more detailed or professional levels of information, if offered, could help to ensure that all of the site’s content would be accessible without overwhelming consumers.
There is a news section (see image below), though most of what is covered wouldn’t typically be described as news, and this section does not appear to have been updated recently. Moreover, no dates are provided on articles in this section, and most link to other government sites, rather than news accounts on a given topic.
Authority: Each link or piece of content contains a short description and a brief description of the government agency that is the source of the information. Government information is considered public and for the most part is not attributed to a specific individual, though in some cases PDFs show authorship.
Unfortunately little effort seems to have been dedicated to making the information readable by a general audience, as is evidenced by this PDF listing fat and fatty acid content of selected foods.
User experience: Though there is a general navigation bar and search box on the left side of the page, the design of the site makes seeking information or drilling down to sub-pages unintuitive.
Social media: Nutrition.gov has a Twitter site (11,266 followers, to date), which seems to be the only social media outlet for this information. Also, the site does not provide tools to share information via email or social media sites.
New Orleans Office of Homeland Security
This section of the New Orleans city website I reviewed is dedicated to Emergency Preparedness. This site provides information for citizens on how the city deals with emergencies and provides information about what to do in case of an emergency.
User experience: Users can follow a link from the New Orleans City home page to the Emergency Preparedness site. Visitors to the site will likely find the most educational content under a link to General Disaster Preparedness in the left navigation bar. Though not elegantly designed, once you are on the Disaster Preparedness site, it is easy to navigate to the general topics a citizen would most likely need.
Content: Not all of the content listed on the website is available, and what is there is often out of date. For example, the News page is empty, and the link to Learn about Hurricanes and Natural Disasters is broken.
The section on Current Disaster Information is helpful and provides clear pathways to find the information people commonly seek in an emergency, such as school closings, closed streets and bridges, and other sources of emergency information.
At the bottom of every page is a long list of links to the rest of the city’s services, though the great amount of information provided there can make scrolling all the way through each page a chore. The site might be more user friendly if the city found a more elegant way to help users connect to its other departments and services.
Social media: Neither the city nor the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security appears to have a blog or any associated social media sites. However, users can sign up for text or email alerts — if they know where to find the link, which is somewhat hidden (it is located under General Disaster Preparedness, Preparing to Evacuate, below the first screen of information).
As I mentioned above, governments do not generally market services in the same way businesses do. But these and other efforts do demonstrate their recognition of the need to provide public information as an online service. What do you think about these efforts to create and share educational content? And what are your thoughts about how governmental entities can take the next steps?