Digital.gov’s Federal Communicators Network (FCN) held an event in April 2022 with a panel of federal communications and marketing leaders to discuss key benefits and potential pitfalls of digital advertising and paid media.
Speakers included Necola Staples, Director, Strategic Outreach at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Bronwyn Emmet, Digital Outreach Program Manager at Veterans Affairs (VA). The event was moderated by Raashee Gupta Erry, White House Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) at GSA and FCN’s community managers.
Panelists shared their experiences, lessons learned, and best practices for what works in the federal government agencies that have robust programs reaching a diverse cross-section of the public.
1) What role does advertising play in your outreach efforts?
Digital advertising allows for real-time user testing and feedback. This is a unique aspect of digital advertising compared to traditional offline advertising like TV, print, etc. A multi-channel mix of tactics—search, display ads, email marketing, paid social media, partnerships, and partner-integrated social media—may be a good way to explore what works before dedicating resources to a particular channel.
When considering whether or not to advertise, conducting research to identify and understand your users’ needs is important. Key findings include:
- Where are the best places to find your audience online?
- What sort of messages do they currently receive?
- With what messages do they seem to interact?
- What mediums are they gravitating toward?
The tactics differ if you are trying to reach a large, mass audience versus a localized, niche segment.
Along with advertising channels, also focus on the landing page where the audience is being driven. Set up landing page metrics to accurately measure and demonstrate the impact of the advertising efforts.
NoteWatch: Social Media Spring Session 2021 (social media advertising and best practices).
2) It is unclear if government agencies are allowed to do paid ads. How can folks learn more about rules that cover paid advertising?
Generally speaking, federal agencies can advertise, but we need to adhere to all federal- and agency-level policies and requirements. Each agency likely has their own set of rules and policies, so check with your agency’s offices of General Counsel, Public Affairs, and Public Education, among other offices, before you begin.
3) How is information and messaging that is disseminated broadly edited for consistency and accuracy?
Leave plenty of time in your schedule for the clearance process; it may be extensive. This process is typically applied to all of the information that is going to be used within a concentrated communications plan and ad campaign messaging. Ongoing monitoring should be done for consistency. Even though you may use pieces of the communications plan at different times, the messaging should be approved and vetted for consistency up front.
It is important to figure out the approval and clearance process within your agency. It is critical to work with your communications and legal teams from the beginning to set up this process. Having it in place from the start will ensure you don’t run into last-minute delays.
4) How do you test to see if your ads are reaching the intended audience?
Have a clear understanding of what metrics you’re going to measure; it will help you to tell stories to get internal buy-in, demonstrate impact, and prove success. For example, use landing page or website analytics provide insight into user demographics, pageviews, mobile or desktop devices and operating systems used. Best practices include:
- Establish goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) to determine follow-up actions.
- Use tag managers to collect valuable data about visits to your website; set ad tags to confirm delivery and measurement tags to provide performance data.
- Review audience data from platforms and vendors during the campaign so you can adjust, if necessary.
NoteWatch: Digital.gov Analytics YouTube Playlist (tag management, A/B testing, and more)
5) How do you measure the benefits?
Having KPIs and their associated calls-to-action are important for cost-benefit analysis. Some agencies measure the return on investment (ROI) based on the ad dollars it takes for someone to click on an ad, go to the site, start an application, complete an application, or other tasks. Also, there will be different metrics for different platforms and tactics; some will be direct contributors to the ROI, while others may be indirect (such as seeing a display ad before clicking on search or a social video before visiting the website).
6) What are some of the ‘must do’ or critical steps to take before getting started?
- Connect with internal partners: Use a framework method like RACI (which stands for: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) to help figure out who will be your internal liaison and associates.
- Take a systematic approach: Have a well-organized project plan with key milestones. Don’t skip steps or rush to the finish line.
- Analyze and optimize frequency: Digital advertising provides the benefit to optimize your activity. It’s a very active medium and allows a lot of flexibility. Don’t “set it and forget it.”
- Focus on actionable insights: Use data to track all performance, compare against benchmarks, and socialize the success.
- Celebrate the wins: Take time to celebrate the big and small wins with your team!
Digital advertising can be an effective tool in your outreach efforts. When setting up the program, invest time at the beginning to conduct user research, test various distribution channels, create relevant calls-to-action in the copy, establish KPIs, and set up tracking for relevant measures. From a process standpoint, do the initial due diligence to connect with the general counsel and other offices within your agency for approval; it will connect you with the internal partners who must be involved in clearing your agency’s communications.
Consider digital advertising as a distribution channel. You’ve probably built a great communications plan, a slick website, and eye-catching visuals and videos. To make all this work worth it, you also need to reach your audience, distribute the message to them, and invite them over to take relevant action. Digital advertising is key to success!