Government puts focus on ‘grasping digital’ in effectiveness drive

The government wants to improve the effectiveness of its digital comms through a focus on real-time optimisation, agility and upskilling.

The Government Communications Service (GCS) is focusing on ensuring its digital marketing is as effective and efficient as possible as it reveals plans to spend a third of its £150m media budget online.

Speaking to Marketing Week ahead of the release of GCS’s annual report, Alex Aiken, executive director for government communications, says “grasping digital” is one of the key challenges his department faces this year as its investment increases. The department has a £300m budget in 2018, with half of it going on media. Of that, it is planning to spend £50m in digital, £50m in broadcast (TV and radio), and £50m in other media.

Aiken says the department has looked “very closely” at getting the balance right in media, including looking at industry reports such as the Radiocentre’s research into the effectiveness of each channel. “The conclusion is we must pick the right channel for the right audience, not worry about spending X amount here or X there,” he adds.

Nevertheless, the government is keen to ensure it is on top of digital marketing, understanding the opportunities and risks, and either taking advantage of or mitigating them. To do that it has three programmes – ‘impact’, ‘engage’ and ‘accelerate’ – as it looks to ensure its digital strategy works both in the future and for current comms challenges.

The first, ‘impact’, was launched last year and aims to improve the effectiveness of its marketing and communications – whether that is paid-for social media or responses to crises such as the Salisbury poisoning. Just this month, it has set up a rapid-response unit that aims to deal quickly with disinformation and ensure fact-based public debate. To do that, the team monitors social media, identifies that disinformation and collaborates across Whitehall on the response.

It has used the unit to respond to recent events including the Salisbury poisoning and the decision to intervene in Syria. One video, created after that decision was taken and explaining the rationale behind it, had four million views compared to the “much lower” number of interactions with stories out of Russia.

“It is an interesting battle we face,” said Aiken, speaking at an event last night (26 April) in London. “The tactics of the Russian government are just to throw out a firehose of lies and it is sometimes difficult for a democratic government to respond with the quantity, so we have to focus on quality.

“Credible, factual, authentic government communications can cut through the noise.”

The second programme, ‘engage’, is now in its second year and aims to ensure government comms is research and data-driven, better targeted and demonstrates greater impact and value for money. To do that, the government has developed a mapping tool, which it describes as a “unique geographical analysis and visualisation programme”, that it is using to inform campaign planning and ministerial visits.

It has also set up a cross-government research hub that uses campaign optimisation dashboards to ensure each campaign is using consistent metrics, so they can be compared like-for-like and in real time for the first time.

Finally, there is the ‘accelerate’ programme, which aims to upskill the comms teams.

“We want to future-proof the profession to take advantage of all these innovations and the very latest in industry tech, and share that expertise across government,” explained Chris Hamilton, deputy director and head of digital communications, speaking at the same event. “We have devised the government’s most ambitious and far-reaching digital upskilling programme yet in comms, which is aimed at driving standards up right across the profession.”

The government’s plan this year is focused on four key priority areas: a stronger, fairer economy; a more caring society; a truly global Britain and Northern Ireland; and a strong, new relationship with Europe.

It is planning to run 143 campaigns, 30 more than last year, as it looks to promote everything from mental health and wellbeing to the 70th anniversary of the NHS and a new cross-government push on cyber security. Pushing public information around Brexit will also be a big priority, as is the ‘Great’ campaign, the largest this year with a £60m budget.

Aiken says the increase is a sign that ministers “recognise the value of our work” and see communications as a “powerful force for good”. However, he will not be resting on his laurels.

“I remain perpetually on my guard about the fact that stuff will happen that we have to respond to and the job of comms gets ever more interesting and challenging,” he concludes.

“We had a good 2017 but the game of marketing and communications continues to move on.”