Measuring digital communications is the first step, but benchmarking is also critical
As Peter Drucker said, "What gets measured gets managed." That’s never been truer than in the realm of government communications. In another era, this would be an impossible task. But in today’s modern digital government, every digital message opened, website link clicked or social media follower added is something agencies can measure.
So the first step to developing and maintaining the most effective digital strategy for your agency is measurement. But it’s only the first step. Once you have all the statistics and other metrics at your disposal, what are you going to do with them? Is a 25 percent open rate on agency emails good or bad? Is the number of subscriptions per subscriber to your agency notifications on track if it’s hovering around two?
The fact is, the citizen experience is determined by the variety, availability and quality of digital interactions, so knowing if your agency’s message is breaking through is critical. Open rates, engagement rates, click rates and subscription rates matter. They can clarify what’s working, what’s not and guide you to create more effective and accessible communications.
Our 2018 Granicus Benchmark Report, based on an in-depth analysis of the engagement metrics of more than 4,000 local, state, federal and UK organizations, is the only major communications report that focuses exclusively on numbers government can use for apples-to-apples comparisons. It allows government agencies to compare themselves to similar organizations by size as well as by department. It also reveals how public sector communications stack up against the private and non-profit sectors.
People consume information and ask questions using their preferred interface, so our report focuses on the top three channels used by modern citizens: email, websites and social media. The data in this year’s report mirrors the increasing levels of civic engagement happening online – especially among younger generations, according to Pew Research.
Government email leads the way
Emails sent by the public sector regularly meet or exceed private and nonprofit sector benchmark metrics. We found an overall open rate for government emails of 21 percent, a rate that has remained constant over the past three years. That compares to approximately 18 percent for the private sector and 16 percent for nonprofits. The most obvious driver of a poor—or excellent—open rate is the subject line. It should have a “hook” that captures the attention of the audience. Other factors impacting open rates include sender information, time of day and quality of the subscription list.
When developing your strategy, it’s important to identify whether or not the open rate is a key factor you need to measure for success. A large percentage of information sent from public sector organizations can be consumed without being opened. For example, weather alerts or emergency notifications can be conveyed in the subject line like “Snow Emergency Declared in St. Paul.” Your message is communicated, and it’s likely your audience can act without a high open rate.
Email engagement is trending upward
Engagement rate – the number of unique email recipients who open or click an email over a 90-day period -- is perhaps the most important stat to consistently measure and monitor communications. Data analysis for the 2018 Benchmark Report showed that the median engagement rate has increased slightly to 47 percent, compared to 45 percent in 2017, suggesting that government communications teams are better targeting and more accurately messaging to meet citizen needs. The highest-performing organizations—the top 20 percent—saw their engagement rate rise to 61 percent in 2018 from 60 percent in 2017.
A strong engagement rate isn’t magic. When sending a message, you should always ask yourself
the following questions: Am I sending this email to everyone on my subscription list, or have I targeted it to an audience that truly cares about the content? Am I sending this message at the right time for this targeted audience? Is the tone that I am setting in the message one that matches the audience and compels them to act?
Twitter gets shared most often, YouTube gets clicked
Social media can be an important aspect of your organization’s digital strategy, and emails are highly effective at driving engagement on your social accounts. Government agencies have realized the power of social media to convey messages and deliver customer service. Our research found that links to Twitter were most likely to be shared in government emails, however, YouTube links were most likely to be clicked, clearly demonstrating the power of video.
To increase social media engagement, try placing social media links higher in your emails to encourage more clicks. Also, because citizens feel more strongly connected to people than to organizations on social platforms, try promoting the social account of the head of your agency or key department heads in your email bulletins. This will increase their followers and put a face to your agency.
The future is mobile
The 2018 benchmark analysis revealed that half of all traffic to government websites comes from mobile devices, a number that has increased nearly 10 percent since 2016. Research also showed that a city website typically receives more mobile traffic than a county website. Device usage is an important metric to monitor for several reasons. Most importantly, it shows users are accessing your content so you can evaluate how experiences may differ by device. For example, by leveraging this data you can identify pages with higher mobile traffic and optimize the experience for a mobile device.
This is an important finding for agencies with websites that are not yet mobile-enabled. To keep pace with citizen expectations and mobile growth trends, it’s imperative that agencies invest in mobile-responsive website design. Strive to make it as easy as possible for visitors to find what they are looking for and complete tasks from any device. To make navigation more intuitive for mobile visitors, create an app-like interface for your mobile website. Feature large tile icons, buttons and text, and quick links to top tasks completed by mobile users.
Strong SEO is critically important
Sixty three percent of traffic to government websites comes from organic search, so the continued emphasis on search engine optimization is vital.
Leverage Google Keyword Planner to identify popular search terms and ensure your content contributors are trained on basic SEO best practices, such as including top ranking keywords in the title, image alt tags, meta description and URL of each content piece. It helps to use a CMS that offers built-in SEO prompts so good keyword tagging is part of the content creation process.
In addition, video, images and emojis can help content stand out and garner clicks in a busy social media feed. Social media should be used primarily for short content and important updates with a clear call-to-action to drive visitors to the agency website for more information.
Strategies are always changing
While communications strategies can be measured, they also are always changing so sharpening your digital strategy should be an ongoing process. Even if you focus on just one of the three digital channels preferred by citizens, you will come away with a sense of how you’re doing compared to your peers and how you can continuously improve.
Lacy Beauchemin is manager of digital engagement services at Granicus in Washington D.C.