In trying to spread the word about their new electronic services, governments are getting a crash course in a skill long-perfected by the private sector
Dot-com advertisements are everywhere, on everything. Boston College and
the University of Colorado clashed at the Insight.com Bowl in December.
William Shatner is on every TV station, hawking discounted goods at priceline.com.
And a man in a dog suit distributes sports items to athletes in Fogdog.com
And the ads aren't only on television. They're in print — on billboards,
taxis, tollbooths and stickers on fruit. Dot-coms have realized that getting
their names recognized takes money — and innovation.
Dot-govs are realizing this too. As consumers pressure governments for
the same high-quality service and efficiency that businesses provide, governments
see that they not only have to put services online, but they have to let
people know those services are there.
But are governments headed down the same expensive, high-profile paths
as their dot-com counterparts? Should they be considering creative advertising
campaigns, silly slogans or mascots? Haven't governments gotten by until
now with nothing flashier than a simple press release?
"Marketing works for everyone," including governments, according to
nine-time marketing book co-author Jack Trout. "They have the need to project
themselves as good to do business with."
That concept was in the forefront of the minds of those who launched
Hire Texas, the state's online job-matching service. When the Texas Workforce
Commission readied for the kickoff a year ago, managers knew that to reach
their goal of being the nation's best job site, they would have to market — on a large scale.
"It's not like "Field of Dreams,'" said Leslie Mueller, the Workforce Commission's
director of special proj- ects. "Just because we built it doesn't mean they'll
come. We can't make it self-service if it's hidden."
So managers brainstormed. For more than a week, they tossed ideas back and
forth. They finally decided on a 12-step plan, beginning with teaching employers
about the project to get them excited. That would segue into a full-blown
After an in-house demonstration, Mueller and communications director
Larry Jones began contacting the media, offering a special demonstration
of the program in real-time. The press could call a toll-free number as
they sat in front of computers and were walked through the World Wide Web
Press releases were faxed to 950 news agencies, and 150 individual reporters
were contacted. Sixty-seven reporters were on hand for the demonstration
that day, and the effort garnered more than 130 news stories in print across
the state, as well as national Web coverage.
"To me, it's not a question of being cute. It's just a question of telling
people that it's available," said Trout, whose latest book is called Differentiate
To make government services noticeable, Trout said governments can simply
use the resources they already have — a watchful media, for one. And governments
should target a specific audience, pinpointing their message to individuals
who would use the particular service, he said.
For example, if you're putting permits online because you know small
businesses don't have time to handle permits during typical 9-to-5 government
hours, then small-business owners are your target audience. Taking the message
to local chambers of commerce or Rotary Club meetings might be appropriate.
Mueller and Jones knew they needed to target individuals without jobs
and employers with openings. They pulled together about $10,000 for a campaign.
They printed brochures for job seekers and employers, made buttons for
use at help centers reading "Ask me about Hire Texas," and sent hundreds
of e-mail messages to colleges and universities hawking the site's career
services. Now, 40 percent of the state's colleges have links to the site.
Next came a direct-mail campaign. In December, a card about the program
was inserted into 168,000 of the state's largest employers' regular unemployment
information mailings, costing the department just pennies. In addition,
the department started slipping cards into monthly unemployment checks.
"It's low cost," Mueller said. "We're sending [the checks] anyway."
Kentucky's Department of Agriculture used a similarly targeted, yet
scaled-down, approach to hype the debut of a site where farmers and farm
businesses could create their own Web sites. The department launched the
site last August at a state fair attended by reporters from all the major
dailies, said Scott Willett, director of information technology for the
They also spread the word by doing demonstrations at agriculture conferences,
fertilizer meetings and local libraries. And government managers made sure
the Web site was printed on everyone's business card and listed on every
press release. Billboards could appear in the future. "We want to get the
site noticed and out there," Willett said.
Press releases, although old hat for government, are a good, solid way to
start getting the word out, said Lee Mandell, director of information technology
and research for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Sometimes,
he said, they are all a government needs.
But if a release fizzles, the government will have to have a backup
plan, Mandell said. "It's going to be a challenge for public information
officials," he said. "It's not something we're particularly skilled at."
Some agencies are getting the hang of it, though.
In Indiana, Department of Commerce managers know that people love winning
anything. Tourism officials bet that $10,000 in prizes would attract people
to the department's new tourism site, EnjoyIndiana (www.enjoyindiana. com).
People could simply log on and submit a story about traveling in Indiana
and be eligible for prizes donated by businesses. The bounty included restaurant
gift certificates, hotel stays and weekend getaway packages.
"It was a simple way to drive potential visitors to the site that was
a little bit different than traditional marketing strategies," said Kevin
Weltman, spokesman for the department. "It certainly helps if you can do
something different than what people have done in the past."
In California, the state Franchise Tax Board began a targeted campaign
to hype online filing using a radio commercial that made light of typical
tax-filing rituals. The spot joked that to make it through the time it takes
to fill out a traditional form, you'd need a lot of food. But, not for
e-filing. "Fast, accurate and totally fat-free," the spot boasted.
Over the past two years, the board used $200,000 to target several small
communities where results could be measured. In those communities, e-filing
increased 4.5 percent above the statewide average.
And this year, the board asked the legislature for $260,000 to market
even more. The board hopes the money will increase statewide e-filing to
2.5 million returns for the 2001 filing season. The state almost reached
that goal this year, with 2.3 million returns — about 25 percent of total
But not everything flashy costs big money. Lincoln, Neb., found a bargain
way to advertise InterLinc, the city and county Web site (www.ci.lincoln.ne.us).
The city partnered with a few media outlets, and free advertising was
part of the deal.
"Using media as project partners seemed to make sense," said Terry
Lowe, the city's systems project manager. "You don't get a lot of advertising
dollars in government."
The deal with a local newspaper, a TV station and a radio station allowed
the city to advertise without exchanging money — just advertising. The city
got newspaper ads, television commercials and radio spots while the media
partners were plugged on public space, including city buses. The city, of
course, had Web site ads on all the buses.
"That's a no-brainer," Lowe said. "We own the transportation system."
Back in Texas, six months after the start of the Hire Texas ad campaign,
the site boasts a tenfold increase of new applicants. About 200 to 300 applicants
sign up every day — up from 30 applicants a day before the campaign. And
instead of the 15 to 20 employers that piloted the program, 15 to 20 companies
log on daily to advertise jobs.
Not a bad result for a $10,000 investment, managers said.
And Mueller and Jones aren't stopping. In June, they'll send a card explaining
the program to every employer in the state — about 400,000 total. The monthly
reminders in unemployment insurance checks will continue, too.
Mueller said governments simply have to adapt to the new technology.
"Government is going to have to reinvent itself to what the customer needs,"
she said. "There is no reason why interaction with government should be
different than other interactions."
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