The Press, August 2014

Memo to the public sector: we are not stupid. So why do you keep communicating to us poor tax and rate payers as if we are dribbling idiots?

Getting your story right is a challenge for all marketers, but it seems the public sector can really get this wrong.

Last week the Office for Senior Citizens were rightfully taken to task by a group called the ‘Taxpayers Union’ for continuing to issue a “guide” for older people who had failed their driver’s licence. Such gems of advice were offered such as “getting lifts from family and friends” and “use taxies” or “use public transport”.

Consultants are sometime accused of stealing a client’s watch to tell them the time. For the public sector it is worse, they compulsorily collect our money as tax or rates and then use that to tell us the bleeding obvious.

This disease has afflicted our local authority too. The Christchurch City Council has been running radio adverts telling us it’s not a good idea to get caught in the middle of an intersection when the lights change, while Ecan is encouraging us to use dry firewood in our woodburners.

While there is a case for public information campaigns, and examples of some very good ones, some basic questions don’t seem to be asked.

Such as (a) are these issues of such importance that tens of thousands of dollars in public sector money should be spent on them, and (b) if they are, are the campaigns being mounted effective and how can we measure that?

Are the people directing these campaigns really asking some of the basic questions a marketer should think about before investing money into advertising or other promotions?

Who’s the audience: who are they, where are they, what kind of people are they, how do they prefer to consume information?

What’s their need/problem: what keeps them awake at night, what delights them? Emotion is what motivates people to do things, how can we connect with this?

How would this communication help them with this need: does it inform, equip, entertain? What does the consumer get out of it?

What are the marketers themselves trying to get out of this? Is it simply about building awareness about something, or more focussed on persuading them to do something specific? And how will we measure if this has happened or not?

What is the story we are trying to tell? What is the single most important thing to convey to the consumer of our communication? This is where the real power of a marketing programme comes in. Being able to tell a compelling story is what drives attention and action, especially in this noisy, online world.

That’s why some of these public sector campaigns are so infuriating – they tell boring stories about obvious things via extremely expensive channels to people who get zero value out of it.

The challenge in my sector, the hi-tech industry, is almost the opposite. Firms sell complex things that deliver incredible benefits but struggle to articulate this clearly to potential customers.

This is largely because they try and differentiate around the wrong things, describing their product in a unique way. At Jade Software many years ago we launched a product described as an “Object oriented client server distributed computing environment”.

On finishing an impassioned presentation to a large New Zealand corporate, a senior executive leaned over and asked me, “it sounds cool, but what is it?”

In technology it’s critical to clearly establish what you are selling i.e. what familiar category is it in, and then differentiating around the benefit it can deliver.

The Jade product was a computer database with some programming tools, something most business people understand to at least a basic level. That it radically reduced the complexity of building large software programs, thereby reducing costs of development and time to market, was why it was special.

That’s a problem that keeps business executives up at night and something they would be excited about solving.

In marketing any technology product you want to differentiate, but not be too different (and therefore a bit weird and risky - think Colin Craig and his Conservative Party). Great technology stories are built around a compelling emotional connection to the customer’s problem, not a complex description of how wonderful our innovation is.

Both the public sector and the technology sector’s problems start with the same root cause – a failure to clearly understand their audience. For the public sector it is a patronising perception that they know better than us, for the technology sector it is an assumption that everyone understands their complex technology as well as they do.

Solving this requires you to start any marketing communication with the question – what will my audience get out of this? Why should they interrupt their precious time to pay attention to my advertisement – have I earned the right to that precious time?

Show us that respect and we will listen.

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