Best practices for communicating in a digital world
By: The Digital Communications Coordination Unit, Privy Council Office
Meeting people where they (already) are – online!
There is an age old adage in comms: meet people where they are. Today, that means online. In Canada, 94% are internet users and 83% are social media users. The Government of Canada’s web presence, Canada.ca, receives almost 100 million visits each month and official social media channels have millions of followers.
Our digital channels therefore represent the primary interaction point that most people have with government – for information and updates, to access services and resources, and to engage and provide feedback on a variety of initiatives.
But beyond where we meet people, the experience people have with our digital channels is intrinsically linked to trust, confidence, and successful delivery of Government of Canada communications, programs, services, and initiatives. People’s expectations have been set by those who are doing digital well – from media and entertainment industries, to online shopping, to secure transactions like banking.
The pandemic has only accelerated this shift towards digital services, which means that the Government of Canada must continue to advance its efforts to deliver clear, consistent, high-quality digital communications to keep pace with the expectations of those we serve. Beyond technology, digital excellence is about collaboration, user-centricity, interaction, and engagement.
Think digital from the start
“As you progress in your digital maturity, you start to put digital first by prioritizing digital channels over traditional ones … to meet [people] where they already are—online.”
Digital communications are part of an ecosystem and digital should never be viewed as the strategy in isolation of other activities. From announcements and promotions, to issues management, to engagement, to service delivery, to providing research and insights, there are so many ways that your digital channels can be used to support your organization’s priorities. Web and social media channels should be a key part of your planning, delivery, and measurement.
After an announcement is made, people may turn to web to get more details, learn about eligibility or rules, or to apply. They may google and land on Canada.ca, or they may see posts promoting a new program in their social media channels or on an ad on TV. It is imperative that there is content to support them, content they can use, trust, and recognize as coming from the Government of Canada.
From here, digital communications teams can also analyze feedback and metrics, not only to report on performance, but also to inform and adjust content and messages, develop new themes and tactics, and also provide insights to shape the next phases of the strategy.
It is important that digital communicators get engaged early on in the planning of any strategy or initiative. Bring forward ideas and opportunities to support the overall objectives and contribute to better communications. The earlier you approach an objective with a digital lens, the more effective you will be.
Digital-first means people-first: Tactics for web and social media
Digital excellence is about people. It’s not necessarily about using the latest technology or jumping on a trending tactic. It means building and shaping your digital content for the way people will experience it.
This means content that is clear and easy to find, understand, and engage with. No one wants to spend a long time navigating bureaucratic language.
Your web presence is where people come to do something, find something specific, or apply for a program or service. Modern web content needs to be designed to make this experience as easy as possible for users. User-centric web content should be:
- Developed for the web, based on user needs. Get subject-matter experts, approvers, and writers together with the web team to build for digital interactions. We should not be putting lengthy text developed as Word documents on the web; rather, we should be writing and formatting content online, for the ways people coming to the site will use it.
- Integrated in themes and topics. People see us as “the government” and we should not expect everyone to know which department or program is responsible for which part of a service or information, or what the official names are, and make them find it. Build for the user experience, not based on government structures. The Government of Canada’s COVID-19 response web presence has set a new standard for an integrated user-centric web experience. While the content is a collaboration of significant amounts of work, content, and subject matter spanning some 40 departments and agencies, for the user, it’s a place to find the information they need based on themes and topics through an integrated whole-of-government approach.
- Accessible and easy to read, understand, and navigate. Lessons from the Canada.ca Crisis communications content design checklist (2021) can be applied to most web content. Use plain language that is simple, easy to scan, and easy to understand. Use terms people use when they are searching for this information. Make sure the format is clear and easy to follow. Apply descriptive text, formatting structures, coding, and descriptions so that everyone can access it, including people using assistive technologies. Use lists, bullets, and short sentences over paragraphs of text. Have menu titles and links that are clear and intuitive. And use a mobile-first style.
- Coherent and consistent (Canada.ca design system). Consistent formats and structures across all pages help people navigate the website, maximizes task success, and builds trust by helping users know that they are on the Government of Canada’s website. This also helps people better recognize scams and other content that is not trustworthy on non-government sites. Consistency can be followed by using the Canada.ca design system and standard templates.
- Co-create for digital. All of the criteria above can be facilitated by taking a more agile approach to real-time collaboration on web content. Instead of sending around Word documents with multiple rounds of track changes for web content, virtual co-editing and co-creation sessions are very effective ways to get better digital content, make updates and changes quickly, evolve to changing context, and have everyone on the same page. This blog by the Canada.ca team (2021) highlights the benefits of when you co-design with approvers at the table.
- Usability test with actual users. Seeing people navigate your content is the best way to find the problem areas and optimize the content for the people who will use it. Build usability testing into your planning, based on the users’ objectives (key tasks). The experience will help to inform continuous improvements and make sure users are able to find the information or complete the tasks they came to the website to complete.
Check out the Canada.ca blog from the Digital Transformation Office at the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) for a variety of informative, proven, and evidenced-based guidance, tips, and articles on improving your web content at blog.canada.ca.
Your social media is for engagement (not one-way communication). Government of Canada social media channels are also key tools to engage with people, deliver sustained campaigns, listen and respond to questions, and provide more specific advice, tools, and information about programs and services. Here are some key components for delivering an effective social media presence:
- Know yourself. What is your brand? Determine your voice and tone, and the flavour of your channel. Will you use active or passive language? How will you be timely, and authentic? What type of content will you post, and what is your niche? How will you engage, and what are your rules of engagement? Take inspiration from other channels.
- Know your audience. Who do you currently reach? Who do you want to reach? What are they interested in? Where are they online? With a better understanding of your audience, you can actually engage them in campaigns, invite and inspire user-generated content, and make them a part of a larger effort, moment, and community.
- Build for engagement. One tweet may be to announce something, but to build and sustain relationships with your audiences, you need to make them a part of your content and campaigns. Find ways to engage them regularly, bring them into the efforts, and genuinely listen and respond to evolving themes and conversations.
- Leverage the community. You may have 10,000 followers, but millions of people follow all the different Government of Canada channels. Building campaigns collaboratively with other departments and agencies to coordinate, amplify, and sequence across numerous channels will significantly increase impact and outcomes tied to your objectives. Different channels have different audience bases, may have a presence on different platforms, and may have other ways of engaging with audiences. A coordinated campaign that spans multiple channels also has much better pick-up and visibility.
- Answer people. You can create goodwill, build trust and relationships, and most importantly help people by answering questions on your social media channels. One answer may help hundreds of others with similar questions. You should also actively monitor questions and content to inspire ideas and topics for new content that interests your audiences.
- Use plain language. Avoid jargon, bureaucratic speech, buzzwords, or words that are needlessly complex. Instead, try to write as simply and straightforwardly as possible so people get it the first time. You can use the Hemmingway tool to tell you how readable your content is. Your content should be conversational, relatable, and inclusive for everyone.
- Be accessible. In your content, use emojis judiciously to avoid replacing words with them because screen readers will describe them. For images, use descriptive text to explain the visuals, captions for audio, and links to alternate formats.
- Make it visually rich. Images, gifs, and videos capture interest, help communicate and simplify information, and make content more digestible. It’s rare today to see content without a complementary visual. Not only does it grab attention, virtually every social media platform privileges visual content on its users’ feeds. It also helps with information retention. Make sure your visuals are of sufficient resolution and dimensions and are appropriately sized for the platform you are using.
- Post regularly. This does not mean post frequently and obsessively, but social media platforms do algorithmically reward users that post diverse content fairly regularly; which is one of the reasons why many organizational accounts have content calendars. If you’re not sure how to “fill your calendar”, look out for: days of note (national days or social media days, like “puppy day”), emerging trends, or thematic days, such as recurring days where you answer questions, posts quizzes, invite users to “caption this photo”, etc.
Collaboration: Building synergies will strengthen your digital content
High-quality content needs to be aligned and integrated. Collaboration is both the goal and the lever to doing digital right. As previously noted, most people see the Government of Canada as one organization: “the government”. The importance of collaboration – coordination and alignment – across domains and portfolios has been noted repeatedly over the years, and was made clearer over the pandemic.
It may be harder than working in silos, but the impact is worth the effort. Throughout COVID-19, people have turned to Government of Canada digital channels regularly, for timely updates and to access support measures, guidance, and requirements that were continuously evolving and spanned numerous departments and agencies working collaboratively.
This gave the Government of Canada a no-fail mission to move quickly from silos to a united government-wide approach. The result was unparalleled alignment across hundreds of social media channels and thousands of pages of web content to make sure people could consistently and easily get what they needed. This not only helped to amplify the reach of our communications, but it had a crucial role in providing consistent, reliable, and trusted content.
As we look forward, communicators will be able to build on this collaboration and capitalize on changes in culture and in practice, and all the relationships, synergies, and workflows established together to support better alignment, integration, and results. By working as a community, we benefit from ideas, insights, expertise, tools, and contributions from all across the Government of Canada. When we bolster our efforts and leverage the talent throughout the enterprise, it help us better reach, engage, and support Canadians in ways that resonate and reinforce the importance of our collective efforts. Better cohesion leads to a greater impact.
Measure, analyze, adjust: Use insights to inform your communications
Last, but certainly not least: decisions should be based on evidence. In planning phases, consult different sources to understand people’s needs, topics of interest, and terminology to help plan your digital strategies. You can find insights that already exist from many areas of your organization, including public enquiries, program and service data, errors and feedback, web insights like top pages and search terms, media and public environment analyses, and results of previous digital campaigns. Referring to data during planning will help to set objectives and plans, with relevant and measurable key performance indicators (identify which metrics need to be collected). You may also conduct user-needs research to help design content, and conduct usability testing on web content during the development phases, with actual users.
After content is published, regularly review web and social media analytics, such as page visits, feedback, search terms, on-site searches, call-center enquiries, social media comments and conversations, and public opinion research insights to identify and focus on the top information and services Canadians are seeking.
By analyzing insights regularly, you can identify trends, and see what works (and what doesn’t!) on your channels. This evidence helps tailor content based on audience needs and make timely adjustments to campaigns in order to reach the set objectives. It also has a key role in planning for future campaigns.
Use evidence, measure, and adjust to create successful content and campaigns.
Get in touch!
Over the past year, as members of the Digital Communications Coordination Unit at the Privy Council Office, we’ve had the privilege of working with the digital communications community across the Government of Canada. This includes hundreds of experts working together, breaking silos, creating spaces for collaboration and co-creation, and driving user-centric whole-of-government content and campaigns – in order to provide all those we serve with better digital experiences.
Our team (Mary Beth Baker, Brenna Maher, Justin Mathews, and Caroline Perron) are always eager to learn from, support, and welcome digital communication colleagues into the web and social media communities in our collective, no-fail mission to advance digital excellence. If you have any questions or simply wish to connect, feel free to drop us a line at DCCU-UCCN@pco-bcp.gc.ca!
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