The Central Office Of Information (COI) is being scrapped in a multimillion pound cost saving redevelopment, being replaced by the new Government Communications Centre (GCC).

The COI always had benefit in the past because it could collectively buy media in bulk at a preferential rate, giving Government departments net savings when advertising. However, that doesn’t work in a digital environment as bulk offerings rarely offer additional savings. So what can the new GCC do to add value to the digital operations?

There are many organisations that have gone through the process of redistribution of offline to online recently. As organisations have struggled to cope with this process, it has resulted in many offline marketers being made redundant, whilst those that convert to online marketing tend to do much better.

Online marketing tends to be a little cheaper than offline and is much more measureable. The Government is going to have to move through this process too.

Last year’s COI annual report (2009/2010) contains some interesting information. In it there is some detail about the various different areas that the government spent marketing money (although it should be pointed out that not all marketing spend made went through the COI).

The COI annual report

In 2009/10, £44m was spent on digital marketing. It’s a shame that there isn’t a breakdown of what is included in this. It should be noted however that costs related to are not included. Moreover these costs weren’t included either when the Government released their accounts last year of how much Government websites cost.

So is it more galling that the £44m doesn’t have a breakdown? That it wasn’t included in the £99m it cost to run all the websites? The fact that is less than 10% of all marketing? Or that it accounts for less spend that direct marketing?

Personally, I think the government should come up with a new plan for Digital Marketing, led by the GCC.

The money should be given to the GCC directly, rather than through departments and it should be increased from its current levels. These are the things that the GCC can do to provide a cost saving over each department or website doing it themselves:

1. Become a centre of SEO excellence

One area that cost savings can be made in a large organisation with many websites is in SEO. Is it important? Yes, it is very important in what is essentially a series of content heavy websites. DirectGov, BusinessLink and NHS (supposedly the only three remaining websites) generate huge percentages of their visits through search engines.

However, just having a centre of excellence isn’t enough. The GCC should have the power to create standards that the websites have to implement as soon as possible:

  1. Technical standards: Friendly URLs (something DirectGov are OK at, but BusinessLink certainly isn’t); h1 tags; Unique page titles, descriptions, etc.
  2. Technical offsite stuff: Site Map creation (and best practice); Use of Webmaster tools; Removal of duplicate content (and one of the big things they should do is force all the other websites that have given DirectGov and BusinessLink content to turn their websites off – having the same content on two websites is a waste of time and money).
  3. Keyword strategies: Making sure that pages use the keywords that users use in the real world; putting them in context; Getting websites with appropriate content to link to them; making sure internal links have the correct anchor text; training editors, and so on. 

It’s all very well and good spending £99m on creating lots of useful information, but if they are going to fail to get it out to the users then it is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

2. Run all the PPC campaigns for Government

Ignoring for a moment the question of whether paid search marketing is necessary on a website that doesn’t make any money back, an area of cost saving across multiple websites is often seen as paid search advertising.

In reality the base cost of running a PPC campaign is the cost of hiring an agency. The agency will frequently have a small base price, plus a percentage of the spend, meaning the additional cost of hiring more than one agency is small.

The big cost can come when more than one department is bidding on the same set of keywords, not only doubling the cost, but effectively competing against itself and pushing up the price of keywords. If all paid search was managed through one organisation this is much less likely to happen.

Plus, if there is enough demand, the GCC could create their own ‘agency’ to manage keywords. This is unlikely to be cost effective however, as the cost of a bidding tool probably outweighs the benefits of bringing in house.

This also has the added benefit of being able to bring any learning from paid search into the SEO strategies.

3. Move some of the money from offline brand advertising for display advertising

Display advertising generally doesn’t have very many click throughs. But it has more click throughs than TV does. Not only that, but display advertising can be a cost effective way of doing brand advertising if you do it in the right places.

Display advertising doesn’t work if you put it in the wrong places with the wrong audiences. A central team will have much more knowledge about where those places are than a team who does display advertising infrequently and will be able to enlist the help of the specialist departments for help.

4. Run all CRM and email marketing

The government has a huge volume of data about how people use websites. They need to make use of that information in a way that means that users don’t get spammed. The only way of doing this is bringing all the data in house and cleaning it.

The Government has grown in the ways that you interact with it very quickly in the last 20 years. In an offline world it didn’t matter if you had several marketing databases of existing ‘customers’, because you were unlikely to be able to contact them all.

In the online world where you may contact the government through many different departments many times, it makes sense to have a single customer view.

A single customer view means that I can get one email telling me to do the most important government interactions all at once. In the current world you don’t get any because they are too worried about spamming you with emails. Clearly something needs to change.

5. Become the team that measures success

Online measurement is critical and should be done by everyone who works on websites. I’ve written about how BusinessLink and DirectGov should do their measuring on this blog before. These measures aren’t the same across all websites.

The GCC should be the team that tells the websites how to measure their success. It should decide which tools to use. It should also be the main source of measurement against KPIs. Taking this outside of the control of the websites themselves means that the GCC can create sensible targets for them to aim for and provide remuneration where necessary.

Having the measurement of the websites held internally creates a false dichotomy that they can effectively decide themselves whether they are successful or not. 

6. Break the Civil Service pay scale

Unfortunately the only way that the GCC is going to be able to do all of the above is if they break the current hierarchy and pay scale for Government departments. Teams need to be made up of experts in their field in a relatively flat structure.

The remuneration needs to be on whether they do a good job, not whether George Osbourne is in a good mood or not. If you pay peanuts, in an industry with a severe shortage of talents, you aren’t even going to get monkeys.