How is the Department of Education using open data programs, email and social media to engage stakeholders? Check out the snapshot below of part of the panel session with Cameron Brenchley, Director of Digital Strategy for the U.S. Department of Education from this year’s annual Digital Communications Tour stop in Washington DC. For some of the other panelists’ views, check out the Farm Service Agency panel discussion. The answers have been edited for brevity and context.
The Department of Education has been prioritizing open data programs to become more transparent and develop innovative citizen solutions.
Cameron: Data is big. For us, it’s a top trend on our list. Identifying how much data is available has been taxing, though; we just keep finding more and more datasets. Opening up that data and allowing the public to use it has become a priority for us. We hold data jams and encourage innovators to use the data that is available to develop their own products and apps that benefit the public. It’s an important tool for us, and it saves us money to use the innovative techniques and skills of other people. We don’t have app developers at the Department of Education, and we do need the innovative techniques and skills of other developers.
The Department needed to decide what channels brought them the biggest “bang for their buck” when executing communication plans. While many internal stakeholders pushed for more social media use, the agency found that email communications saw greater results.
Cameron: I did a great job of selling social media to the department and now I’m paying for it because I spend the majority of my time going through emails of all the things we should tweet. At the end of the day, Twitter is just a tiny drop in the bucket of people who are paying attention. While some of them are key stakeholders or power players that spread a message beyond its original reach, email is where we see the best results. Not many people give me suggestions about what we should be emailing out. Yet my email open rates are higher, more people come to our site via email, and more people take action because of our emails. So if our goal is to get someone to read something or apply for something, social media is cool and is effective in its own way, but in many cases we just need to come back to some of the basics that we’ve done for a long time. We can’t forget the stuff that emails get results just because sending a tweet is sexy.
Obviously I think social media’s not going away. People ask me all the time if I think social media is dying. But I don’t really think it’s the tool that matters, it’s the way we’ve come to communicate more directly with citizens; social media has changed that. I don’t care if it’s Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or whatever, we’re now using two-way communication and graphics with the public to tell our story and to get information out. I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon. The tools may change slowly over time but how we’re using it and how we’re interacting with the public will continue to grow.
The Department consolidates information across its various digital platforms to better segment and target its audience before sending specific messages.
Cameron: We have a divide and conquer strategy as far as stakeholders go. In education our audience is really large and diverse. It’s really important that we’re using our digital communications platforms in a targeted way. As most of you know, in the government it’s hard to collect a lot of information about people. But for us, at least we can ask what school district you’re from and what state you’re from. We can collect a lot more information about grantees because they’ve filled out forms with their information so we know who they are.
With a good idea of the channels that will encourage its audience to engage with the organization and take action, and a targeted audience segment, the Department then consults its GovDelivery and website analytics to inform the content that it sends to these audiences.
Cameron: We have a great teacher newsletter, which is our largest GovDelivery list, and it continues to grow. I pay attention to the GovDelivery analytics around what people are clicking on, and it gives us a good temperature of what people are interested in, particularly teachers, whom are one of our main audiences. We also take a look at what people are interested in. For instance, during tax season people come to us to find out how they can get information on their student loan interest. Those types of huge spikes in email clicks or Web page views throughout the year give us insight into what we should include in our newsletters or what we should be tweeting about.
One of our best campaigns is Teacher Appreciation Week, which is really specific to our audience. We try to talk about the difference our teachers are making in the country across all our platforms and events. We get the biggest bang for our buck with that campaign using email and social media. We use GovDelivery to get people to our events and highlight what we’re doing to get people involved.
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