It’s easy to veer away from discussing topics online which you know to be contentious. But tackling them head on can deliver results and improved engagement.
by Mark Pritchard
The month of March. Named after the Roman god of war and said to be the time when military campaigns resumed following harsh winters. It is also the time when the Comms team at Swindon Borough Council wages its own battle – against council taxpayers’ misconceptions about where the Council spends its money.
Like every good Roman army, the Comms team has a war strategy and at the centre of this we produce a booklet which is printed and delivered to all 90k+ households in the area with the council tax bills, in an effort to be transparent and explain where the money is spent. We always complement our booklet with content on social media, which in the past has resulted in a duplication of the content across our channels, but this year we wanted to do something different…
We were given the brief to be more creative without pushing it too far, knowing that council tax, especially when it is higher than the year before, is a touchy subject. We wanted to create content that people could engage with and be interested in because, in previous years, our content had not landed as well as we would have liked.
After many suggestions, our agreed idea was to shamelessly parody the classic TV gameshow ‘Play Your Cards Right’, paying homage to national treasure, Sir Bruce Forsyth. It would all be filmed in-house and the resulting video shared on social. This would be accompanied by an aspirational video highlighting key regeneration projects, a video telling people how the Adults’ and Children’s Services budgets were actually spent, a Facebook quiz and a series of polls.
As you will already have guessed, residents took part in a council-themed version of the popular game show to test their knowledge on whether running Customer Services, revenues and benefits cost more per £1,000 in council tax than fixing potholes and pavements. You can watch the video here.
The crux of the game was to highlight the fact that 84 per cent of Swindon’s budget will be spent on supporting vulnerable adults and children. The lightbulb moments came as players realised that any cards connected to our Adults’ or Children’s Services would be top of the table and that we don’t actually spend all of their bill on tea and biscuits or collecting bins. We even invited our local media to play along and were amused when the Local Democracy Reporter made the same mistakes as residents.
When we posted the video of the game show, along with the other content, it received a mixed response. Reactions on Facebook were overwhelmingly positive but the comments sections were rife with negativity and misconceptions to address. We were on hand to respond to the comments, challenging those that were factually wrong and engaging in debate where we could. It worked, allowing us to have the conversations we would never have normally been able to have with residents and on a forum where many others followed the exchanges.
We knew we were putting up a lightning rod by talking about council tax, and while we did receive negative responses to the content, it ultimately ended up getting us better reach on our posts and allowed us to directly engage and challenge.
The figures speak for themselves on this campaign, and while we can’t measure impact we can certainly say we reached a far higher audience than previous years and had plenty of engagement.
Our 71 posts on Facebook had over 161k impressions which for us is great and a 63% improvement on last year. Our webpage visits to find out further info on council tax were up 490% on the previous year and there were 588 participants in our first ever Facebook quiz. The videos performed exceptionally well for us and were watched over 72k times in total and most importantly we received over 900 comments, 750 reactions and 318 shares which for us is great engagement.
As a team, we challenged ourselves to go beyond simply reposting content from the council tax booklet on our social media channels. We wanted to go a step further and bring the booklet to life in a more imaginative way which paid dividends. You can see all our videos and content by visiting our Facebook page.
And what did we learn from doing this?
It reinforced our understanding that content which works for one medium does not always translate to another. Our council tax booklet content didn’t work as well as it could in previous years and the tailored content worked far better. It was also a reminder that we should never take the easy route and always challenge ourselves to do the best we can which is more difficult than it should be in our often congested working days.
We also learnt to not be afraid of negativity. We knew we would get backlash and in the end we welcomed it as it opened up debates and helped to boost the reach of the posts. Talking about the elephant in the room ultimately helped to get the engagement we needed and share our messages.
Mark Pritchard is communications lead for campaigns at Swindon Borough Council
Image via Stewart Black