Why the job title commercial manager for a local council isn’t as incongruous as some might believe. Plus a brand new commercialisation workshop your members may like…
by Eleri Salter
I’m one of those strange people who loves selling advertising! Getting a sale is a real rush for me. Yet I’m proud to work for a London borough council. But I understand that many people whose working lives are dedicated to public service might find this jarring. How do you square commercialism with providing publicly funded services – especially when justifying your choices to your residents?
It’s these sorts of questions that make me thankful the Local Government Association has given me the chance to speak to elected Members at the forthcoming masterclass on communicating commercialism. Because, in fact, a) there has been a long, fruitful history of collaboration between local government and the private sector (think of the council events that wouldn’t have been possible without sponsorship), and b) the idea of having to “justify” commercial activity is quite wide of the mark nowadays.
There will always be concerns expressed by a few, but not now by the majority. And, so long as you’re armed with facts and stats, you can confidently champion the idea that raising revenue by commercial means ultimately helps protect public services for the future.
What do residents think about councils and commercialism?
Alongside my role at Haringey Council, I also work part-time for CAN Digital which (amongst other things) runs an advertising network on which public sector organisations earn income from ads on their websites.
When CAN surveyed its local council partners a couple of years ago about residents’ responses to website ads being introduced, over 70% said they received no negative feedback at all. Over half of the remaining councils had just a single complaint. None of the partners had negative feedback from more than ten residents in total.
In the run-up to a new dedicated masterclass by the Local Government Association, CAN ran a poll for residents on one of the council websites which receives most traffic and engagement, asking whether residents were happy for their council to earn money commercially. No one was moved to fill it in! I think this speaks volumes – there are no strong feelings on the issue.
Some number crunching around the online behaviour of council website users provides more evidence to back this up. This found no real change in the number of pages accessed before and after advertising was introduced (3.34 before ads; 3.42 after ads). And the “bounce rate” (at which a user leaves a website without clicking on any further pages) also didn’t vary (40.1% before ads; 40.6% after). In both cases you would expect a significant change if people were put off by the ads.
The commercial value hidden in council assets
My current role at Haringey came about when a former head of communications there asked me if there was any commercial value in the media his team was producing, recognising that it had a larger reach and distribution than any other local media.
His instincts proved correct. I took the cost of each council communications ‘product’ and built a commercial rate card to sell advertising on it, reflecting what local advertisers could afford to pay so they had a good return on their investment.
There was plenty of interest. I’ve brought in hundreds of thousands of pounds for Haringey Council through advertising sales. I also renegotiated old contracts with suppliers which could eventually deliver millions of pounds to the council. Advertisers are not only keen to tap into the reach and distribution of council print publications and websites, but also the brand-safe environment they offer (no fake news or dodgy videos!).
Through my work with CAN, I now asset audit other local councils and develop bespoke media packs to showcase their whole offer. And by council assets I mean anything that could be turned to commercial advantage through advertising or sponsorship: print publications, website, apps, social media, emails, and out-of-home assets like roundabouts, bridges, and street poster sites.
Communication is the key
I understand councils need to be careful when it comes to commercialism. Any advertising or sponsorship associated with local government should be in line with their values.
But there is lots of good news to shout about when done right. Using your assets commercially not only saves money and protects services but can also give local businesses a boost. It can raise their profile amongst residents and help grow the local economy and employment – especially relevant as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s important to get your communications team on board – and not just so they can press release the good news stories. Putting income generation to one side, if communications teams retain ownership of these media assets they can also use them to promote their own campaigns for core services like foster carer recruitment and recycling, which in turn could lead to budget savings through earlier intervention.
I suspect many councils have a few hundred thousand pounds a year in commercial revenue they are missing out on – and the value of their media when used for their own campaigns runs into tens of thousands of pounds in savings. So, you’ll see why I believe the words “commercial” and “council” aren’t at odds at all!
Got an income target? Does your commercial work need communicating?
An all-new workshop organised by the Local Government Association is a must for elected members.
Taking place on 3 March via Zoom, the workshop features compelling case studies from four councils – including Eleri and Haringey – plus panel Q&A where your elected members can learn more from councils effective in communicating their commercial activities and plans.
Encourage them to be there – they can sign up on the LGA’s dedicated sign-up page HERE.
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Image via Josh Graciano