Measuring the Effectiveness of Local Government Communications

By Kevin Knutson

Vice President of Customer Success for Envisio

You're doing a lot to get information in front of your residents, businesses and other stakeholders, but do you really know if what you're doing is having the intended impact? You've been tasked with increasing resident engagement, but how do you know if your plan to do so is working?

Having the right performance measures can help answer these questions and create opportunities to improve even more, by analyzing trends over time and designing pilot projects designed to move the needle on the indicators that you track.

Most city and county communications teams have a good handle on workload measures, such as number of press releases issued, and many have embraced efficiency measures around cycle time and cost, but few are measuring what really matters—the impact of all that effort.

It's vital to choose performance measures that identify the outcomes that you want to achieve, that define success for your programs. The things that you measure are the things you and your staff will give the most energy to, so make sure they matter.

It's also important to look at your communications efforts through several lenses to get a complete picture, including the reach, penetration, level of engagement, experience and opinions.

Here are some measures that you can evaluate for use in achieving your communication goals.

Reach & Penetration

A basic measure of the success of your communications program is the number of people who see the media you produce. There are a number of metrics to determine if you are actually reaching the audiences you are trying to communicate with. The following measures provide information on your audience to determine reach (how broad) and penetration (how deep):

  • Resident survey that asks how many people use your various offline channels (newsletters, magazines, PEG channel, etc.),
  • Online video views (your website, YouTube analytics, etc.),
  • RSS subscribers (your blog),
  • Blog/newsroom visits (your website),
  • Traffic source (location of visitors/viewers),
  • Raw author contribution to blogs (posts per month, characters per post, videos, photos),
  • Document downloads from your website or hosted locations,
  • Unique website visitors,
  • Duration of website visits,
  • Website bounce rate,
  • Incoming links,
  • Website transaction volume,
  • Call center contact volumes, and
  • In-kind value of ad and PSA placements (ad equivalency).

Level of Engagement

The key way to measure engagement is to measure the reach of particular messages about engagement opportunities though individual communication channels and compare that to the actual participation, and then evaluate various media and message mixes to the participation outcomes.

The types of engagement will vary depending on your organization and the programs you offer, but typically you can collect the following data:

  • Attendance at events, forums, and meetings,
  • Participation on boards and committees,
  • Reader engagement on blog posts (percent read),
  • Conversion or click through rates on calls-to-action,
  • Bounce rates for outbound emails,
  • Growth rate of opt-in email list,
  • Email forwarding,
  • Participation in online polls and voluntary surveys,
  • Brand impact of content (surveys),
  • Citations or shared web resources that you've produced, and
  • Participant surveys to find out how they heard about the opportunity (lead sourcing).

Using A/B testing (using two different methods to see which gets the best results) for calls-to-action or landing pages can give you insight into the most effective messaging.

Experience & Opinion

One of the more challenging aspects of the changes in media is that while there is now more subjective feedback available directly from constituents on issues, this flood of information is difficult to compile and analyze in a way that provides actionable data.

One way is to collect comments and feedback from various sources and conduct an affinity analysis to see what the general tone or direction those comments are taking. One simple affinity analysis is grouping responses by theme to see what topics or issues have the most discussion. To do that analysis, collect the following data:

  • Satisfaction with your communications (Resident survey),
  • User ratings and comments for your content on social media sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube),
  • Social media mentions,
  • Number of fans/subscribers/followers, and
  • Sentiment analysis on other sites, such as blogs and newspapers.

Media Tracking

One of the ways to determine the effectiveness of campaigns and other communications programs is to measure the number of times messages appear in earned media.

At one of the cities I worked for, we did this using an online media tracking program to assist us in determining the placement and tone of media mentions of City policies and programs.

We had several challenges in implementing this program. The first was in designing search terms and setting up media sources to make sure that the software captured relevant media mentions. Second has been in reviewing and "scrubbing" collected data. For example, most television news stories are captured through transcript postings that include multiple stories from a single broadcast. Staff must read, edit, and format the entry to make it useful.

Another example is in syndicated stories. The Associated Press will occasionally pick up a local newspaper story and it will be republished on websites across the country, making it difficult to determine what the actual reach of the story was.

Data collected under this rubric could include:

  • Number of stories, both in general and on specific topics,
  • Number of stories generated by City staff efforts,
  • Key messages included in outside stories (content analysis),
  • Tone of stories, and
  • Value of coverage.

It's Time to get Started!

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it covers the important concepts in determining if communications have been successful, and acknowledges the broad range of media used by most governments today.

There is a lot to chew on here and certainly most smaller offices won't have the resources to capture and analyze all the different metrics above. It's important, however, to start somewhere and begin capturing evidence that your efforts are having an impact. In addition to providing you with actionable feedback, it will also help you make the case when you ask for more funding.

Using online tools, from Google Analytics to paid public relations management services, can make even the smallest shop a measurement powerhouse.

However you communicate with your stakeholders, the key is to have measurable goals that you are trying to achieve and measure your success in attaining them. Tracking these outcomes over time can help you to refine both your messages and the media you use, leading to continuous improvement in your outreach efforts.