One lesson learned from the swine flu outbreak is that cross-marketing the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention on other federal Web sites helped drive more citizens to sign up for emergency e-mail alerts, according to GovDelivery, a company that manages public communications for government agencies.
A few days after the first word of the outbreak, CDC's site made available a widget, a downloadable information display that updates itself automatically, for other sites to post on their own Web pages.
Partly due to this promotional effort, CDC grew its e-mail subscriber base by 103,000 registrants between April 24 and May 6, according to the firm, which handled CDC's online communications campaign. Normally, between 400 and 600 citizens register for e-mail updates on any given day, the company said.
"We're doing a lot of work to try to help our clients get information out through every channel possible," said Scott Burns, chief executive officer and co-founder of GovDelivery.
Agencies are just learning how to brand and sell themselves in the world of new media, Burns noted. Of course, targeted marketing is a little harder for government departments than department stores. The vast majority of federal agencies only gather e-mail addresses from users.
"We provide guidance to the government" to have citizens "only provide the information it needs and not look at what Amazon is doing and try to copy off that," Burns said.
But, in some instances, such as the recent floods in North Dakota, an agency will ask for zip codes to tailor their messages for areas in immediate danger. And CDC was collecting country information during the swine flu to send targeted alerts to subscribers in Mexico, Burns said.
GovDelivery has a little more leeway in the information it can collect and disseminate. During the first days of the outbreak, the firm was a lot faster in providing CDC traffic figures to Nextgov than CDC was.
"We're a private company," he said. "Our understanding with all of our clients is that statistics on how they're doing with their communications is something that they want to get out in the public domain. Whereas who is surfing what information we'd never share."