The government’s consumer empowerment strategy sets out what government and others could do to help increase consumer insight and understanding of markets and, in that way, enable consumers to get better deals for themselves, both individually and collectively.
We approached the digital team with the initial idea that we wanted to create an online tool to help us publicise an interactive guide created for people thinking about clubbing together to get better deals through collective or community purchasing. We also wanted to raise awareness of our 'Buy Better Together Challenge' that we were introducing in partnership with Co-operatives UK. This was a prize that was designed to encourage new innovation in the area and help people get new schemes up and running. A further initial objective was to explore setting up a forum to enable people thinking about community buying to share their experiences and best practice.
How we went about it
The digital team quickly discouraged us from setting up our own forum - persuading us that it would require more time than we had as a team to monitor and moderate, and that we should instead look for an established forum that we wouldn’t have to invest time in building up ourselves. So, our plans were revised slightly, and we worked with the digital team, who used their bespoke WordPress platform to develop an interactive site that could fulfil our varied requirements: sharing information in an interactive guide to community buying and case studies, provision of guidance for people who wanted to embark on a community buying project; and publicising our Challenge. This would also link off to a forum on collective buying set up by moneysavingexpert.com.
One particular intern was confident in digital skills, and used her own online profiles on Twitter and LinkedIn to promote what we were doing, and curate content through tools like Storify and Chirpstory. We were also approached by the Guardian to take part in a Q&A on community buying - this was a great way of answering detailed questions on the Buy Better Together Challenge. And we blogged for Consumer Focus, recognising that their channel was one way in which we could reach consumers.
So our focus was very much on engaging in areas where community buying and consumer issues were already being discussed.
As the project progressed, though, wider changes in our directorate’s priorities meant that resources were directed elsewhere, and we were unable to proceed with our plans as we had initially hoped. We had a number of staff changes which meant there wasn’t the time to put some of our original plans into practice. We were working closely with Co-operatives UK and their teams, but they also experienced similar staffing changes. All this meant that the resource to carry on engaging digitally just wasn't available. So, on the advice of the digital team, we archived the site. We were disappointed not to have the site live when we announced the winners of the Buy Better Together Challenge, but both BIS and Cooperatives UK were able to raise their profiles through corporate digital channels, including Flickr and interviews with the winners on Audioboo.
What worked well?
Initially, having an enthusiastic intern, who both understood social media, and was genuinely part of the buying community gave the project both credibility and impetus. But that was also a disadvantage as we weren’t able to sustain her level of activity once she left the team.
The tone of the site, and the visually appealing guidance, was very much aligned with/in tune with the community that it was reaching out to.
It was a different and quick way of disseminating guidance, in easily accessible chunks.
Having a partnership arrangement with a well respected organisation in the field gave the challenge and guide credibility.
The site was a quick and easy way get people engaged with the Challenge – we got over nearly 300 expressions of interest and 100 applications for a prize which didn’t have a lot of offline promotion.
What didn’t work so well?
Despite its initial value and success, in the end, this part of the project became an add-on that we didn’t have the resources (in terms of people) to support on an ongoing basis.
Team changes and losing our enthusiastic intern meant that there was a very noticeable drop in activity after she left.
Having Co-operatives UK managing the mentoring phase of the Challenge meant that, as a team, we weren’t as close to the individuals and groups that we might have been able to successfully profile through the site.
We weren’t clear enough about the interactive elements of the guidance, so didn’t capitalise on that by encouraging those experienced with community buying to actively share their own experience and learning.
We learned the importance of detailed planning (e.g. so that editorials and blogs are lined up well in advance) and the need to have a contingency plan.
We were given a window into a world that we didn’t have any experience of. But, we found that dipping our toe into digital waters wasn’t as scary as we had first thought.
We have used that experience in subsequent projects and put aside initial fears to give engagement a go.
We’ve learned that it’s easy to overreach ourselves, and have ambitions that are greater than we can achieve with limited resources
As I have gone on to engage on midata policy, and talk about that engagement, across both BIS and Government, I’ve realised that there are many different models and experiences between departments. Within BIS, we do seem to be more accepting of risk, and trust our policy staff to experiment online.
Impact on the team
The experience gave me and my team confidence to continue with digital engagement on midata, and I was confident to let midata team members run with an open digital engagement approach.
For me, Twitter is now a useful source of insight and information
The knowledge gained from the Community Buying project meant that I was able to argue the benefits of online activity with senior colleagues.
It brought home to us that in order to embed more digital approaches to policy making, that we had to be willing to let things fail, provided that we learnt from them so that an improved approach can be taken in future projects.
A little knowledge can make you an expert in the eyes of others!
Digital Team Takeaway
- It’s not enough to rely on one or two enthusiastic team members. Teams and priorities change and people move on. Think what capacity exists, and build in an exit strategy, and a way to share learning across team members and wider teams.
- Don’t leave it to the interns, or the enthusiastic few - encourage all members of the team to learn from existing skills.
- The requirement for businesses to comment on regulators with whom they might be likely to come into contact may have an impact on the conversion rates. So, while the team may have no problem in getting traffic to the site, it can be harder to translate that traffic into comments.
- Keep pushing: build in a series of check ups and check ins to future projects.
- Interactivity for its own sake has little value.
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