Digital campaigning essentials: introducing the ecosystem


This podcast will provide you with a better understanding of the paid digital and social media landscape.

You will gain knowledge and insight to plan and deliver more effective outcomes from the budget and resources at your disposal.

Delivered by: David Amstel, Cabinet Office, Head of Campaigns

Listen to the podcast

Welcome to Government Communication Service (GCS) Accelerate essentials learning series. Accelerate is the GCS digital skills and cultural transformation programme which aims to raise the digital standards across all areas of the profession.

For this module, we will be focusing on digital marketing, which provides you with an S.O foundation to help you with digital campaigning. If you’d like to aid your learning visually, you will find a copy of the slide deck to support this training session on the GCS website. Happy listening!


[David] Hi, I’m David Amstel, I’m the head of campaigns in the Government Communication Service (GCS) based in the Cabinet Office. This is a podcast to introduce you to some of the elements of the recent Accelerate course on digital campaigning.

We’re going to look at today some particular cases studies around some of the key topics you need to consider if you’re working in marketing or campaigns and delivering that campaign activity digitally.

It aims to help you ask the right questions of colleagues, agencies and of your own work. If you will be doing digital campaigning in your day-to-day work, then it will give you the tools to get those skills.

It will also help you when you are commissioning or getting work in from others and are looking to do some quality assurance. And ultimately, it will be a great place to start to form the important questions you need to ask when you’re doing any digital campaign activity.

I’ve worked in marketing and communications for over 20 years in various roles within private sector agencies working on commercial brands and on a number of government campaigns, and for the last couple of years, I’ve worked in the Government Communication Service.

The team I’m based in is called Cross-Government Campaign Services and it’s particularly focused on all the elements to support colleagues across government in delivering their campaign activity. So the things we are going to talk today about are really part of the day-to-day work that I do here in GCS.

We’ll talk about how digital advertising has evolved, and what the current ecosystem is and how this might affect your campaign delivery. We’ll have a little bit about programmatic advertising and we’ll also have an overview of the issues and challenges of the system.

In this podcast, compared to the course we’ve done on this, we’re going to do some detailed case studies which look at how digital channels have been used in a number of really interesting campaigns across government to help you understand some of the issues in more detail.


So why is using digital channels for communication and campaigns so important? The key benefits of using digital are it’s fantastic ability to target your audience in ways that are interesting and engaging for them.

Think about how you may use social media channels and if we are able to reach people that we need to talk to with our campaigns in the right channels, at the right time, with the right messaging, that messaging can be really, really effective.

It also allows us to send timely messaging as well as people are using digital channels all day, every day. Again, think about your own usage of them. So it allows us to be much more cost-efficient and agile in our campaign delivery.

Over the last 20 or so years, the whole digital universe has completely exploded. We only have to go back to 1991 and there was in fact only one website. As we entered the new millennium, there were 17 million websites and now in 2019, there are now 1.5 billion websites, so that is a lot of content people are looking at on a daily basis.

And the great advantage for us as government communicators thinking about getting great value for money for taxpayers is actually the average cost of reaching news digitally can often be under three times cheaper than reaching them in offline media. Now this depends on the audiences you’re trying to reach but if you can define your audiences well and clearly, it can be a really cost-effective way of reaching them.

As a result of this, there has been a huge growth in the importance of digital media channels in all government campaign activity and now that spend on digital accounts for probably just over half of all total government media spend.

For any campaign activity delivery, social channels are going to be absolutely key, but think about how you use different channels in different ways.

Facebook is fantastic for reaching a very broad audience and can often now be much older than a younger audience. Instagram is fantastic if it’s a more visual medium. Twitter, much more appropriate for immediate news, and platforms like Snapchat, perfect for reaching younger audiences.

But the key thing about using all of these channels are making sure that you’ve got the right type of messaging and the right type of content for each of those channels.

So for example, what might work really well visually on Instagram wouldn’t be the same as what would work on Twitter. You need to be thinking very carefully about the audience you’re trying to reach and make sure your content is structured and targeted accordingly.

If we’re trying to reach business to business audiences, LinkedIn could be a perfect platform for them and again, the way you use that is very different from the other channels.

To understand how this would work in terms of making sure you’ve got the right content for the right channels, we’re going to look at a case study from the Ministry of Defence for the Royal Navy.

What they did was commission a suite of films which were designed to inspire and capture the audience’s attention using different storytelling techniques.

Their target audience was 16 to 34-year-olds who were real classic digital natives with high social media and video usage, and this was reflected in the video channels used.

So, for example, they created long-form video assets of 30 and 60 seconds, and these were used to drive emotional connections and inspire audiences. And there was short formed content using striking stills and GIFs, and these were designed for each social platform to capture attention initially and then drive people to find out more.

And the final thing to say about the content was that it wasn’t just used to gain initial attention, it was actually used to keep people engaged throughout the whole application process, because once you show an interest in joining the Royal Navy, it can take a period of time from there all the way through your application process so anything we can do to keep candidates warmed up throughout the whole process really, really helps the conversion from the initial expression of interest all the way through to them completing the application process.

What I really like about that Royal Navy case study is it really thinks about what people are on the platforms for. People go on social media channels to be social, to find out new information, make contact with friends and family.

They’re not there for the advertising so we always have to think about that when putting our messages about there, how can we integrate it into the experience so that people actually want to engage with our content when it’s not their primary reason for using those channels in the first place.


Next, we’re going to talk about programmatic advertising. The first thing that’s always good say here is, ‘well, what does programmatic actually mean?’.

Programmatic is, rather than a type of advertising, it’s a technique for doing it which means it’s automated. A lot of people confuse it with bidding in real-time for advertising and that is just one of the ways that ads support programmatically because it is all automated, it enables advertising space to be auctioned at a fraction of a second.

At its core, programmatic buying is any ad that gets progressed through machines, through computers. And it’s really helped revolutionise the way digital advertising is bought and sold.

If you think back to how digital advertising may have worked initially, you would have bought it in a similar way to buying newspaper ads, for example. You would have said, ‘I want to have an ad on that website. I want it to run for this period of time’ and just like an ad in a newspaper, it would have appeared, run for that period of time and that would have been how it would have operated.

Now with a much more automated way of delivering advertising, we have the ability to track audiences across digital platforms that they are using.

The real advantage for government communicators means we capture people around very tightly defined interests and demographics. So if we are interested in, for example, young families, we can track and use the data that is captured on people’s website usage, where have they been, what are their interests and build up a profile of them so we can actually then use that information to ensure advertising is correctly targeted at them.

When they come on the website, are they actually someone we want to be talking to? But, it’s really important to remember that any data that is captured and any data that is used has to be with the permission of the user and there’s a lot of work going on at the moment within government with the Information Commissioner’s Office about really understanding what it means to grant permission to use your data and how we can use that in a responsible way in how we deliver advertising.

But there’s a real advantage for people receiving advertising that is well-targeted at them because it means it’s relevant and we have, as government, lots of really important messaging that we need to reach to sometimes vulnerable audiences. So it’s really, really key that we can find those audiences online.

So using data responsibly will always be an important part of how we are able to talk to those people. So let’s think about what we can do with our ability to really understand audiences online and how we can target them.

In the next case study, we’re going to look at from the Home Office on fire prevention and fire safety, targeting is a really key part of how the messaging is delivered.

The campaign blends mass and precision targeting across a carefully selected channel mix and this is all really enabling them to get both reach and awareness for the really important messages that they had to communicate around the dangers of fires in the home.

The ‘Fire Kills’ campaign is aimed at preventing fatalities and injuries from accidental fires in the home. What is really good about this case study is that it thought about ‘how can we actually guarantee that the audiences we’re talking to are in their home?’.

So, they used a range of targeted messages that were delivered through smart speakers and WiFi connected devices, because if you think about it, smart speakers and WiFi connected devices have got a very good chance of actually being in the home.

So thinking about the method of delivery was actually a key part in the targeting approach. Purchasing data was used for people that had bought candles and matches, and this was all added together to make sure the campaign was really, really well-focused and it resulted in an engagement rate of over 10% in all the digital activity which is a really good level of engagement.


Using digital channels for campaign delivery comes with a whole range of challenges and issues. We’ve talked just now about the importance of making sure you use data responsibly but there’s a whole range of challenges and issues out there that might affect the effectiveness of the delivering of your campaign activity.

If we look at the area of ad fraud, it’s one of the world’s lucrative, yet low-risk forms of organised crime and in fact, some organised crime gangs have created their own digital advertising networks to help facilitate the fraud.

This can include bots clicking on ads when they’re not being seen by human beings, it can involve spaces on websites being sold at only a size of one pixel by one pixel – so technically something appears on that website but it’s not actually your ad in its full size – and it can involve ads being placed on top of each other. So again, they’re technically on the website but they’re not really being seen by people.

And then there’s the whole area of brand safety, how can we be certain that our advertising is appearing on sites that have safe, sensible content that is appropriate for government advertising. To ensure that government advertising appears in brand-safe environments, we have a whole series of policies and objectives for what sites we will work with to ensure that our messaging always appears in an appropriate environment because there is a huge danger of it appearing not in an appropriate environment and that message being totally overshadowed by the content around it.

Working with YouTube has been a particular challenge for government: in 2017, there was a big story through The Times, specifically around how big brands fund terror on YouTube.

The way lots of YouTube advertising works is those that create the content actually earn money from the advertising placed around it. So if you’ve got very popular content, irrespective of what that content is, you can potentially earn money from advertising around it.

This means there could be really un-brand-safe content out there, including content from extremist organisations, that is benefitting from government money because our advertisement is appearing around their content and if you get an ad appearing around your content, you earn money from that.

So, very recently we’ve been working with YouTube to see how we can ensure that government advertising that has the potential to appear on their platform wouldn’t be funding unsafe content. And that’s ongoing work between government and YouTube because YouTube is really, really important for reaching audiences and it’s something that we’re really keen to ensure only happens if we can ensure that we are super brand-safe.


It’s really important to remember that using digital channels for campaign delivery gives government communicators a fantastic range of opportunities that in the past just never existed.

In an excellent case study from the Department for Education on teaching, they were able to take these fantastic opportunities with digital campaign activity and combine it with more traditional, offline TV advertising.

So, for example, when the ads for teaching appeared in ITV 2’s ‘Love Island’, the actual number of searches went up at that same time so they were able to capitalise on what people were seeing offline in an online environment.

So the opportunities are really, really huge and in this final section, we’ll just recap on what they are. Firstly, targeting: targeting is so key and critical to effective campaign delivery and the digital environment really gives you the chance to do that.

Using data responsibly, thinking about your own sources of data that you may have and collected, and your understanding of your audiences which needn’t just come from paid activity, but also some basic analytics on your own social media channels. And even small insights into age, geography or interests of audiences can help focus and target your messaging.

The second thing to remember is cost-efficiency, it can be really, really efficient to reach specific audiences in a digital way. If you think of offline media, take out-of-home advertising, for example, these tend to be focused on very broad audiences. The great advantage of digital campaigning is you can be much more cost-efficient and focused.

And the third and final thing is agility. Given the fast-changing environment that lots of camping activity can appear in, digital gives you a chance to be really, really agile. To turn the campaign up when there are opportunities to increase and engage people further, and perhaps to pause the campaign activity when you feel there’s a natural reason for not doing it.

It also enables you to be really, really accountable for the money that we are spending because ultimately at the end of the day, it’s taxpayers’ money that all government campaign activity is spending and it’s the accountability part of digital that is the most exciting part for government communicators.

How can we say what we have spent has had an effect and digital is the perfect way of getting really good measurement in place to know we’re getting engagement and starting to deliver those all-important campaign outcomes.


Thank you for listening to this module in our GCS Accelerate essentials learning series. End of transcript

Learning outcomes

By the end of this podcast, you will:

  • gain an overview of the issues and challenges of the ecosystem
  • understand the evolving digital advertising ecosystem
  • receive an introduction to programmatic marketing

Show notes

The shows covers case studies:

  • ‘Fire kills’ campaign from the Home Office
  • ‘Keep people engaged throughout the application process’ from Ministry of Defence for the Royal Navy
  • ‘Teaching’ campaign from Department for Education

It also mentions the advantages of programmatic advertising and the work the government is doing in regards to area of ad fraud. Read our article: Safeguarding government advertising online.