My thoughts on CommsCamp16

CommsCamp is a big deal

CommsCamp16 has lots of Comms people. They talk a lot sharing great ideas. Sessions can be massive and small. For small ones everyone gets to chip in – brill. For larger ones it’s a bit more tough.

I tended to chip in on social media @alanfergs, which is obviously a great way of reflecting on the day – makes sure you look at #commscamp16 to a more complete review.

Me and Facebook

Before the event – I had not posted on my personal Facebook since I think 2009. I’m a Twitter-holic. But, I was forced to log in and join the closed group. It was a nice forced moment. I joined in, got a flavour for what to expect and could put faces to names. A real note on faces to names – I know it’s hilarious having something funny as your icon on Twitter – but its no use when you go to an event as no-one has a clue who you are.

Facebook session

Lead by @paul_compton – my favourite of the day. Session full so ended up on the floor for an hour. But well worth it.

What I learnt:

  • post fewer / better posts – check your analytics and see what works best. Do more of that. Do less of what doesn’t work
  • if you consider Facebook advertising – get help before you start. It will be worth the investment
  • mix non-corporate fun messages eg GIFS into your messages. Keeps the punters interested
  • fire in some infographics along the way – better than long winded text


Over lunch I caught up more with @iojosy who ran the Budget comms session (which I have covered next). I also caught up with @AlbFreeman about work he’s been doing with his council on Snapchat for events. Nice to get 121 overview of what Albert’s been up to and something I plan to test out with our small team.

Budget comms with @iojosy

Simplify your comms messages so that they make sense to Jo Public. Use video, use infographics (we’ve been using @canva on @letstalkcentral). Use the power of 10 i.e. get 10 friends or family to share your message. If you’re using social media and have key influencers – speak to them well before you launch a campaign. If they have 10K followers, and you warm them up, they’ll be online advocates for you. Share your great work – somewhere as we are all doing Budget comms.

Social media management and multiple Twitter accounts

This session was lead by @paulineroche and @ctownsenduk. A lot of chat about which tools to monitor and post on social media. Basically, we all use different tools at different times – Hootsuite, TweetDeck, and just posting directly all raised. My view is that one is not outstanding – we use HootSuite for work, but it has some limitations so we also use Twitter directly, recently using Periscope for the first time.

I thought there was some really interesting points in this session especially around challenging yourself to check social media and sites you don’t normally use day to day. So one guy (forgive me didn’t get the name) highlighted that they go on to cycling forums to check what the hot topics are for men’s health – a more targeted view to see what’s out there rather than blanket comms.


OK, Chatham House rules applies so no names. This message will self-destruct etc….

I got a bit concerned in the therapy session that many people seemed genuinely unhappy in their jobs. Yet all day long, I was hearing about the brilliant work so many people were doing.

So I was a bit confused – stop and reflect on the great stuff, not the bad stuff. Every day might not be great – but there’s something great in every day!

Anyway, that’s my reflective moment over.

Ta / follow

Follow these people – they’re dead smart:






Then for more people who went to CommsCamp16 check out my Twitter list. If you’re not on it, and you were there – let me know and I’ll add your handle.

Thanks to all the sponsors from yesterday’s event. Check them out on the CommsCamp16 website.


Alan – @alanfergs

Indexing a refreshed website on Google

Best-Steps-For-Launching-a-WebsiteI’m working on a refreshed website for Central Bedfordshire Council.

This will mean a new structure, new URLs etc. I want to void any pitfalls along the way so these are the steps I am going to take.

Site Map

Create a site map and submit this via the Google Search Console.

Fetch as Google

I will use this tool in the Search Console to index top 500 pages on the website. This looks like a manual process – unless I am missing something?

Tests from today show that it takes <2 minutes for Google to recognise a new URL once I submit this.

Redirect key URLs

The new website will be on the same domain using the same CMS, which means I can manually redirect the top 200 URLs to the new URL. This accounts for 85% of our traffic.

Remove URLs

If I redirect key URLs then in theory I should go ahead and remove these from the Google search results to allow the new pages to push through via submitting the Site Map and Fetch as Google. I’m slightly hesitant as if (for some reason) these steps don’t work, we could temporarily disappear from the Google search results.

Other steps?

I’d like to hear your feedback on any other steps you would take, or advice on which order to take the steps I have described above.

Much appreciated!





Website page titles – to brand or not to brand?

Life would be easy to work on the Next website it comes to making a decision about whether to include the brand name in the page title. It’s a four letter word. Short. Sweet. No concerns about length of title, how it will appear in a Google search.

A search for ‘mens jeans’ shows the page title Mens Jeans | Mens Skinny Jeans | Designer Jeans | Next.

Getting their key phrases in, plus brand name and coming in at 54 characters. Ticking all the boxes.

The lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng brand name

Now, come if you will into my world….

I work for Central Bedfordshire Council.

When we built our website a few year’s ago we took the decision to place the brand name at the end of each page title so that when a customer searches for this they clearly see we deal with it.

This was especially useful when the Unitary switch took place and we became a new authority. We replaced the former Mid Beds and South Beds District Council. So it got the public used to our new identity.

But the brand name on its own is 28 characters long. 24 characters more than Next.

Our top viewed page on the website is our jobs page and this has the page title: Jobs | Vacancies | Central Bedfordshire Council. That comes in at 47 characters so appears as I’d expect on a Google search.

But, a quick check yesterday shows that a lot of our pages exceed the recommended 50-60 character limit (as recommended by MOZ).

Drop the brand name

So it leaves me wondering, do we drop the brand name from the search? After all, when people are searching for Council Service + Central Beds or Central Bedfordshire, Google will be smart enough to pick up the relationship via the URL i.e.

The only way to test it is to jump in and remove the brand name from the page title and see how it goes. Which does leave me slightly nervous! So, what I thinking is that we build the new site with the option to show page title + brand name on key high ranking pages of the site. After all, 85% of our website traffic goes to our top 200 pages.

The top pages tend to be a lot more easy to name as they are what the majority of the customers look for regularly e.g.

Bins | Central Bedfordshire Council
Council Tax | Central Bedfordshire Council

I’m also planning on losing the ‘pipe’ in the titles and replacing with hyphens i.e. Bins – Central Bedfordshire Council. I’ve done a bit of research and cannot see clear reason to do one or the other to be honest!

So the question from the title of this blog is to brand or not to brand? What’s your take on it?

Internal search – I’m paying attention – are you?

Back in November 2011, we re-launched the Central Bedfordshire Council website search engine to Zoom. It is not expensive, it does not have a flash look to it (though it can do!), but it does one thing…the job. That is, if you know how to make your internal search engine work for you.

I was recommended a book specialising in internal search – Search Analytics for your Site: Conversations with your Customers by Louis Rosenfeld. This book walks you through the well of knowledge you have at your fingertips from the searches your customers are performing.

It explains how to analyse the results and make the most from them. You can then use this knowledge to amend your page structure / content in order that the most relevant pages are coming up in the search. Do you know what the most popular search is on YOUR website? Do you know how many customers are using your website search engine?

I set to find that out and make improvements based on this knowledge.

In 2012, 143 unique search terms represented 20% of the most popular searches. Council tax was top with 2.48% followed by jobs at 1.27% and libraries at 0.41%.

I did two things with this information:

  1. I tested our search to make sure the right page was coming up in position 1 – if it wasn’t I fixed the content to ensure the right page came up
  2. I changed our navigation so customers did not need to search for these key phrases

Change based on solid customer insight

Fast forward to 2014 stats. Council tax is still a popular term to search for but it is dropped to position 4 and there were 75% LESS customers searching for it. The top searched term ‘Planning’ had just 0.54% of total searches performed on the site.

256 unique search terms now represent 20% of the most popular searches. We don’t have a huge peak at the top of the chain with a large number of customers unable to find key information.

We also do not have the same reliance on search as we have constantly tweaked our navigation to improve the user experience.

A large number still choose to use search as a quick way to navigation around the site. However, I am ok with that. It was the previous reliance on search, which I was not happy with.

We get 65% of our traffic via Google searches so there is a lot less reliance on our internal search these days. However, I find it invaluable to check search terms every week to see what our customers are looking for and then plugging gaps in website content and / or amending the navigation.

I have also been lucky enough to get a few top tips along the way from the author of the book, Louis Rosenfeld via Twitter and email. Louis – as ever, I couldn’t have done it without your wise words!

If you’d like to know more about what I have done over the past few years on our search engine, then watch my Brighton SEO talk – An untapped resource for optimising your website.



Socitm e-engagement conference – 12 December

Kate Vogeslang – Lambeth Council

Lambeth Council launched their new website in January 2014 – ten years after the launch of their previous website. Kate Vogeslang gave an excellent insight into this project.

User engagement

Lambeth Council kicked off their web project with a hack weekend. Sixty people came along including (most importantly) residents, councillors, staff and web experts. They were also lucky to have Richard Pope from GDS as an interested resident. They also stumbled across a web designer and UX person in the crowd, who worked for periods on the project.


The scope of the project covered web redesign, content review, and implementing a new Content Management System (they moved to open source – Drupal). However, at the heart of it all was keeping the customer at the centre of everything they did.

Now we have all heard that phrase before from councils, but it appears Lambeth truly embraced it. They are a co-operative council. This is a new phrase to me. The council as a whole wants to break down silos and put solving customer problems at the centre of what they do. The Leader backed their project from the start – vital to have top-level stakeholder backing


They started with data before engagement. You cannot start with a completely blank bit of paper. You need armed with your web stats, search stats, online feedback – it has to be evidence based.

They did a wide variety of user engagement / UX testing throughout the duration of the project. They did not use a long-winded specification and ditched designs along the way – agile, agile, agile…

They set up a central point in a disused coffee shop, fired in a few laptops and got real people to come in and give their opinions throughout the project and other projects. What a great idea to do testing outside a stuffy council office setting. They also did formal accessibility testing and more fun guerrilla testing, where they took a laptop out in the streets to get opinion from customers.

Keep your friends close – and your critics closer

They also faced their doubters and critics head on to engage with them as they regularly challenge via social media. They have turned them into advocated for their new website.

Reviewing content

I spoke about rebuilding website content at Brighton SEO a few years ago. It’s looking at your top performing content and search activity to decide what stays and what goes when reviewing your content.

The Lambeth website had the usual 90% of customers viewing their top 250 pages. You know what – that stat might not be completely accurate but it’s pretty close to what every council’s website stats look like – trust me on that one.

So why have 5k pages when in reality you need 500? Lambeth cut their site right back to focus on their top performing content.

This is interesting as we also heard from Kevin Jump who illustrated websites, which have been redesigned, and it got me thinking that there has been a lot of lipstick used on a lot of pigs. There is no point in building a new website and using the same content. It is wasting money. You must review content and be brutal with it. Challenge ‘statutory information’ until your blue in the face.

Lambeth Council still have a devolved content model, like the vast majority of councils – to me, this doesn’t work and there is no point me writing this blog if I cannot challenge that myself.

Kate also highlighted that the web team is not relatively funded when compared to customer services. One FTE working on web. I would imagine this is a familiar story.

Kate also talked about the Needatron – I must confess a new phrase which I scribbled down and now understand more from reading the GDS blog.


Karen Sullivan – Head of Customer Contact at Croydon

Karen kicked off with some interesting stats and the one, which struck a chord with me, was the reading age of their residents being 12. How do they know that? I need to find out for our website as we need to pitch using the right language when reviewing website content.

They also use devolved content management model and vastly reduced their website content. Like Lambeth, they have also switched to open source, Drupal.

Reducing calls about library services

Karen talked about a soft, medium and hard push to get customers managing their library account online.

  1. Give the customer their PIN number and encourage them to go online
  2. Remind them the next time they call that they should be doing this online
  3. Final chance – do it online or we cannot help you

Ok, I might not have got those exactly right but you can see the principle. They reduced call volumes from 50k to 1k – that is fantastic!

Encouraging sign up online

Customer service agents have a target to sign up five customers every day. If they sign up 10, they can go home for the day. Now, that type of incentive would properly encourage staff to encourage residents to sign up.

Revamping the face to face experience

Karen talked about how they have transformed the face-to-face experience, including the physical settings of their offices, plus meet and greet staff using iPads to speed up the customer experience. Formal desk settings have been removed as staff speak to customer where they are sitting. There are children’s play areas a TV screens with Sky News to keep customers occupied while they wait.

Karen also mentioned that 40% of their customers live on two housing estates and are more than capable of dealing with the council online.


Vicky Sargent – Socitm

Vicky spoke briefly about customer accounts and the fact they are not properly explained at the point of sign up.

She also mentioned taking opportunities to encourage customers to register online such as messages with the annual council tax bill.


Aideen Flynn – Socitm

Aideen showed videos of customers trying to deal with social care queries online. She highlighted that social care content has not progressed in the last ten years and we are stuck with council jargon eg reablement.

We must all focus on the top social care tasks on our website and review the customer journey. As Aideen highlighted, sometimes the small changes can have a big impact.


Kevin Jump – Jumoo

It is always a pleasure to hear Kevin Jump speak. He says exactly what he sees. Kevin has built a tool called localgov.pagespeedy to look at all council websites, which highlights redesigns and loads of other cool information – very vague, but I have not had a chance to really dig into it yet!

Kevin talked about how sites are following similar styles and played the icon game. This took the icons used on council websites and blurring the text beneath them to see if we could figure out what they meant. Some sites have had a icon frenzy and the deeper you go, the more icons you need to create. There are not standard icons so they are mishmash.

The important point was we do not get regular traffic to our council websites. A customer comes irregularly so they will not be familiar with the icons. Kevin pointed out that icons and replacing pictures. However, now is the time that text replaced icons – with Edinburgh Council’s website being a great example of this approach?

Ian Litton

Ian Litton finished with an update on the national approach for identity assurance and attribute exchange.

I’d like to read this presentation in full again to really get to grips with where we are with this project as it seems to be taking small steps in the right direction – I just need to figure out how we can get involved. So, apologies for not talking in any detail about this one.


And finally

It was another great Socitm event. It was smaller than a lot that I have been too which was great as there was more opportunity to talk to other local government website managers and officers who are in similar roles.

Feel free to comment if you disagree or I have misinterpreted anything from this event.

Alan Ferguson@alanfergs

Gov Delivery make an impact

The Gov Delivery annual conference took place on 11 November in London. The conference has grown in the past few years with 500 tickets snapped up and a great turn out on the day with the hall pretty full for most of the day. As ever, the conference was extremely well organised by all the guys at Gov Delivery, with special thanks going to Dave Worsell.

I’m not going to talk through each speaker as I am sure we’ll get the slide decks available online and videos of the day. I’m just going to give my main takeaways.

Feel free to agree, disagree or remind me if I miss anything by contacting Alan Ferguson @alanfergs on Twitter or by email.

You can’t beat a list of takeaways (not the food variety…)

Here are mine with a few already kicked off in work today while fresh in the mind!

  1. Read the white paper – loved the first talk from Guy Dominy and Kevin Traverse-Healy. Going to take a look at PROOF model in particular.
  2. Find more hidden databases – yep, there are more out there. I am going to hit existing groups and see if we can squeeze more customers out of them. I’ve already had a winner this morning with a few thousand customers who completed our broadband questionnaire recently and opted in. We just haven’t imported across recently.
  3. Split test – again already started doing this. I have created call to action buttons which I am testing. This means at the top or early in the body of the email I will add a button to link to the website. I’ll send this email alert to half the database. Then I will resend to the other half with the link purely in the body of the text. Let’s see if the click through rate rises.
  4. Add video directly to Facebook (credit to Peter Hughes for explaining this one to me) – Stephen Clark touched on this in his talk, illustrating that the cost per view for direct uploads to Facebook was lower than the cost per view on You Tube. So the action is to test publishing video directly to Facebook to see the impact for ourselves.
  5. Look at WhatsApp – we’re all familiar with WhatsApp but using it for a council…madness surely (joking!). Well, Dale Shepherd and Lorna Perry think otherwise and we’re all eager to hear how it goes. Good luck to them for taking this leap of faith in trying a new digital channel.
  6. Offer you a social media policy before its too late – we have one and boy did it help us out before diving in. Hearing the horror stories of reeling in 80 or 90 Twitter accounts is a nightmare. Contact Alan Ferguson @alanfergs on Twitter or by email if you want to see ours.
  7. Overlay – we need a Gov Delivery overlay otherwise we’re never going to get the subscribers we deserve!
  8. 3 is the magic number – according to Susannah Pike from Dorset. That is 3 links per email alert. Want to look at their excellent presentation again for more ideas!
  9. Share stats – Susannah Pike showed stats from other councils. We all need to see these to benchmark as I thought we were doing really well! We’re doing ok, but must try harder – we’re a B- at the moment and I need to get us to A***! Gov Delivery aware of this request so watch this space.
  10. Mirror email alerts and the website – thanks to DVSA for these tips. We’re not likely to get this soon but its firmly noted for the future!
  11. Educate others – I’m not an accountant. I never want to be. Accountants are trained to be really good at what they do. I’m well trained in what I do and have many years experience in web, email marketing, social media, marketing (even before t’internet existed), plus general project management and a pretty handy public speaker and facilitator. So I need to take ALL of this and remember to lead the way in educating service areas on how to communicate effectively with their target audiences. That’s just a small takeaway from Cormac Smith’s talk. I’d like to see that full ‘robust, interactive presentation’ (excellent description courtesy of Amish Patel) in all its glory to really appreciate everything that was said.
  12. Enter awards – one way to focus the mind on great work you’ve done is to enter an award. I did this on Tuesday when I submitted a piece for the email marketing award from the top guys at Comms2Point0.
  13. Government Communication Service (GCS) – find out more about what they do and how I can get involved.
  14. Get out more – I always say this but its so important to get to these events and others in association with Central Government too. Last thing we want in local government is to fall further behind the work of GDS in particular.
  15. Meet more people face to face – great to actually meet up with a lot of people I only know from Twitter. It makes the day so much more enjoyable when you get to say hello face to face rather than from behind a hashtag! Having said that, I did love the big screen relaying all the #ukcomm14 tweets.

And finally…

Thanks again to Dave Worsell and his team for arranging the day. It was great. It was lively. It was one to remember – and I’ll remember it for all the excellent speakers who will spent a LOT of time preparing the talks in advance. It showed with all of them.

Alan – otherwise known as @alanfergs on Twitter

Google broke our shop window

Your website home page is your shop window – remember that old chestnut?

Get it on the home page….

It must be on the home page….

Can we get a link from the home page….

Home page, home page…what happened to you?

The shop window has been shattered. Google came along with a huge breeze block and smashed it to bits when you weren’t looking.

Actually that’s not true, we’ve been watching our home page slowly get smashed in by Google for years. Which is fine with me! Remember the days of council home pages with 200+ links (some still have them!)?

It’s why it gets rolled out at conference after conference – Google is the new home page. Well that…and saying ‘agile’ even if you don’t have the first clue what it means. Like the way I managed to get that into this blog post…agile, agile, agile.

I’ve just been analysing our website statistics for June. It is the usual suspects in the top 10 with the home page top. Interesting that last month, the page views for the home page dipped beneath 15%. It just brings me on a to a small point that we regularly face with service areas about the prominence of their content.

We (digital folk) get it…but try telling everyone else

It used to be a very regular request to get information flagged up on the home page as ‘customers cannot find our information’.

But this is a lot less relevant these days, given the statistic I’ve just quoted. Yes, it’s still the biggest hit page on the site, but its far from the be all of getting your content in front of the customer’s eyes.

Google is your home page

So true. We get over 65% of our traffic from Google search. If your content isn’t appearing on Google for the key phrases you are targeting, then the home page is certainly not going to come to your rescue.

This is exactly the message I will be taking to meet with one of our service areas tomorrow. To educate them to think beyond slapping a link on the home page / in the top level navigation, sitting back and patting themselves on the back.

How good is our navigation?

This brings me on to the navigation on the site. One area my stats cannot give me anything on is the use of the navigation. I know how many people go to the main Council tax page.

What I don’t know is how many made it to that page using the right hand navigation on the Central Bedfordshire Council website. to the rescue!

On our website, I have replaced every direct link in our right hand navigation with a link instead. I am going to leave this until September, then measure the impact for August. What I want to see is the volume of traffic for the page in the navigation, and measure how many came from using the navigation as a percentage of the overall traffic. I’m putting my cards on the table and guessing an average of 7%? That’s a finger in the air guess. That’s exactly what I want to remove – guess work. So, thanks for coming to the rescue.

But why?

Curiosity? Actually do something with it?

Bit of both! No more seriously its to do something with it. It will further help banish the myth that the reason customers cannot find service area content is because they are not listed on the home page or in the navigation.

We built our navigation based on the most popular pages and matched this with the most popular search terms. So we pretty much know that it works, but we also see that the most popular search term is still ‘planning’ even though it’s clearly listed in the navigation. People love to search – both off and on site.

So I will use this to educate web editors and service owners when it comes to reviewing their website content. The number one test is finding it on Google.

Alan – there are easier ways to prove this!

I know. But, I have to fudge things a little due to the way our statistics package works as we’re not using Google Analytics. This does limit how easy it is to prove why I believe navigation is well behind Google when it comes to finding your content. But hey, I might be proven wrong come September!

Will we go for a search dominated site instead?

This was raised at Socitm’s building perfect council websites conference last week how big a risk it is to drop one of your routes to content e.g. navigation / A to Z (though I know A to Z traffic is down to <4%). Fylde is a powerful example of stripping back a home page and when I spoke to them the message was a very strong one – its working.

But to get there I’d want to see a more powerful search engine on our site which can look at multiple domains and also show best match results. Yes, all that can be done if you have the budget, the time and the love on internal search. Ok, I’ve at least got the love at the moment! Let’s wait and see about the rest.

Thanks for reading.

T: @alanfergs