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Making sure our blogging meets user needs

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Ways of working

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When I joined GDS as the head of editorial in March last year, we had 15 different blogs. It was a real mix – the main GDS blog, some community-focused blogs and some programme blogs.

The blogs had a lot of engagement overall. But there were some issues too.

Too many blog channels

The main issue was that our audiences were confused. We were getting a lot of feedback from users saying that:

  • they wanted to subscribe to our content, to read about the things relevant to them but they weren’t sure which blog to subscribe to
  • our identity as an organisation was fragmented and confusing (imagine having 15 different Twitter accounts)
  • GDS staff who wanted to blog weren’t sure which blog to publish on to get the most out of their posts

Everything we do at GDS follows the government design principles, including the first one – start with user needs. Our blogs are no different.

We set up our blogs to address our need to talk about and share our work. This is still true but we need to make sure we consider the needs of our audiences too – our internal and external users, our readers and our authors. You're only working in the open if people can understand what you're saying.

The feedback we were getting from our users made it clear that we needed to make some changes.

The changes so far

In the last 12 months, we’ve reduced the number of our blog channels from 15 to 11.

We archived the ‘Assisted digital’ blog because we weren’t regularly publishing on it and the content overlapped with the main GDS blog. When there are new stories about assisted digital, they will be published on the main GDS blog.

Our readers and colleagues working with data told us they weren’t sure why we ran two data-focused blogs. So we worked with the data community at GDS to merge the two channels and create one cross-government community blog for data scientists and performance analysts. It’s called ’Data in government’.  

We archived our ‘Government technology’ blog because we can publish our technology stories with more impact on the main GDS blog or the ’GDS technology blog’. Some of the most engaging technology stories were published on these 2 blogs in the last 12 months, including a post about how to code in the open securely, which got 33 times more unique page views than an average post.

We archived the ‘GDS Digital engagement’ blog due to a big overlap with the remit of the main GDS blog.

So we now have 11 blogs – that’s still a lot, but it’s a work in progress.

There’s no target we’re trying to reach. There is also no right answer to the question of how many blogs an organisation should run. What matters is the users – the communities that want to share their work and the readers who want to learn about it – and how well their needs are met. It may well be that we will create new blogs in the future. If this happens, the decision to do so will be based on evidence and user feedback.

We publish less but with more impact

If you look at the posts we’ve published recently on the main GDS blog, you will notice that they’re not as frequent as they were pre-2017. This is not an entirely deliberate shift – for example, we didn’t publish anything during the pre-election period last year. But it’s a shift that has resulted in higher engagement.

Quantity doesn’t equal quality – however clichéd that may sound, it’s true in this case.

We haven’t stopped ideas. We’ve sometimes combined them together and published them in longer blog posts. Or we’ve tied them in with important events GDS has celebrated, as part of multi-channel campaigns – like the ones to mark the first anniversary of the Government Transformation Strategy and GOV.UK’s 5th birthday.

Our blog posts now frequently get 2 or even 3 times more engagement per post than they did when we used to publish several times a week. Even though we’re publishing less frequently. This is great news for the authors whose stories reach a bigger audience. And it proves that you really can get 80% of results from the 20% most impactful things you focus on.

We still work in the open

Reducing the number of blog sites we run and blogging less frequently doesn’t mean we’re no longer interested in working in the open. Far from it.

We’re keen to continue to talk openly about the work we’re doing on the channels that remain. It’s true that some of our blogs might be more active than others, but that’s a work in progress too so do keep an eye on them.

Stickers saying 'make things open, it makes things better'

Blogging is only one part of a bigger picture

Communicating our work well is all about delivering the right message, to the right people at the right time. Sometimes, blogs aren’t the most suitable channel. Sometimes, they are stand-alone pieces, sharing ideas or updates about the work we’re doing. And sometimes, they’re only one part of a bigger, multi-channel campaign – one that can include posts on other government and non-government sites.

Like the one we ran to mark the first anniversary of the Government Transformation Strategy. We published blog posts by our Director General and our Minister, we hosted the Chief Executive of the Civil Service John Manzoni at GDS, and we supported all this with social media activity.

Or the one we ran to celebrate GOV.UK’s 5th birthday. We published a blog post on the GDS blog, we got John Manzoni to blog about it on the Civil Service blog, we had a week of social media activity, including sharing fun facts about what you can use GOV.UK for, and much more.

We worked as a team across GDS and contributed different things to the final product – blog posts were just one part of it. We’re now using a wider range of ways to talk about what we do at GDS, making sure that what we’re saying reaches the people it’s aimed at, through the most appropriate channel.

Having said that, the majority of our posts are still individual stories sharing best practice, like this one about how to pair program effectively, this one about using design crits to improve collaboration, and this one about how we upgraded the GOV.UK search engine. These stories add a lot of value to the communities they’re aimed at, they help us learn from each other and start useful conversations. So we want to continue to share them.

A retro to make our blogging better

When we started blogging, GDS was a much, much smaller organisation, and it was focused on GOV.UK. We’ve now grown significantly and the work we do spans a number of different areas. Managing the publishing workflow in an organisation of more than 800 people can be tricky.

So, in December, we ran a retro to gather our thoughts on what’s working, what’s not working and what we should do to make the blog publishing process at GDS more straightforward.

Our colleagues told us they value blogging, they like to talk openly about the work they’re doing and they like reading about what others are up to.

But there were some challenges too:

  • ideas for blog posts were floating about for a long time before being drafted and published
  • the sign-off process wasn’t always clear
  • authors weren’t always sure what stage of the publishing process their posts were at

We’re now working on some new guidelines to help authors understand how they can publish their stories quickly and achieve the impact they want. We also want to encourage more people to blog, even if they’ve never done it before.

Once we’ve launched the new guidelines for our authors, we’ll be blogging about them too.

We’ll keep iterating  

In the last 12 months, things have evolved, the context has changed and so have user needs. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that blogging is hugely important to us.

As with everything else that we do at GDS, we will continue to iterate our publishing process and the way we use our blogs to make sure they meet our users’ needs.

Make sure you’re subscribed to this blog if you’d like to follow our journey. You can also follow Agnieszka on Twitter.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Jenny Mulholland posted on

    I do love GDS's application of the service standard principles even to the non-technical stuff you do. Like the blog post you published about how you did user research to help you design a user research lab. It shows that as an organisation you really believe in the principles you prescribe!