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Mail serves local government the best

Choosing the most effective methods for communicating with an audience is a challenge for most organisations, especially those that have a specific group of people in mind that they want to target, writes James McGruer, head of government marketing at Royal Mail.

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But for government organisations, particularly local authorities, the task can be even more complex, given the diversity of audiences they need to communicate with and the often complex or sensitive information they need to deliver.

Be it local transport scheme consultations, major planning applications, council tax information or electoral register updates, councils have a vast amount of information that needs to be disseminated among their residents. This makes the choice of communication channel crucial.

The proliferation of media channels means getting effective coverage with often tight marketing budgets can be a challenge. Add to that the need to ensure different groups within a community are engaged and choosing the right option -- or options -- for public information delivery can be a minefield.

Citizens can certainly be hard to reach; campaign managers need to think beyond the message, to how you say it, and to whom. To engage citizens and build a council's reputation including trust in its elected politicians, the content must be simple, effective and humanised.

Effective television ads have mostly been out of budgetary range and do not provide a geographically targeted solution for a council. Local newspapers, which by and large have been experiencing steady falls in circulation in recent years, do offer a local solution but not real audience targeting. Meanwhile, outdoor media has most often been the preserve of big brands and does not lend itself to campaigns that, by necessity, can be wordy and take time for recipients to digest.

Using the postal channel can be a very effective way of reaching all intended audiences. For while there may be several newspapers or radio stations in an area, there is only one letterbox to a resident's home.

The use of mail also means that no group is excluded from the ability to receive the information. For example, certain people, such as the elderly, are more likely to shun or simply not have access to new digital forms of communication compared to younger age groups. By delivering information directly to their homes, local councils can ensure such people are engaged and receive the requisite information.

Another advantage of mail shown by research is that the public appears to pay more attention to it than some commentators might suggest. The research showed that more than half of people read and retain direct mail, and the figure for those keeping material has increased in each of the last three years. Meanwhile, people are more than twice as positive towards receiving government information through the letterbox compared with post from organisations in any other sector, so a clear majority welcome such communication.

The commercial use of email and text messaging is on the increase and is being used or considered by many companies and organisations keen to integrate campaigns and ensure maximum success. Indeed, a recent report by the New Local Government Network suggested councils should increase their use of online petitions. The report, called '21st Century Democracy: e-petitions and local government', said they would encourage greater democratic participation, and give people the power to petition councils to debate and review policies. The report said this will provide residents with direct influence to raise concerns about persistent or serious problems in their area. Younger people would also be more likely to get involved if online petitions were offered more.

The option of combining both online and postal channels to reach a broader audience and social demographic is supported by a recent Royal Mail survey. The results revealed more than half of confident web users (55%) prefer to be contacted by a combination of direct mail and online, while 69% feel that email is best used for supporting or clarifying the mail they receive.

Even among web-savvy citizens, attitudes towards mail-led campaigns are positive: 34% of web users perceive direct mail to be more professional than online communications, while 42% believe the post offers a more personal form of contact. Meanwhile, 48% of people say it's easy to take in information from direct mail they receive, compared with just 20% when they were asked about email.

Communications campaigns are unlikely to be one-size-fits-all for local authorities -- but when it comes to reaching out to diverse communities, the traditional methods should not be overlooked as they still have a key role to play alongside new media.

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