Where Digital Marketing Meets Outreach for Government Services

Introducing Code for America’s Digital Outreach Playbook

Before I came to work at Code for America, I worked in local government for more than a decade. I loved each of the roles I had there, but I took the job at Code for America for many reasons — besides the great people, and the secure room where I get to park my extra-long cargo bike, it was an opportunity to learn from a tech-first organization. I could go on and on describing the amazing work that we do to build and deliver services that are effective and easy to use, but these products are only useful if we can actually reach the people we are trying to serve. And at Code for America, the people we’re trying to serve are among the most vulnerable in our society. So what I really want to talk about is the amazing work we have done on digital outreach to people who need government services like SNAP, or workforce services, or record clearance help, and need to be able to access those services online.

While people selling shoes, food delivery, car rentals, or plane tickets have mastered the art of internet advertising, digital advertising isn’t something most people running a direct service program think about, at least not in the non-profit and government spaces. Yet this is just another form of outreach. It’s one that meets people where they are — online — and one that, with a little bit of know-how, can be very cost effective. So, with the help of the James Irvine Foundation, we wrote a Digital Outreach Playbook to translate the world of digital advertising into digital outreach specifically for the populations that local governments serve. In Code for America’s case, that includes people who are eligible for safety-net services, people who are low-income, people who are in contact with the criminal justice system.

The concept of cultural competence has long been embraced by program leaders and direct service staff wanting to engage clients in taking up a variety of services; that is, the idea that you must take into account the circumstances that inform people’s lives and meet them where they are. The same principles apply to digital outreach. We strive to use tech-competence to understand our users — what they are searching for, what language they are using to search for help — and make sure we are meeting them where they are online. And we constantly examine our data to be more effective in reaching them. We tested, we iterated, we worked hard to find people who might be in need of the services that our products are focused on.

When I worked in local government there was a big push around increasing our social media presence, and I was so proud of helping my department dip its toe into the waters of digital practices. We built up our social media presence, especially on Facebook, in an effort to meet potential clients and engage residents. But we never thought about trying any Facebook advertising for our services. Our efforts were spent trying to get people to like our Facebook page, but that wasn’t the message we really needed to be putting out there. Once they got to our Facebook, they might see posts that told them about the service we could provide, but we could have just skipped that step by running ads saying “Do you need this service?” (Not in those words, of course.)

We also did a lot of paper outreach: posting flyers in libraries, or clinics, or sending them home with kids at school. We did this mostly because we knew it worked, but over time these strategies have become less effective. People talk about the expense of digital advertising, but in fact printing is often more expensive. One of the great advantages of digital advertising is it provides you with data and metrics to measure success and think about where your costs are, and how to make them go down over time. (More on that in our CTO Lou Moore’s data dive in the Playbook.)

Our hope is to provide real proof points, including case studies about two of our products, so you can make the case that digital outreach can and does work. And this playbook is issue-agnostic. We focus on two products that help with nutrition assistance and record clearance, but the principles and best practices we provide could easily apply to people who need mental health services, or people who need Medicaid, or parents who need summer meal programs, or free vaccinations, or after-school programs…

Want to find out more? Read the whole playbook here.


With thanks to the James Irvine Foundation, who generously funded the production of the playbook.