Digital capacity

The following is a presentation I gave to the Local Government Web Network Conference in Sydney last week.

I’m Jason Richardson, Corporate Communications Manager at Leeton Shire Council. Leeton Shire is located in the NSW Riverina region between Wagga Wagga and Griffith.

I’d been in my role for a bit over a month when I attended this conference last year and I found it fascinating to meet a variety of people who maintain Council websites, from IT to public relations to administrative staff with a bit of management too.

Quick show of hands, who identifies as being IT staff? PR? Admin? Manager?

From these varying roles and perspectives we’re united by being at the forefront of communications technology and I think we all know how daunting this can be.

There are more options available to us than we can hope to utilise.

Quick poll, whose council has a YouTube channel? Who has a Twitter feed? Who has a Facebook page that they have established?

It’s funny but these names all feel familiar and a bit old yet we’ve been using them for less than four years. I don’t think I’m alone in saying it sometimes hurts my head a bit to think about it.

So maybe you can imagine how it must feel for people who don’t have email.

Lily Allen used the term “neo-luddite” when she embraced a move away from online technology but I propose we use a less pejorative term that recognises the spectrum of technological know-how in our communities: digital capacity.

Capacity refers to capability. The notion of environmental capacity has been around for decades and informs discussions of sustainability.

Specifically I’m using the definition of capacity as the ability to hold, receive or absorb; or a measure of such ability.

Population demographics pose a challenge to digital capacity in Leeton Shire. Like many country towns there are above average numbers of young and older people but less than average numbers of people between 20-40 years.

It is quite literally a generation gap and one quite obvious in the usage of a new medium like Twitter. Here’s a record of tweets in Leeton last Friday.

The issue of digital capacity became obvious to me when I developed a new tourism website last year. Analytics show the most popular page is for accommodation where only a third of the businesses listed have a website and one does not have email.

For many events the Tourism website is their only online presence, aside from what gets reported on the local newspaper’s website. There are nine annual events listed on the site and of these only two have a website.

The tourism coordinator Brent and I talked about this and also with our managers and an idea developed to hold a workshop to show tourism operators all the online tools available for them and to try and whet their appetites for getting their businesses online.

I wrote workshop notes identifying useful sites and applications, particularly services offered by Google, as well as making the argument that advertising in the Yellow Pages isn’t enough to be sure of reaching an audience these days.

The media release I wrote to promote the workshop discussed how, back in 1995, Bill Gates wrote a book on how the ‘information superhighway’ was going to change our lives and that new business opportunities would appear like those when automobiles became widely used.

The motel, or motor hotel, is one example of such a business and tourism operators should know many visitors currently plan their travel through online research and that it’s important to reach them on the web.

On the day of the first workshop I pulled up the Analytics data to show that people were visiting the Tourism site to find contact details for businesses and it was educational for me to hear their questions, including one about Google business listings.

I was lucky that Bern’s blog post on managing business listings came my way. That’s the one reprinted in Stories this year.

At the Workshop I talked about Google a lot: setting up an email address with Gmail, putting up a website cheaply on Google Sites, writing a website with a view to search engine optimisation, recording traffic with Analytics, advertising with Adwords, monitoring reputation with Alerts, embedding YouTube – all the good stuff.

At the end we asked what we could do to help and the attendees were keen for a presentation by people who build websites.

We held a second workshop and invited two businesses to discuss their services and prices. They also covered a lot of the ground we’d previously gone over on why they needed to be online and the way to ensure you can be found.

Then we crossed our fingers and hoped that the designers and tourism operators would go away and make websites together.

To be honest I don’t think a single website has appeared as a result of these two workshops and, when only two people showed up for the third workshop...

Well, I thought the exercise might be ready to be written off.

However, given my background in PR, when you’re not getting the results you planned it doesn’t mean you’re not getting results. You just need to recalibrate your expectations and find a way to spin the result as a win.

While the results we’d hoped for haven’t appeared, there were a number of positive outcomes for Council.

The two people who showed up at that third workshop went on to become finalists at the recent Inland Tourism Awards and one topped their category.

Also, at the last Council meeting the Mayor congratulated these finalists and the minutes record the “enormous benefit” they said they had gained from the Tourism Operator Workshops.

And the workshops were successful as a way of building and improving relationships with members of our community. This has been invaluable.

So while the workshops didn’t lead to more businesses setting up websites it was successful as a public relations exercise and hopefully that those attended learned something, thus increasing digital capacity in Leeton Shire.

Another good outcome has been our tourism coordinator Brent has established a Twitter account, set up Google Alerts and has been digging deeper into Analytics.

We know these resources are good and, while it’s not core business for councils, sharing this knowledge can empower people and can benefit our communities.

Leeton Shire Council plans to run the web workshops again next year and will open them up to all local businesses. We hope it will engage this sector of our community with as much success in strengthening relationships and improving digital capacity.

I encourage you to consider how your councils can improve digital capacity in your own communities.