Advertising on local government websites is not the unthinkable idea that it was a few years ago. The public is now full of more sophisticated web users and, as a result, is more used to seeing ads. The tools are also more sophisticated (thus reducing the risks), and more importantly the public sector has been forced to re-evaluate its attitude to income generation and start to look at its websites as assets. As you can see below, a number of authorities are already experimenting – and some are generating reasonable income. Or they say they are (more to come on that).
The obvious risks of putting ads on your website are around reputation (Porn! Gambling!! Loan sharks!!!) and being seen to endorse something you would rather not (low scoring care homes with talented marketing officers). The more amorphous risk is the effect on your moral authority – on your position as a leader of your community – if you are seen as being just like all the other sites. Moral or political ambiguity is also an issue – Local Government has a philosophical fault line along the issue of outsourcing, for example, and services which meet all the acceptability criteria above may not suit the political stance of the council.
The reason this is popping up here at Public-i is because we are looking at whether we should add an ad widget into our Citizenscape platform, and we thought it would be helpful to share our research on this as we went along to try to get some views from people on this.
My personal view is that while ads in the right circumstances and with the right ad engine (see below) could work on your transactional site, I think you want to be very cautious about using ads on more democratic sites. As anyone who reads my stuff at curiouscatherine knows, my main interest is in the construction of civic spaces online and it’s very clear that design matters enormously as part of influencing behaviours in a space. However – it could be that I am just being a bit purist about this, so I will see if I can weave some questions about this into my field work this year. Nonetheless, it’s clearly not my call and needs to be the decision of the individual site owner – which is why we are thinking of it as an optional widget.
What’s the right ad engine?
Clearly it needs to have the right revenue share and it needs certain technical attributes that I will get Ady to blog about when we get a bit further along with this (sorry Ady). However, these are the main points I think in terms of managing risks and also in terms of turning this into a useful community information tool:
- Excluding the porn is relatively easy – but you also need to be able to exclude on the basis of hot topics and campaigns to make sure your ads are not contradicting your corporate messages. This is either going to be a really clever ad engine or the ability to moderate your ads – which is going to take time
- You want to be able to insert your own ads into the feed so you can promote local events and services – you may even want a different revenue model to support ads that you want to provide
- You need to be able to geo-target ads to postcode level so that you can serve ads that are very community specific
- I also think that you need an ad partner who is going to be happy making the revenue data etc open to the public – not sure how this will be received by companies
Now – it may well be that there are loads of ad engines that do just this – but I have yet to do the research – we’ll share it when we do so please comment if you have specific questions. The research below seems to highlight the mysterious Logo.Serve2 (see below), Logo-net, Addiply and Google Adsense.
And so to facts
Below is a list of Councils I’ve found who are serving ads, the service they are using and anything else we know about them. Where possible I have linked to their advertising policy:
- Hammersmith & Fulham
- Rate My Place (Staffordshire Partnership)
- Devon CC (this is a rather buried example dug out by (@iamadonut)
- Cannock Chase DC (Thanks to @jvictor7)
- Fyld District Council (and this one comes with a case study)
- Weymouth& Portland Poole
- Surrey CC
- Hastings Borough Council
- East Sussex County Council
- North East Derbyshire
- Cheshire West and Chester
- Tandridge District Council
- Tunbridge Wells
How much cash are we talking about?
This is really not clear – the only number was from a Google case study that claimed £3000 in a year (from Flyde) and a claim of just £60 per year via Google adwords from Rate My Place, which hardly seems worth the bother to be honest. However I can’t believe that this is the best data and I will be trying to contact some of the other examples to see if I can find out what they are earning from adverts. I am not expecting to get much joy with this, however, so if you are able to help gather this data it would be generally useful I think. It’s the kind of thing that ought to be #opendata at some point – in the meantime it just doesn’t seem right to FOI it just because I am curious.
Outliers and other things I’ve found
Lincolnshire is interesting as they had ads but they don’t seem to have survived the website rewrite. I am intrigued by that as the informal feedback we had on this at our User Group indicated that they were getting a decent revenue stream from it. And a little debate in Scarborough here. And the folks at Aylesbury Vale have asked the public. The team at West Oxford have a statement about trialling it and Dover has a statement but no ads.
And I’m not sure what is going on at Nottingham City as I can’t find any ads but Adrian Short seems to know and has sent me some examples. And there is a fairly comprehensive leaflet. Thanks to Sarah Lay for info on this. Sarah also found this blogpost about ads at Newcastle City Council – but again no sign of any ads that I can see.
We found four main providers.
- The most popular is logo-net with five. They seem to be working in the south of England and, though they don’t have a lot of information on their site, I could at least find it.
- This is more than I can say for whoever is serving ads from a server called Logo.Serve2. This may be my technical limitations but I can’t figure out who is running this. I did a whois search which returned NETWORD CORPORATION LIMITED – also a dead end. I have someone a little more skilled than me digging into this and will let you know when we figure it out. Whoever they are they have four sites.
- Next up is Google Adsense with three.
- And then the relative newcomer Addiply with one site at present.
We also found two sites who seem to be managing the process themselves.
I’m going to check whether there are other suitable providers out there and then do a post with a bit more detail on these (or ask Tanya to do it – sorry Tanya). We will also check them against the criteria that I laid out earlier if we can (or amended criteria if people have other ideas).
Conclusions and some next steps
This is really a first go at this and needs a lot more work – including checking whether or not I have caught all the examples out there. We also need to do more work on the providers and the specification which will be the next step. We will also be talking to our client base and getting an idea about what the appetite for trialling something would be, so please shout if you are interested in being involved.
However, the big question is clearly the revenue. There is no doubt that there are some compromises involved in putting ads on a website, and the revenue that they can generate will affect the view of how acceptable these compromises are. So – I am now going to try and find some proper comparable data as to what these ads have earned – wish me luck!!