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Going where the people are

It’s been an exciting week, from Digital Britain (now commentable) to Directgov’s SchoolClosures.org.uk prototype, UKGovWeb Barcamp to the PoI Taskforce Report.

But right now, I’m personally the most excited about the new Mature Students campaign DIUS is kicking off in partnership with The Student Room and Directgov:

Mature Students page on The Student Room

Recommendation 1 of the PoI Taskforce Report challenges public servants to involve themselves in user-led communities:

As a matter of course, public servants should be active in online peer support forums concerned with their areas of work, be it education specialists in parenting forums or doctors in health forums.

There have been some good examples of ministers engaging with online communities as part of consultations, notably Lord Darzi and Netmums as part his Review, as well as the semi-formal partnerships for discussion we set up alongside the New Opportunities white paper. But more sustained engagement with these forums is still a rarity, despite the fact that communities’ interests and those of government are often very well aligned.

DIUS’ new Mature Students campaign aims to provide information, advice and guidance to people considering returning to education but facing the challenges of childcare, finance or the cultural aspects of student life. Research shows that mature students are particularly likely to look for university options near home, so local options are important. Some of this information existed already on Directgov, but the softer peer support is not really in the scope of the Directgov brand proposition. Under web convergence rules, creating a new microsite was a no-no. Enter The Student Room.

TSR has over 100,000 members and some 8 million posts in its forums, managed by an crack team of volunteer moderators (n.b. eagle-eyed readers will raise an eyebrow at the banner ad for coursework essays; TSR work with exam boards to stamp out plagiarism). With so many users, a small but significant chunk of them mature students, they’re a great partner for the campaign. And with a platform more flexible than Directgov’s in terms of functionality and proposition based squarely on peer support, they provide the perfect companion to Directgov’s official, credible information.

We learned some valuable lessons from the process of working together:

  • User-led communities aren’t agencies: at some points, we made the mistake of treating TSR like a delivery agency, trying to specify too much of the detail. User-led communities are much more valuable than agencies if you give them the space to be creative, partly because they think as their members think (‘childcare is coming up as an issue – let’s talk to Netmums’) and of course because they bring their own audience to the campaign. Incidentally, communities may be more used to an ad-funded rather than a design & build business model, which may need to be reviewed if this kind of thing takes off.
  • Co-creation can be more than just a fancy idea: it’s one thing to do audience research and/or do lip service to the idea of developing something with the target audience. But when the audience in question is on tap via a forum thread, why not just ask them? Sourcing case studies became a dream.
  • Play to your strengths: Directgov is credible, well-written, definitive and robust. The Student Room is personal, frank, independent and nimble. PR agencies are good at sourcing stories and setting up opportunities. I rather enjoyed writing my first screenscraper to extract name, URL and postcode information on universities to help save the TSR guys a bit of time building their lovely searchable Google map. We struggled at first to get our collective heads around the right fit of roles and brands, but after some conference calls and wireframes I think the end result – Directgov pointing to The Student Room for moderated peer support and local area information, TSR pointing to Directgov for definitive funding and support information – is a great one and hopefully a model for the future. We’ll certainly be watching the stats.

The project came in on time, on budget (four figures rather than five for the web components), and from where I was sitting, was one of the most painless web projects I’ve ever been involved with. Kudos to Jamie and Warren at The Student Room, Sam, Justin & Jacq at DIUS, Stephen & Graham from the DIUS Education & Learning Directgov franchise and the team at Consolidated PR.