March 7th, 2022 marked 100 weeks of providing people in Canada with reliable, needs-based information through the Get updates on COVID-19 service. We’ve crossed many significant milestones along the way: 8.5 million emails sent, 364 000 Canada.ca visits from our emails, and over 100 000 online service subscriptions.
The service was created by Health Canada, Service Canada, the Canadian Digital Service and Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat to provide credible and trusted information, linked directly to up-to-date web pages on Canada.ca. The ‘Get updates on COVID-19’ service uses CDS’ GC Notify. After 100 weeks of service, we’ve learned a few key lessons that we feel could be applicable to campaigns, web writing, analytics, or a service of any sort.
Know your user
The idea that ‘Get updates on COVID-19’ would be user-driven was important from the very beginning. This is a public service, and when it came to updating people on Canada’s response to the pandemic we needed to look deeply at our user habits to find out how best to reach our subscribers. The user data from our side can be split into two groups: What people are and aren’t looking for.
What people are looking for
We noticed that notification emails with widely-applicable and time-sensitive topics usually had high ‘Click Through Rates’ (CTR). For example, around the holiday season in 2021, the novel Omicron variant was sweeping across the country. At that time, so many people were experiencing symptoms – to the point that many provincial governments said it was safer to assume you had it and quarantine, than to go to a testing center and risk overwhelming the facilities any further.
The new variant intersected with the busiest international travel time from Canada to warmer climates; which prompted us to write the notification “non-essential travel” - asking people in Canada to reconsider international travel. People deciding to travel were recommended to regularly check the travel advisories of their destination. The travel advisories page on Canada.ca was linked to the notification, which sent over 1.4K of our service users to the tool. Over the next few weeks, link visits grew to over 2K.
What people aren’t looking for
The second group was “what users are not looking for”. While data on existing web traffic gives you a good idea of what people want to know, it doesn’t always tell you what people need to know. There are many active disinformation campaigns and we believe it is important to actively address them.
We do this by analyzing feedback data from widgets set up on Canada.ca health pages. This is typically a place where users share their concerns about information on the website. Using this data gives us a good idea of which pages need to be leveraged, in order to provide the most accurate information about critical topics.
In a time of public distress, there is an increased need for government communications. Reliable information streams are the only tried-and-tested ways to end the active disinformation campaigns that harm public good.
Subscribers come and go, but your service shouldn’t
During the summer of 2021, we had to reevaluate the relevancy of our service. The pandemic was seemingly coming to an end, thanks to a successful vaccination campaign. Subscribers were dropping and we were digging deep to find relevant information to share with our users. In reality, the pandemic would surge once again later that year and we were grateful we never dropped off.
Watching your subscriber count on a daily or weekly basis can have you trying to find patterns that aren’t there or predict trends that may never materialize. Focusing on the quality of your service – no matter what the trends are – is freeing since many users leave for unrelated reasons. For example, after the protest convoys arrived on Parliament Hill at the end of January 2022, our subscriber count went down 0.59 per cent. Feedback widget analysis showed an increasing number of critiques towards QR codes, masking mandates, and travel mandates.
While it was apparent some of our subscribers were unhappy with the updates on COVID-19 information coming in their inboxes, this was not the time to adapt our messaging in order to keep more subscribers.The pandemic information on those topics was still crucial to provide.
In reality, the downward trend was a cue for us to analyze the data and keywords search trends to understand how user needs changed over time. We could then send messages adapted to the current user needs, as well as combat misinformation on those contested topics. Which we did, eventually gaining enough followers to replenish our pre-protest convoy numbers.
Do not overlook the power of plain language
It’s not just about what information to deliver, but how users consume the information. For this reason, we abide by the Government of Canada’s digital standards playbook and aim for a grade 8 reading level. Doing this insures two things:
First is that the users are able to consume the message clearly. As the notification usually comes into our users inbox on a weekday around 2 p.m., most of our readers would be reading our message on the fly. Knowing this, plain language enables messages to be consumed anywhere – on any device, at any time.
Second is it helps make our messages more concise. Editing for plain language helps us cut out all the “fat” that might confuse the reader. Times of crisis demand clear and concise messaging for people looking after their health and well-being.
Leverage existing tools like social media to grow your service
From its conception, our notification service has leveraged existing tools already in place. It took only two weeks to launch the service. By leveraging existing tools like social media, promoting the service on high traffic Canada.ca web pages, and using evidence based data analysis we are able to grow and maintain a steady subscriber base.
Social media, especially, has become the “front line” of Health Canada’s interaction with users, especially in younger demographics. The fastest and easiest way to encourage users to go to the sign-up page is directing them from a tweet or post on Facebook or Linkedin. 41% of visits to our sign-up page come from web pages that aren’t from Health Canada.
Reflect on how far you’ve come
Throughout the pandemic, we have been agile with our email service, using evidence-based data to iterate, improve, and adapt the service as the user needs evolve.
In a perfect world, everyone in Canada would subscribe to our updates. This is not that world. In reality, there are a lot of people in Canada who could benefit from our service but don’t know about us yet. Instead of being caught up in what our service isn’t yet, we celebrate how much we have accomplished and look forward to the future with excitement.