How do you communicate the value of a voluntary career development tool to workers within a federal agency and encourage busy workers to use it?
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) created a first-class online system to strengthen the VA acquisition workforce through improved training, resulting in streamlined service delivery and lower costs for the agency. The system, originally called Applied Learning Center but re-named FAC Planner, is designed to measure users’ aptitude about topics related to the body of knowledge for Federal Acquisition Certification (FAC)-certified employees in FAC-COR, FAC-C and FAC-P/PM segments at three levels of seniority. The system identifies relevant training courses for individuals, helps them fill out their individual development plans (IDPs) and plots a path for earning required continuous learning points (CLPs). But despite its many benefits, participation in the program was very low. The VA worked with ENC Strategy (as a subcontractor to The Aurelius Group, who now designs and manages the tool) to develop a marketing plan to ensure more employees are aware that the tool is available to enhance their career development. ENC’s marketing plan consisted of four phases that were designed to be implemented before, during and after the next full year of the program’s deployment.
- Research Phase: ENC conducted the project’s first user research study by leading a focus group session of more than 30 workers enrolled in the Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy in Frederick, Maryland. We also conducted phone interviews with dozens of additional VA acquisition workers throughout the country and across all disciplines and sectors, including IT and health care. The goal of the research: to gauge the workforce’s awareness of Applied Learning Center, determine why they do (or don’t) use the tool, and identify potential communication tactics and channels. Based on our analysis of the research results, we delivered 11 key recommendations on how to market the Applied Learning Center to the VA acquisition workforce.
- Strategy Phase: ENC addressed several stakeholder recommendations from the Research Phase. Key strategic improvements meant addressing three primary issues: brand confusion/lack of name recognition, negative perceptions associated with the online tool and lack of a coherent, credible brand. Users indicated the program’s old name did not clearly explain its purpose. Some users confused the tool with a training course offered by a third-party vendor and avoided the tool because it had previously been portrayed as an “assessment.” Users also felt the tool was too time-consuming and not essential for their career. ENC renamed the tool the FAC Planner, to emphasize its purpose of planning FAC certification maintenance training. We also developed new messaging including an engaging tagline, elevator pitch and summary description, and a concise list of benefits for both employees and managers. This messaging communicated what the tool really is — a career development benefit — instead of a test. It also addressed workers’ challenge of finding time to use the tool by highlighting the program can be completed in as little as 10 minutes a day during the open period.
- The rebranding process also included a new logo and color palette that reflected the tool’s connection to the VA, along with a brand guide to help the agency use consistent typefaces, colors and logo placement when promoting the tool. Concurrently, we developed a list of tactics that outlined what marketing tools the VA needed and a campaign deployment schedule.
- Deploy Phase: ENC created collateral pieces and marketing campaigns as outlined in the tactics and marketing tools list. We deployed marketing tactics for each acquisition certification discipline and level according to the FAC Planner’s launch schedule. This involved marketing to prime audiences before launch, increased communication during launch and reinforced messaging with target audiences after programs had closed in order to maintain top-of-mind status for the following year’s key FAC Planner dates. The marketing work included distributing one-page fact sheets about the FAC Planner’s benefits for employees, as well as a battle card for managers that explained how and why to encourage employees to use the tool. We provided content for e-newsletters, email marketing products, and online VA forums to reach the acquisition workforce via high-value methods identified by our research.
- Refine Phase: ENC analyzed results from the year’s marketing activities to identify areas for improvement and new opportunities for increasing awareness in the future. We gathered quantitative survey and web metrics data as well as qualitative post-deployment data through in-depth interviews of agency workers. Our metrics report identified the most successful days of the week for deploying FAC Planner messages. It also dispelled some myths internally within the agency about specific intranet-based tactics once thought to drive referral traffic. The report identified participant groups who were the most engaged, which will help the agency find champions for word-of-mouth marketing. Because the agency’s analytics budget was limited, ENC recommended innovative ways to improve data collection, such as using free URL shortening and re-direct services to capture click-through data. We learned through interviews that 85 percent of users within the VA acquisition workforce prefer to receive information via email and that 93 percent of users never saw a message on an intranet site the client previously thought would drive traffic.
- Results: All members of the workforce we interviewed are now aware of the FAC Planner. During our initial marketing research, barely any of the workers we interviewed were aware of the tool under its previous brand. All participants felt the new logo, messaging, and branding changes resonated with them and clearly explained the purpose of the tool and what the benefits were. One participant said the messaging “rings very true – it hits home.” Regarding the brand, another said, “It became more of an evolution, and the color scheme looked like it came from the VA. It has definitely improved.”