award winning marketing campaigns

How Public Information Can Bring Your Campaigns to Life

John Baker 7 years ago

Table of Contents


If marketing is...

“the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising”

then we can immediately see the importance of research, and knowledge. Translating data into something immediately useable and useful is not always easy; neither, in fact, is finding the information in the first place.

However, there will be very few of us who haven’t seen a piece of data that is of interest and wanted to explore it further. Sometimes a brainstorm provides the kernel of a good idea. Perhaps in a stray thought you arrive at an idea that will require research and a little direction. You might also stumble upon research that is crying out to be used in a campaign – but you don’t quite know how.

Here’s an example: What’s the difference between this:

and this:

The answer is presentation, as they both use the same information. The Time piece is based upon the Social Security Administration data, both showing the popularity of names at any one time in the USA in any given year.

If they had wanted, Time writers/researchers could have concentrated on the least popular names. Or names that have fallen from grace (Talmadge? Moody? Arvel?). Or the most popular name in total since 1900. The data existed, and was ripe to be explored and examined and used. It was just a matter of giving it the best treatment – and there isn’t always one answer.

There’s a lot of information out there. With just a simple search in the right place I can find out voting patterns, death rates, school absences, GDPs, TV viewing figures, and much more. With a little thought I might then take that information and apply it to the objectives of one or more of my clients, and then present it in an attractive, clear and interesting platform. Or maybe the information is there, but needs to be collated through intelligent search and knowledge, through requests to the correct people.

We use data in marketing every day to discover our target customers’ likes, dislikes and behaviour, so why not use it in the actual content itself? Public information provides a rich seam of data and potential – and it’s time to turn that potential into results.

Data in campaigns: A checklist of questions

  • What’s the objective?

Clicks, links, conversions, brand awareness, engagement - what is required, and how will your campaign aim to fulfil this need? Who are your target customers?

  • What will be the tone?

Is your piece intended to be entertaining, factual, humorous, analytical, or something else? Does that affect where it will be placed, and the information that is needed?

  • What do I want to find out?

If you could sum up in one sentence of no more than 20 words the information you require, what would it be?

  • How can I find the information?

Will you be able to find it within the constraints of time, budget and availability?

  • Is the client qualified to comment on the topic of the IG? (is the idea tenuous)

Media sites are more likely to accept research where the client is able to provide an authoritative stamp on the idea – from your point of view, an expert in the field (preferably someone with a connection to your client) would be ideal.

  • Does the data exist?

It’s easy to throw out ideas in brainstorms but in practice the backbone of the idea might simply not exist.

  • How many sets of data will I need?

It’s very possible that you could need to combine two sets of information into one analysis – more on this later

  • How can I present it fairly and accurately?

Is there enough data/content available to justify graphs, social media, infographics, videos, features, and so on? Will you do it all at once, and or in a steady stream?

  • What are the KPIs?

How can it be measured? What will demonstrate success? Does the client have a say?

  • What’s the follow-up?

Can this become part of a key relationship with the client? Will it provide the basis for upsell, or pitching to the client again? Can it be replicated with alternative data for another client?

  • Is it worth it?

Will the effort required achieve the aim, or could it be achieved more quickly, easily and efficiently using other means?

FOI requests: a beginner’s guide

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 was introduced in the early years of the Tony Blair Government, having campaigned for it in opposition as a way of shedding light on public bodies and giving access to information to the ordinary man on the street.

Blair himself regrets ever creating it, saying in his memoirs:

“Freedom of Information Act. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head 'til it drops off. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it…It is a dangerous act because governments need to be able to debate and decide issues in confidence.”

For the journalist, content creator, designer, PR team, writer and investigator, it’s a fantastic tool. Some critics have railed against it saying that it takes up valuable time of those in public office to uncover the information. Even journalists have complained that it encourages ‘fishing’ – a whimsical submission can be made for no reason other than pure curiosity, as opposed to good old fashioned digging and researching. Anyone can apply, in any number, with any motive.

As an example of its power, Trinity Mirror digital publishing director for regional titles David Higgerson publishes FOI Friday – examples of best practice in using the tool to discover such diverse topics as theft from petrol stations, council preparation for zombie attacks, and number of schools in Lancashire containing asbestos.

Here’s a brilliant example of FOI usage from Private Eye; it used land registry data from 2015 and connected it to land title register entries to create a definitive map of properties in England and Wales owned by offshore companies. Another one can be found here – Manchester Evening News eventually gained Pennine Acute NHS Trust's shocking internal report into the state of its maternity services. Here’s an analysis of drug testing in football.

The ultimate example is the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009; FOI requests set the bandwagon rolling, having been approved by the High Court (England and Wales) before the claims eventually leaked to The Daily Telegraph at a cost of £110,000. However, the details of MPs claiming to have their moats drained and ‘flipping’ homes to claim expenses, set the news agenda for months and forever changed our perception of MPs. Another is the 10-year battle by The Guardian to obtain Prince Charles’ 27 letters to various ministerial departments, which was finally agreed for release by The Supreme Court in 2015. They were fairly dull when they arrived. The FOI act doesn’t always produce sexy results!

Who does it apply to?

Any information held by public bodies, to include government departments, local authorities, the prison service, NHS bodies, police forces, and the BBC. Things to note beforehand:

  • The information may already be available. Check, as this can save you several weeks of waiting and the searcher plenty of time
  • It can include printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, and sound and video
  • If finding the data would take longer than three and-a-half days’ work for central government, or two and-a-half days for other public bodies, you’ll probably be turned down.
  • Authorities have 20 working days to respond.
  • There are some exemptions, including information referring to security matters; some court proceedings; and information that may be accessible by other means such as in the publication scheme. Other information might be subject to the ‘public interest test’, such as environmental information or item that clashes with commercial interests.

Now you might be thinking “hang on, if it’s as simple as making a free request, why aren’t journalists doing it themselves?” There are many reasons, and you can capitalise on them. Remember, journalist numbers are dramatically dwindling, meaning that they:

  • Don’t have time to implement FOI requests
  • Don’t know how to do it
  • Are worried they won’t get anything out of it
  • Don’t want to annoy local contacts
  • Are not interested in anything that happens outside their circulation area

So there is certainly an incentive into putting in the hours, because you can find an answer to a question that a media organisation may have pondered but hasn’t furthered – for the reasons above.

How we operate

At Zazzle, we used FOI tools to plot a map of drink-driving offences across the UK, to ascertain if there is a rise around the Christmas period. We submitted 45 requests to each of the UK police forces, with three requests – not all were answered by all forces, but one that was answered almost uniformly was this:

Please could you provide us with the number of people arrested in total for drink-driving offences, broken down per month, from July 2015 until February 2016.

Based on feedback and outcome, our top eight tips for success were:

  • Find the right email address

Make sure that you send the message to the correct person or department – this should be easily found on the relevant website. This can be laborious, but it’s worth checking, and don’t assume that email formats are the same for similar organisations. For the above example, there were at least five different email address suffixes for police forces across the country. You’ll know if it’s correct as you should receive a confirmation reply.

  • Recognise the time period

With 20 working days to reply, you’re probably assuming that you’ll be able to get huge reams of information. Wrong. Some respondents may request extensions, or wait 19 days before telling you that you cannot access the information. Give yourself a month as a minimum to obtain the information, but possibly longer.

  • Be clear in your requests

This is perhaps the most important step in the entire process; if you ask for something using ambiguous language, or an implication that you require far more information than is necessary, you could be turned down. If you can, use terms that the actual authority itself uses, to clarify the exact information that you need. As an example, time periods can be very confusing. Let’s say I’ve asked several schools this:

‘Please could you provide me with the number of pupils from your school who’ve been accepted by universities in the past five years’.

Are you referring to the last five academic years, or actual chronological years? Does that include 2017? Do you want it broken down year by year, or just one total number? Better to say:

‘Please could you provide me with the number of pupils from your school who’ve been accepted by university in each of the past five academic years, starting with 2012-13 and up to 2016-17’

There’s no word limit on your application!

  • Be prepared for phone calls/clarifications

I was called by at least two forces that told me they couldn’t find the information I requested, but they might have an alternative – would I be happy with it? Don’t assume that a call will be prompt as it might be ten or even 15 days before you hear of it, which ‘sets the clock’ back to zero again – it’s as if you’ve just submitted the request.

  • Don’t be surprised by excuses, or surprising ways that data is collated

Some of the results were contaminated in our data, taking in both drugs and drink, meaning they were either ignored. At least one force submitted figures that were totally out of scale with the other data, because their information was stored or computed in a different way. The information was not used, as it would have made the force look strange.

  • Refusals

Even pieces of information that you think would be easily retrieved can sometimes be refused, for a seemingly spurious reason. You might be able to compromise; for example, some forces offered both drug and drink figures in one combined set of figures, which is not ideal but better than nothing. Clearly, this distinction needs to be made clear when presenting results.

  • Be prepared to release the full data

Think of it from the journalist’s point of view – would you go ahead with a story based purely on data that you’ve never seen? They’ll know that you’ve got files or information that’s relevant to their area, and are quite within their rights to refuse to take a matter into print without seeing them.

  • Results - taking it further

Do you have any comments from the client ‘pre-loaded’? Any photographs, or videos, that are applicable? Can you line up a relevant interview?

We did – and the results were splendid. The coverage made its way into numerous local news sites, and our supporting material included interviews with a drink drive victim, a paramedic, and even a drink driver, and a drink-driving specialist solicitor.

FOI Resources

There are a number of pre-existing websites that may have already found the results you’re looking for. One of the best is What do they Know, which provides a comprehensive round-up of FOI requests that provides huge scope for further research. At the term of writing, the site contains the results of 380,921 requests to more than 19,000 authorities including local councils, schools, the BBC, police authorities, NHS trusts, and many many more. Another resource for inspiration is FOIMan on Twitter, who highlights regular FOI stories from the media. A final analysis of the act can be found here.

How to structure a press release that sells the data

So you’ve got the data – how do you get coverage? Strongly presented information, with all questions answered, a host of relevant and good case studies; well-presented pictures; graphs that illustrate the points clearly, with no massaging or manipulation…these can all help. However, even these techniques may not be enough to get you the coverage you need.

However, here’s how to increase your odds:

  1. Before starting, ask yourself an important question - are you going to present the data, with a conclusion, or are you going to look for reasons behind that conclusion? In other words, are you going to do some of the journalistic heavy lifting before contacting the news site? Of course, this entirely depends on the subject matter. Perhaps your client will provide analysis or quotes?
  2. Also, how will you present it? Your D and D and social teams might have an idea of how they might create a graph, video, infographic, slideshow, social media campaign or other platform, based on the expected quality of your results. Which is the most striking? Which will be taken by sites, and which would be passed over? who are you aiming at?


Your client, a car dealer, likes an idea that you have of finding the most dangerous roads in the country. You’ll contact police and road authority partnerships, to find the number of crashes in a given area in the past year.

  • Your social media team suggests tweeting the top ten results out one at a time, making an exciting countdown to number one.
  • Your D and D team wants to create an interactive colour-coded map of the worst roads
  • Your outreach/PR teams want a series of features, but these will be based on the results
  • You have an idea of creating a time-lapse video of driving the roads, based on Youtube footage and information gathered by bloggers.

Clearly, these are different treatments and you might have to make a decision on one or more choices, based on client budget and your resources - and whether they’re searching for link building, brand awareness or other outcomes.

Other tips:

  • What’s the headline? Interesting but not outrageous, and demonstrably true, are the safest tips.
  • Have your raw data packed into one zip file. If it can be presented in a consistent form - i.e. all csv files, pdfs etc - then so much the better.
  • Find someone else in your office that can cast an eye over the data. Is there any other way of interpreting results, other than what you’ve found? Are there any better ways of looking for the information? Also, are there any follow-ups that you could suggest?

The Do’s and don’ts when looking at information

  • Do lay out information clearly

Here’s a simple example: In early 2017 the BBC compiled a list local councils throughout England that had clamped down on of ‘revenge evictions’ – illegal evictions that may have occurred if a tenant has complained about the property.

In reporting the story at a national level the BBC boiled down the information to a few key headlines, rather than going into great detail about each of the 322 authorities that had responded. Data, information, quotes = packaged nicely and easy to process.

  • Don’t be afraid to bring in data from multiple sources

This brilliant map determined where the most expensive places to like in the UK can be found. Anna Powell-Smith’s work burrowed down to the level of house prices per metre squared by combining information from the Land Registry with information from Energy Performance Certificates.

  • Do… differentiate between correlation and causation

Did you know that there is a strong correlation in Europe between areas where there are higher rates of pregnancies, and the number of storks in those areas? Yes, really.

If you’re wondering, it’s nothing to do with deliveries of babies from the air, but instead because of this: once young couples marry they have a strong tendency to move to the quieter and greener outskirts of towns, for leisure reasons and because these areas are safer for any potential children. Green areas tend to have rivers and lakes nearby, and, of course, wildlife – including storks.

There are similarly spurious correlations between eye colour and chopstick use, and shoe size and reading ability. In conclusion, don’t always assume that one factor causes another.

  • Don’t… try to do everything at once

Rather than using one giant file to throw everything together, splitting the data into several files or sections and tackling them individually. Rather than multi-tasking across several columns, confusing and blending them, it makes more sense to tackle each individual task in a separate sheet if possible.

  • Do… be choosy if some figures seem ‘incorrect’

Outliers can distort information and lessen its impact. Where data is obtained from a number of sources, it’s common for rogue figures to appear that may have been measured incorrectly, or used different criteria. In an ideal world, you’ll try and find the ‘correct’ figures, but if you can see that the methodology was incorrect then you are quite entitled to eliminate them.

  • Do… check for silly mistakes

One of the best guides for streamlining data analysis can be found in this blog, written by Bishopblog. It’s a technical, in-depth analysis of presenting data using Excel, written from an academic viewpoint.

  • Don’t… give up

Many of the best campaigns are based on a simple idea and a lot of hard work. Good luck!

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