Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The BOM website now includes ads - should other government sites?

Back in July 2008 I wrote a blog post asking whether government websites should feature paid advertising.

No, four and a half years later, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has taken the step of adding paid advertisements to its highly popular website (one of the top 20 sites in Australia) in a trial detailed in this page of their site.

Depending on how the trial goes, advertising may become a permanent feature of the BOM's main site, and it is even conceivable that other government agencies might start considering a similar approach in their high sites.

However is paid advertising appropriate for government websites, and if so, what limits should apply to the type of ads shown?

The BOM has, in my view, taken a sensible and sensitive approach to its advertising trial, forbidding the display of a range of advertising material that might offend community sensibilities (perhaps a list of exclusions that commercial sites should consider as well).

This includes prohibitions on:
  • tobacco, gambling, lotteries or advertising promoting the consumption or sale of alcohol, 
  • advertising that causes offence or incites hatred of any individual, group or class, 
  • advertising directed at children 17 years or younger, 
  • advertisements glorifying, or delivering for the purposes of entertainment, scenes or descriptions of non-consensual pain, suffering, death, torture or ill-treatment of humans or animals, 
  • advertising relating to bombs, guns, ammunition and other offensive weapons, 
  • advertising containing sexually explicit content and/or sexual innuendo and/or advertising containing offensive language, 
  • advertising that is misleading or deceptive or be likely to mislead or deceive, 
  • advertising that contains a misrepresentation which is likely to cause damage to the business or goodwill of a competitor,
  • advertising that is defamatory, and 
  • advertising of a political nature.
The BOM has also made it clear that advertisements do not imply endorsement and that they won't place advertisements on warning pages - meaning that people visiting the BOM to learn about weather warnings won't necessarily have to view ads at all.

This approach is one which could be quite readily adopted by other government agencies, whether at federal, state or local levels, and provides a good beginning platform for any agency that is considering including paid advertising in their sites.

However it still leaves the big question - should government feature paid advertising in their websites at all? Certainly agencies don't normally include advertisements in their print publications or physical events.

One key factor will be the community response to ads on the BOM's site - whether the public believe that government agencies should do this and whether it damages their standing or reputation. 

We already have some preliminary anecdotal feedback on this via Crikey, who asked its readers for their views and received a number of responses - all but one negative towards the approach. 

While I can't really share this input (available in Crikey's email newsletter), a couple of views expressed were that public services were already paid for and so should be provided free to citizens, and if agencies were so skint as to need to advertise, the government needed to raise taxes.

Another is whether agencies can make money on advertising. While the BOM is an extremely popular website year round, few other government sites consistently rate in the top 100 websites visited in Australia. 

Certainly the ATO's website has periods of high traffic around tax time, and both the APS jobs and Centrelink site have consistently strong traffic, other sites - even - don't attract that much traffic and it may not be commercial for advertisers.

Third there's the question of how the revenue is used. If it disappears into general revenue, or results in government reducing the budgets of agencies, forcing them to make up the difference with advertising, I'm less inclined to think advertising is a good idea on government sites. I believe advertising revenue should be retained over and above an agency's budget and should be primarily directed to improve the agency's websites and the services provided through them. In this way there's an incentive for agencies to both support (appropriate) advertising and to continue to improve their websites, delivering improved experiences to citizens (the main goal), and thereby attracting more traffic and increasing advertising revenue.

Finally, while the BOM has done a great job of defining what is not acceptable and has the right to refuse or pulldown any ads which may cause offense, there will always be advertising that sits just inside the acceptability criteria, however may still cause offense or reputation damage. 

There's not really any way to predict this, however carrying objectionable advertising - at least right now - will call greater attention to a government department than it might to, say, a media outlet - who may have greater latitude on what they can allow, or have an interest in not carrying stories about objectionable advertising in other media outlets in case they damage their own interests.

All these factors aside - should government agencies support advertising?

In 2008 my position was to make this an open question to readers - essentially sitting on the fence myself.

From 2008 until now there'd been no research testing the concept of advertising on major government websites in Australia - no evidence to indicate whether the approach would be accepted by Australians, be profitable and manageable within government reputation tolerances.

I have now come off the fence somewhat in favour of advertising on government 

I am very glad the BOM is holding this trial as it will allow government to test the concept and come to a sound, evidence-based conclusion. 

Depending on how this trial goes, I am prepared to come off the fence and say that it is fine to advertise on government sites, provided that advertising is commercially viable, and the funds earnt are used to continue to improve the online services provided by the agency.

What do you think, and would a successful trial affect your view?


  1. The scary thing is that it will probably show how little traffic most of the hundreds of government agency and department websites actually get !

  2. I'm for it - provided the revenue is focused towards making the web experience better. For example, featuring advertising that is then used to fund govhack events or opening up data? +1 to that!


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