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How using a marketing approach can help open data

One of the biggest barriers to the growth of the open data movement in my opinion is that nearly every open data related meeting/event is still comprised primarily of data geeks and app developers. The language that is used by this community (e.g. machine readable data, open access, genomes, geo-spatial, etc…) confuses the typical non-geek beyond hope. If you don’t capture the minds of the non-geeks out there to stimulate demand, how on earth are open data initiatives (e.g. and going to stay alive?

Through my speaking and consulting I deal quite a bit with senior communications/marketing professionals and program owners in the public sector.  What I find amazing is how blown away they are by the concept of open data when explained to them from a way that makes sense, to them. Even those who have heard the phrase before, don’t really put two and two together until it’s staring at them in the face. Keep in mind that these are people who have significantly decreasing advertising/communications/outreach budgets (called different things in different branches) and are often negotiating partnerships with the private sector. Imagine the increase in bargaining power if they realized how powerful their existing data could be , especially if the understanding and subsequent demand was there on the private sector side.

This is where the opportunity lies for the open data community.

One of my favourite examples of effective open data use in action has been the Save-the-Rain app developed initially for the B.C. Apps for Climate Action contest. It is comprised of three simple steps.

  1. Find your rooftop (enter your address)
  2. Draw a box around it (Google map provided with satellite view)
  3. See your results (i.e. how much rain you could be harvesting in a year)

This app has now been taken to the next level by using WorldBank datasets and allowing anyone to use it. Try it on your own home to see what I mean.

After using this app, and the initial oohs and ahhs, I very quickly noticed a missing component. Why isn’t there an immediate call to action ? What do I do now? Where is the list of water harvesting solution companies I can contact to get my free quote? With the initial app there was nothing, now with the WorldBank dataset app I noticed at least some FAQ’s, but still no clear calls to action.

This is a missed opportunity.

The data geeks have in large part done their job. It’s time to start reaching people outside of the fishbowl.

Think of the public servant that’s actually in charge of  getting Canadians to use less water (i.e. let’s pretend it’s the marketing director of an environmental program). Chances are they’ve never heard of open data, and if they have, they surely don’t think it could possibly apply to their job. Further still, what about the rainwater harvesting suppliers here in Canada, why aren’t they creating similar apps with these free datasets? Why aren’t they using the existing one as a value add to help them sell to their clients?

The answer is easy: Most people have still never heard of open data, let alone understand its relevancy to them.

Now let’s imagine a high-level marketing approach was taken to address this. Note that all #’s are completely fictitious as I am making them up on the spot. Proper due diligence and research would obviously have to take place.

Marketing Goal: To get businesses to actively use open data

Segmentation: Small business, Medium businesses, Large corporations (broken down by province)

Target Audience: Small and Medium Enterprises (SME’s) in Ontario

Positioning: Using free government open data can save your business valuable time and money

Marketing Objectives:

  • Knowledge objective: To increase the number of SME owners in Ontario that have heard of open data by 25% over benchmark by the end of the fiscal year.
  • Belief objective: To have 50% of SME owners in Ontario (who are aware of open data by the end of the fiscal year) believe that using government open data can help them save time and money.
  • Behaviour objective: 5% of all SME owners (or people on their behalf) in Ontario download and use datasets from (example).

Marketing Mix:

  • Product: A re-vamped (i.e. easy to use, machine readable datasets with a kick-ass user interface)
  • Price: Time involved sorting through datasets and hiring app developer
  • Place: Primarily in-person at SME locations
  • Promotion: Face-to-face presentations on how open data can help their bottom line, free seminars (no-techies allowed to speak), demonstrations, testimonials from other SME’s using datasets.

Evaluation: Benchmarks would need to be set first, however most evaluation would be via surveys, in-person interviews and web analytics tracking dataset usage. Only the target audience would be evaluated in order to stay on scope.

So there you have it, just a late Tuesday afternoon thought on open data…feel free to shoot back.


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  1. Hi Mike, good perspectives.

    Open data of itself has little value unless it addresses real problems or creates opportunities. Connecting ‘data geeks’ with people who have real-world problems or opportunities is the key.

    It also requires an open data provider to think differently; to think as a citizen or business owner. What are the pressing issues in the community? How do businesses use data? Do we have data that will help their businesses?

    Open data is like a grocery store; plenty of interesting ingredients but without a reason to shop, it remains just that, interesting but without purpose. Hosting a dinner party and the grocery store starts to have real value. So long as one can cook .;)

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed your post and here in NZ someone else must have read it. Im a Marketing Manager and I’ve just been hired to promote the Charities Commission Open Data which holds info on every regeistered charity in NZ. My prsopective audience group just keeps growing everyday – lets face it the charitiable sector touches on public and private sector in varying ways. The trick here (and Im still in the development satge of the strategy) is making the VP relevent to each group. Right now Im thinking about how to name it – ‘Open Data’ just isnt cutting it. Ideas anyone?

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