Working on the Great British High Street competition was fun. Exhausting but exciting too. The competition grew last year, and while I’m delighted it was so successful, there was a point where I feared it was spiralling out of control!
The competition is about driving footfall to high streets; encouraging people to shop locally and use local services so the money you spend benefits your local economy.
In 2014 a panel of judges chose the winning high street. In 2015 a public vote helped decide and this was a game changer. We set ourselves targets, based on past experience, for the number of entries, number of website page views, number of votes and number of mentions of our hashtag #GBHighSt. We wanted 200 high streets to enter; we got 230. Not bad. We estimated 25,000 hashtag mentions; we got 29,000. Pretty good. We hoped to get 20,000 votes; we got nearly 200,000. We were very happy with that. We expected around 30,000 page views for our website; we got 800,000. We were stunned.
It wasn’t all plain sailing and I learnt a few things along the way which I want to share.
- Public voting was open for six weeks. This was too long. It was exciting for us to watch the vote count going up but the entrants started to run out of steam and found it hard to motivate their local communities to keep voting.
- Social media makes a difference. One poor high street didn’t send a single tweet or Facebook post, didn’t Instagram any images or put a video on YouTube. They got about 700 votes. Their competitors went all out on social media to rally local support. They got about 15,000 votes. The majority of traffic to the website came via social media.
- Facebook advertising is complicated. I was excited to have a small budget to spend on Facebook ads. Little did I know how confusing the process would be. Facebook operates a bidding system for advertising space. If someone outbids you, your ad gets knocked off by theirs. You have no way of knowing if you’ve been outbid until after it happens. I thought our ads would keep going until the budget ran out, but they disappeared much more quickly than expected. Still, the ads increase web traffic by 285% and there were 60,000 clicks from Facebook to the website.
- Trying to keep on top of Twitter is a full time job. With 29,000 mentions of our hashtag to track, a similar number of @mentions, and queries coming in by direct message, there were times when I was checking Twitter from 7am when I woke up to midnight when I went to bed. Anticipate every question in advance and make sure the answer is online already to reduce the volume of Twitter queries you have to deal with.
- Live tweeting doesn’t always go to plan. I love the idea of tweeting about events as they happen. It’s live, spontaneous, original content. Unfortunately, at the awards ceremony people were so excited about receiving their awards they didn’t notice that they were standing with their backs to me. They didn’t think to move away from the window so they weren’t just a dark shadow in my photo. They didn’t politely pause and turn and smile whilst shaking hands with the minister so I could get a good picture. They rushed off at the end to tell the world they’d won and didn’t hang about to give me a quote. Live tweeting works well in some situations, but semi-live tweeting, where you draft your tweets and get some nice pics in advance, is less stressful.
The 2014 winners told us that the competition had increased footfall, boosted tourism, helped the local economy and attracted investment. It’s good to know that the competition achieved what we set out to do.
I got a letter from High Streets Minister Marcus Jones praising my work. (Okay I’m just showing off now but if you knew how rare praise from above was in the Civil Service you wouldn’t blame me!)