The last issue of Vanguard called for defence companies seeking to win major Canadian contracts to engage beyond their primary customer, the Crown. The lessons from the F-35 procurement are telling: winning public opinion is increasingly necessary to win capital programs. Connecting with Canadians is essential if defence companies wish to display a transparent profile to Canadians and the Canadian government.

Engaging beyond ads
Many defence firms rely solely on what in the United States have become traditional mediums for marketing: print media advertorials, banners in airports, and advertisements on city buses. While this may have worked in the past, corporations selling other types of goods and services are increasingly expanding their sales by using digital communications to promote brand exposure. Digital communications include using online platforms, such as websites, social media, and banner ads directed and tracked with user cookies to connect with an audience.

Digital and online marketing can promote the sales of running shoes, lattes, and video games, but defence firms may wonder if digital platforms are the appropriate medium for selling a $10 billion capital program for fighter jets, navy frigates, drones, or armoured personnel carriers. The answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Not only can digital communications help promote a defence capability to federal procurement officers, digital engagement can promote these capabilities and solutions to Canadian constituents, their representatives, and possible business partners.

More and more, defence companies looking to sell to Canada have been using Twitter as a basis for their digital communications strategy. Though there are merits to engaging on Twitter, there are certain foundational practices that cannot be overlooked and should be the starting point of any effective digital campaign.

Canadian-focused website
Over 86 percent of Canadians access the internet, making them some of the highest users of internet content in the world. On average, Canadians spend 45 hours a month online, engaging with social media platforms and reading electronic news. Having a digital presence is indispensable for government and industry alike, as this is the dominate medium whereby Canadians access information.

It may seem elementary, but a simple and accessible website that acts as a campaign news hub is the foundation of any digital strategy. A website provides a base location for searchers to access information. A good website should provide, at minimum, contact information and updates about the procurement campaign. These are both necessary and can be sufficient for an effective digital communications plan.

Having an effective Canadian website is essential because it will be used by the media seeking to gather information, small and medium enterprises interested in working as a tier 2 or tier 3 supplier, and regional agencies looking for information on regional investments. Beyond a useful website, companies can choose to dive into social media to connect more broadly – many firms have been doing this through Twitter.

Some companies have been thorough in their Canadian digital campaign, with a select few firms developing a website focused on the specific program they are interested in competing for. Good examples include the Textron TAPV Team and the Alenia C-27J Spartan websites. These sites provide competition-specific information by highlighting their platform’s capabilities while showcasing their regional partners and campaign momentum.

Other companies have a Canadian presence with a dedicated .ca domain website, while another group of major prime contractors have a Canadian-specific splash page or microsite linked from their global corporate website that, in the very least, points their audience to their Canadian presence. Either of these approaches signals that a defence firm is interested in doing business in Canada and/or developing a supply chain with Canadian firms.

Any type of website with a Canadian focus allows a company to push information out to their audience, be it government officials, political stakeholders, suppliers and small-medium enterprises, or the interested Canadian constituent. A Canadianized website is the foundation and very basic building block of a firm’s defence procurement digital campaign, and should be the foundation of a good Canadian procurement campaign.

Tweeting to sell
Once a firm has a Canadianized website and is developing content specific to their Canadian campaign, they can choose to broaden their digital presence by engaging in social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube channels, LinkedIn, etc.

Social media is not appropriate for all businesses, however, as the target audience may not be active on social media, the nature of the procurement campaign and involvement may be classified, or active marketing may hinder chances of campaign success. Yet, it may be very useful for other firms that seek to expose their Canadian partners, engagement in the local community, and regional investments as a way of developing long-term relationships with Canada. But where it is useful, not all social media platforms are appropriate. Companies would be wise to strategically assess the approach that is best suited to a corporation’s and/or an industry’s audience.

Digital communication platforms and social media have changed the way constituents, businesses, and decision-makers access information. Individual consumers and other businesses no longer only get messages about a company’s products from that company. Instead, consumers and potential partners receive information from a wide variety of sources on the platform of their choosing.

The message is no longer exclusively shaped and distributed by the corporation. These changes have shifted the way people interact with their brands, including the brands competing in large Crown procurement programs. Constituents want their government to purchase brands they trust from companies that respect them.

Twitter is a useful illustration of social media for the defence sector because a number of defence companies are tweeting and engaging with a captive (albeit small) audience of Canadian stakeholders who are interested in defence procurement and defence issues. Given that there is a captive and engaged audience, using Twitter may enable prime contractors to better connect with their governmental stakeholders, regional business partners, and Canadian constituents.

Connecting with Canadians is increasingly important for large-scale procurements, as learned from the F-35 procurement campaign. Since connecting has become more essential, the type of information that should be communicated and directed to the right audience is important to consider.

The type of information pushed out on social media should be highly varied and can range from simple brand promotion to highlighting a firm’s role in a procurement campaign or their general engagement in Canada. Good Canadian content for a social media campaign can also include updates on industrial partnerships or using other tools, such as webinars, to engage stakeholders.

In any case, content needs to be targeted to the type of individuals that a business is engaging and seeks to influence. A thorough audit of a corporate social media account would effectively direct these efforts, so that messages resonate with followers. For example, if a company determines that most of their social media followers are interested in their plans for Atlantic Canada investments and jobs, they can be sure to target their messages accordingly or work toward diversifying their followers to capture the participants they seek to engage. In general, although there are few stakeholders who use social media, those following a defence prime contractor on Twitter may have broader interests on the role foreign prime contractors want to play, and using this platform may be a useful promotional tool.

The right “follower” on Twitter can result in a significant ripple effect for brand and message exposure through re-tweets and information sharing. An audit of a company’s social media strategy would enable their communication team to tailor messages and identify key stakeholders and social media participants.

Whether Twitter or other forms of social media are right for your business’s procurement campaign, a digital presence is essential for any firm seeking to break into the Canadian market and sell to the Canadian government. A digital presence need not include extensive social media engagement, but if a firm chooses to engage on social media, an analysis on where your audience engages is important to targeting efforts appropriately. Once a firm determines where they should engage, targeting specific stakeholders and key influencers with appropriate content will ensure that your social media campaign is effective and engaging.

Selling defence capabilities to Canada is both a science and increasingly an art. Mastering both subjects is important to success in the Canadian market. And, while those proficient in the art of communicating to Canada are engaging in Twitter, a prudent strategy for a firm engaging in Canada would be to audit their audience and target messaging directly to the platform that resonates best with their stakeholders.
Meghan Spilka O’Keefe is a senior consultant in procurement at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and a frequent “tweeter” on all things military, defence, and procurement: @mspilkaokeefe.