With 'Vault' Site, FBI Starting to Resemble TMZ

What Marketers Can Learn From Bureau's Rebranding Initiative, Social-Media Outreach

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Marketers and media companies might want to steal a page from the G-Men's playbook when it comes to repackaging content successfully.

In the past week, the FBI's website has seen a dramatic spike in web traffic as conspiracy theorists, historians and news outlets have gone gaga over the revelation of a memo addressed to former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that many believed was the smoking gun about alien landings at Roswell.

Thing is, that Roswell memo isn't new at all; the document has been in the public domain for years. "There is a lot of hoopla about the UFO files, but they have been on the website probably from the very beginning," Bill Carter, a spokesman for the FBI, told Advertising Age.

The buzz can be chalked up to a rebranding initiative the bureau unveiled this month that's seeing some early success. The more-than-a-century-old government agency has long had an electronic reading room for frequently requested files, but decided that name was staid. So the FBI came up with a snappy new name -- "The Vault" -- and enhanced new search capabilities on the site.

The FBI has also started expanding the archive by adding files on the highest-profile cases the agency has investigated. Updates include documents on the murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G. for example, and older files include information about Marilyn Monroe, Al Capone and Elvis Presley.

In all, there about 2,000 digitized documents on the website and more are in the pipeline. "We'll be adding new files to the Vault each month," Mr. Carter said.

"We are utilizing technology to make [our website] more convenient," he said. "It significantly increases the number of available FBI files and enhances the speed that the files can be accessed, and includes a robust search capability." Mr. Carter said the new site allows clearer viewing of FBI files, and also allows individuals to get status alerts about Freedom of Information Act requests.

So what's behind these efforts by an otherwise secretive branch of the government? Why does the FBI want to get more digitally savvy and play up its ties to pop culture?

The move appears to be part of a bid to improve the agency's perception in the eyes of the public. "It reflects a commitment to build public trust and confidence, and to provide better access to FBI records," Mr. Carter said. "It's our effort to be as open as possible with regard to what the FBI does."

The rebranding and search enhancements are the FBI's boldest foray to drum up public interest in the agency. But the launch of the Vault comes on the heels of a website overhaul the FBI unveiled only six months ago, the first it undertook since the site was launched in 1995.

The new site improved the user interface and made it more news-oriented, while also trying to boost engagement by adding a "fun and games" section with quizzes and other online games. Among government websites, the FBI says its site gets more hits than most, attracting some 35 million visitors annually.

The FBI also has an active Facebook page and its press office regularly uses Twitter to post updates. The bureau has four podcast shows, available on Apple's iTunes, that spotlight wanted fugitives and talk about breaking news. The agency even serves as its own aggregator, sending out the "FBI's Top Ten News Stories of the Week."

Another way it's trying to boost its appeal? Crowdsourcing.

The government is now in the process of defrosting more than 100 cold cases -- which was the subject of a "60 Minutes" segment last weekend -- and is inviting the public to participate in that process. What's more, the FBI is even inviting the public to participate in helping to solve open murder cases. It recently posted a coded message on Facebook that represents one of the only clues in a pending case, asking for the public to offer their comments and theories about the message.

Maybe it's time the FBI changed not only its website but its motto too: "Fidelity, Integrity, Bravery and Interactivity."

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