Are charities the last bastion of analogue? - Digital Marketing Magazine

By Max du Bois

As featured in Digital Marketing Magazine, by Max du Bois.

According to Martha Lane-Fox, Chair of GO ON UK, UK Business Digital Index, we may be world leaders in e-commerce, yet the transformative power of digital is not being fully exploited by charities in the UK and the main barrier is about perceived benefits of digital. This is further backed up by the latest Lloyd’s Digital Brand Index, in which the charity sector is the only sector to have actually gone backwards.

This fact was highlighted during a recent round table with a number of leaders from the charity sector. The topic focused on how the charity sector, despite having the greatest potential for customer engagement, remains digitally stagnant.

In effect there are five core brand states in the digital charity arena, and it is worth taking a closer look at these to establish where things are and what needs to be done to turn the current digital apathy into a transformative force for social change.

The first brand state can be defined as Business as Usual. There are still those who regard digital as just another communications channel. This is where digital is used to disseminate print based content in an un-engaging digital format, often waving the cost savings banner. Everything from a newsletter to patient information and annual reports are turned into a silt of impenetrable digital content which clogs the communications arteries and suffocates the cause.

The next stage up from this is The Glue or Wrapper. This is where digital brands are being used to stick all the various silos together in a battle to provide coherence and clarity to the outside world. This tries to cure the proliferation of fragmented, incoherent messages, with an over abundance of websites, campaign sites and various social media handles as fundraising, policy, services and communications all fight their corner. This is often piled up on an equally prolific set of non digital, siloed channels.

As we move up the scale of efficient use of digital, we reach brands that supercharge their messages to wrap around and actually engage their audiences with the right story through the right channel. These are the brands who genuinely communicate well with their audiences. Volunteering Matters are a good example of this as they redefine their stakeholders’ journey with their new branding.

Yet we are still a long way off disrupting the sector in a truly dynamic way. This is still brand as broadcast, a far cry from brand using the full power of connectivity.

In the commercial world we have seen sector after sector use digital to create disruptive new ways of doing business. From taxis to hotels, the world is rife with innovative models which are flipping the original sector on its head. It is time the charity sector turned their model into something which makes their target audiences want to be part of their brand.

The fourth digital brand state, that of using brand as dialogue, is getting closer to this. Ironically the commercial sector does this very well and the charity sector doesn’t.

This requires shifting away from the dictatorial 'I' of brand and moving into ‘you’, what you want of the brand. In so doing we can move away from the current reliance on mass personalisation and use big data to craft tailored communications channels.

There is a further step that commercial brands can only pay lip service to, by virtue of their commercial business model, and this is authentic co-production. This is the fifth brand state. This occurs when connectivity is used to co-produce the brand.

By involving their target audience in the co-creation process, the charity taps into their combined ambitions, wisdom and passions to define what the brand is about. This empowers the consumer to become part of the brand. This is using digital's hyper-connective power to revolutionise the way we construct our brands, to transform them into something fundamentally more powerful.

Brand managers may baulk at this, fearing chaos. At its heart, co-production needs a very clear central philosophy, a profound theory of change that reaches beyond the cliche, that motivates and inspires. Loosing control of the brand seems counter intuitive, yet almost all great sector brands, some of which even created profound historical change such as ending slavery, were started in this way.

Inspired people starting a ground swell with the power to mould their inspiration and create unstoppable movements. And this is what connectivity can do at its best. One of the best examples is NUS who now reaches out to its diverse base, allowing them to define, interpret and develop the brand further, providing the channels and digital tools required to do so.

As the digital round table rightly concluded, the charity sector needs to shift from viewing the short-term impact of digital. The real value resides in the long term goals. Digital needs to be recognised as a fundamental way of advancing charities’ causes at a strategic level, not just a tactical bauble. However digital, without well defined and engaging brand messages, is just more irrelevant noise.

There is every opportunity for the charity sector to make a real impact by embracing what digital has to offer. It does require a leap of faith and a change in mindset but to continue business as usual will surely spell the demise of a sector so many people rely on.