Digital schmigital: robotic thinking

Man with computer sillhouetted against dramatic night sky

Normally I can claim “all my own work” when I write these articles, but I have to confess this one is heavily based on a really interesting thread on www.charityconnect.co.uk initiated by Joe Freeman about a year ago. I found myself agreeing 100% with the sentiments expressed and liking the writing style too. So please think of this an opinion piece, but a shared one this time!

Understandably, and even more so given the way our lives have had to change in the pandemic, everything is “digital” nowadays. We are constantly told that “digital will solve our problems” and “digital will make us successful”. Also, digital will make life easier, save us time, stop loneliness, bring about transparency, make us healthier, educate us, and entertain us.

Alongside this, companies offering “digital solutions” entice charities with offers of apparently Utopian products, maybe even offering them to us free of charge (is there really such a thing?).  There are free websites that tie an organisation into costly contracts for support, offers to build apps with no thought as to whether it is actually the right thing for your charity to do, management tools that quite frankly introduce unnecessary complexity into our organisations at a cost, and friendly products that turn out to be not quite enough … until you sign up for the “pro” version!

Digital is everywhere and we all know it’s important. We all get that it’s how people interact now and how people expect a charity to engage with any audience – users, partners, regulators, donors – and that the opportunities it presents are massive for the sector.

We know all that, but many charities haven’t caught up with an important reality: that much of the marketing (digital marketing!) around it is hyped up, so they fall for it. As a result, charities build products that don’t meet the need of their users, or spend time and energy posting random stuff on social media just because “that’s how it’s done nowadays”. Often, they don’t think to challenge the assumption that it’s the best way to engage, or that an audience might like traditional communication either as well as or instead of digital.

Technology and the ease with which it is accessed and applied has moved so quickly in the last 5 years that many organisations’ knowledge-base and expertise/capacity has struggled to keep up. This is a critical skills gap that charities need to quickly address, so they can be more balanced, make properly informed decisions, and make the most of the genuine opportunities being created – without being exploited.

There is brilliant online work – internal and user-facing – being done by UK charities large and small up and down the UK, but I believe we all need to think carefully about how we use the using the word “digital” in such an assumptive way. It sounds obvious, but instead, the starting point of any initiative should be thinking about our supporters, our missions, our beneficiaries, our partners … and then working strategically and tactically to do what’s best to meet their needs – digital or not.

The problem with what I describe as “robotic digital thinking” is that it puts certain areas of a charity’s (or, indeed, a business’s) work into a box, meaning that these things become the responsibility of a small cohort of  staff – the digital team. Digital then grows for growth’s sake, a mistake in most departments or projects as we all know.

System driven activity: “I need something to put on our social media this week?

User driven activity: “What do our users need to know this week, and what’s the best way of telling them?” 

Digital is an enabler. We do need to harness digital. We do need to understand digital.  We don’t need to get sucked in or bamboozled by the techies and the technobabble, and the associated marketing. We do need to embed a user-based approach to it into our charities and remove the digital label. Digital is a tool for some of what we do, not a department that has to be serviced and resourced.

One respondent on the thread wrote “if many of your clients have never owned a computer or tablet and have little interest in them, for them it’s useless to have even the best website on the planet.  Our service users really appreciate it when we finally have the time to communicate with them in their preferred way.

So the lesson for today is – listen to your audience and understand their communication needs. Digital often is – but importantly, isn’t always – the answer. By making it about the people you will never spend time, money, energy, and credibility delivering technology that isn’t needed, wanted or used.

Final thought. See these ads? Rather than appoint someone into the role of “Digital Communications Officer” why not just employ a “Communications Officer”?