Charities plot digital shake-up to break from social media groove

Comic Relief, British Heart Foundation and Asthma UK are among a flurry of charities looking to expand their limited digital expertise beyond social media to people and services as they shift priorities from just awareness to understanding their audiences.

Almost a year on from the viral hit that was the Ice Bucket Challenge, many charities have been content to hail it as the holy grail of charity marketing. But replicating this global phenomenon is high risk as it is so unpredictable, causing some charities to resist the urge to pump money into viral content and instead co-opt the stunt’s capacity to use relevant digital approaches to meet the needs of its stakeholders.

Their efforts are emblematic of how the sector’s idea of digital is stuck in a social media groove.

The issue is compounded by learnings from the New Reality report, authored by digital strategist Julie Dodd, which revealed that 80 per cent of more than 50 interviews with experts from the charity, third sector, commercial and digital industries admitted to a lack of clarity in leadership when it comes to digital issues. Indeed, several charities interviewed by The Drum said they did not see a lack of understanding as the problem to mastering digital but rather a lack of skills.

To foster that leadership and break away from a reliance on Twitter, Facebook and online engagement, several charities are focusing their efforts on culture, skills and harnessing data so that digital can deliver scale to every aspect of their organisation, from research to support. The sector, like others before it, is teetering on the verge of a social paradigm shift powered by technology but without better case studies organisations just aren’t going to get there.

Competing with large advertiser budgets

This is why Comic Relief recently launched its “Tech for Good” pilot funding programme as a pilot to support not-for-profit organisations using technology to spark social change. The fundraiser hopes to learn from those organisations it backs, fuelling its push into the mobile space. It claims its digital strategy is largely a mobile one, focusing on the interactions our supporters seek and developing easy ways to catalyse peer-to-peer engagement and galvanise support via individuals’ own networks.

Pete Durant, digital partners manager at Comic Relief, said ideas grounded in data and insight “should be what we as an industry strive toward as we compete in the same channels with huge brands and advertisers with big budgets”. The charity is now at a point where visibility isn’t always the priority and instead focus is on understanding the who, where, what, how and why of its audience, he added.

A less risk-averse approach

Parkinson’s UK is trying to break down a culture that has restricted digital to the domain of one team. This has to some extent stunted digital competencies across the charity, a situation the charity has started to address with a mix of training for wider staff (such as best practice when writing for the web) , closer working between its digital and editorial teams, and through the events team doing out of hours social media work. The changes are underpinned by chief executive Steve Ford’s decision to rally the organisation behind digital and push for a less risk adverse approach, for example to emerging channels, technologies, and opportunities around digital fundraising.

Ford added that the charity is increasingly focussing on data and insights to make sure that decisions are rooted in audience needs rather than organisational priorities. Whilst the charity’s core audience (people with Parkinson’s) hasn’t demanded digital at the same pace as some of its peers, which has meant that Parkinson’s UK has been slower to respond to the growth of mobile, given the wider audience it serves which includes carers, friends, researchers and families, the organisation recognises the need to do more in future to keep pace with emerging digital trends.

“Our strategic priority is to have a personal relationship with everyone diagnosed with Parkinson’s - and digital is at the heart of that,” said Ford. “So we’re looking at a project to develop user journeys from the point of diagnosis, so that we’re delivering the support and information (on and off-line) in a joined up way that meets the needs of people affected from the start of their experience of Parkinson’s.”

Lack of digital skills in charity sector

No one could have predicted that something being done in a church in Georgia, USA, would become such a global phenomenon. What the ice bucket challenge does show marketers is that in a social media world where advertising spend is so important to reach supporters amid the rise of mobile messaging platforms, peer-to-peer social strategies are now incredibly important to being successful.

Jonathan Simmons, director at digital agency Zone, which works with charities, said the sector is being held back by a lack of skills. For instance, most charities sit on a wealth of data but miss the digital skills needed to provide real insight into a vast range of social issues.

“Ice Bucket Challenge was brilliant, because it showed the power of digital in a way everyone could understand,” Simmons continued. “But we should not try and emulate it by spending money trying to create viral content.”

Some charities are further than others in their transition to this move away from two dimensional social media activations. Asthma UK has started its change programme by defining the ideal multichannel journeys for the main areas of support people need, incorporating behavioural insights where it can. Depending on the journey the channel focus is slightly different; website, mobile and email are all important though for some occasions it would still go for a helpline first model.

Kay Boycott, chief executive of Asthma UK, said: “We are now talking about data and CRM as much as digital. Whilst creative content has a valuable role to play, the skills the team most want to invest in now are in the areas of segmentation, analytics and CRM. We recognise that this won't happen overnight but we believe it will have the greatest long-term impact.”

Charities are no longer seeing viral content as a central part of their digital strategies. Those types of campaigns have shown the power of content for campaigning and fundraising purposes but the real prize in digital transformation for the likes of BHF and Comic Relief is delivering digital-powered services that help more people, in new ways, which ultimately creates more impact.

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