Digital platforms can no longer be considered ‘new technology’. The systems that make the internet possible have been around for more than 35 years and social networks like Facebook and Twitter have progressed considerably. However, the general lack of depth in digital skill and practice in the development sector is tartling.
Colin Habberton, founder of the Relativ Group, which includes Relativ Exposure – a unit specialising in marketing and communication – emphasises the importance of an informed and multipronged digital communication strategy.
Digital platforms, particularly social networks, provide development organisations with an everpresent forum for transformative feedback. A digital communication strategy should entail more than a website update, the monthly email and the odd fundraising campaign. Consider your own online activity and reflect on the amount of time that you spend on social media. Think about those moments when you stop and actually read something that is longer than a paragraph. It’s not likely to be often. Our lives are increasingly consumed by the mobile devices that, while empowering us with access and connectivity, also consume our attention and time.
If you aren’t reading your organisation’s marketing emails, chances are no one else is either
How, amid the online clutter, does an organisation break through the barriers of information overload, to gain the attention and, possibly, the action of the global digital audience? The answers to this and other questions regarding your organisation’s digital strategy may be closer to home than you think.
Start with a personal digital audit, by reflecting on your own online behaviour and surveying your team members. Consider the type of content and style of communication that you prefer; which social media channels you use, and for what purposes; whether you shop and/or make donation online; and whether you read marketing emails sent from your own organisation.
When you are thinking about your organisation’s digital strategy, recognise yourself and your team as the resident focus group with an immense amount of experience and opinion. If you and your team don’t find your organisation’s marketing emails interesting enough to read, there is a strong likelihood that the majority of people on your mailing list don’t either.
But wait, before you ditch those marketing emails…
Marketing emails are still one of the best mediums for tracking and measuring impact. Unlike social media, it’s an arguably more direct way of reaching your target audience. Email offers a much larger format to deliver information and to see who is interacting with which part of it, compared to the limited space available with most social media posts. Take the time to improve the quality of your marketing emails by viewing them as opportunities to tell stories and gather data, rather than just to deliver information.
Ensure that you have the right tools. Email automation engines are relatively affordable, easy to use, and collect data which, if used correctly, can provide useful insight into who your emails are reaching, who they’re missing, and how many clicks or follow-throughs they’re generating.
The same principle goes for social media and online campaigns. In addition to offering detailed data on who, when and how often audiences interact with your content, social media analytics can be used to further segment your audience by age, gender and location, for example. When reviewing this data, look for patterns of activity in relation to your messaging: for example, does emotive messaging generate more ‘click throughs’ than data-driven stories? Compare which formats of content resonate with various groups of your audience: for example, do pictures and videos attract more attention and engagement than long text?
Your existing audience, when effectively engaged, could be your greatest asset
Monitor what’s being said about your organisation, not just what your organisation is saying about itself. Don’t forget the power of your community to create content for your communications. Some of the most successful digital campaigns to date have been started by community members, rather than by the causes or organisations themselves. When a cause or organisation identifies an interesting story and packages it powerfully, its community can help to broadcast it well beyond immediate networks.
Be flexible and attentive enough to let your community guide your future content strategy and communication plan. Personal stories from the people within your own community – whether supporters or beneficiaries – are the authentic expression of how your organisation delivers on its promise. They are a testimony to your work and the practical output of your theory of change. Seek out and share their stories.
They’ve clicked on your link; now what?
Even with the most carefully honed communication plan and gripping stories, if your organisation does not have a decent website, it is as though you are leading your audience to your front door and forgetting to invite them in. Although digital platforms are one of the most cost-efficient ways to engage with individuals, many organisations forget that far more people click through to visit their websites, than would ever actually visit their offices to learn about their work. Think of your organisation’s website as your reception area; is it inviting enough to make visitors want to stay and learn more, or to return to in the future?
The aim for any digital platform is to have an engaging, functional and easily navigable interface that offers the user access to the organisation’s information. Returning to the recommendation to use yourself and your colleagues as a focus group, decide whether you like the aesthetic of your website, and how easily you can find the information that you’re looking for.
Your organisation’s website is not an add-on; it is an essential communication tool. Invest in it to the point where you and your colleagues feel confident and proud enough to share it with your own Facebook friends and other social networks.
Once you get this right, remember that websites are no longer digital brochures. Users demand interactivity and evidence of service and delivery. There are some excellent local and international examples to refer to.
Updating your digital infrastructure is about more than getting your website to look good, or work properly. An equally important consideration is the state of your digital security. In South Africa, as in many parts of the world, the digital era has brought with it new rules and recommendations on how to treat people and their information.
The Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act, now in force, was best described by a former colleague who used the axiom: say what you do, and do what you say. This phrase is broadly applicable to guiding digital strategy and communication practice as a whole. Before you send something out, make sure you have permission – from the recipient, as well as from the source – to share it.
Then, make sure that your platform is secure. Your community data is a significant asset that should be protected accordingly. In addition, if you are going to develop a narrative about what your organisation stands for, remain accountable to your claims and vision.
There are tools available to monitor what is being said about your organisation online. For example, opinion mining and social listening tools, like BrandsEye, allow you to measure the volume of conversation about your campaigns, as well as topics relevant to your organisation, peers and partners. These tools help to facilitate access to the individuals and institutions that express interest in your work, as well as provide comparisons regarding public reactions to your online communication. They offer the opportunity to build insight for managing risk, containing crisis, researching themes of interest, and discovering the next great story that you could tell.
Once you have identified your stories, updated your website, read your emailers (and enjoyed them!) and battle-tested your digital security, the next step is to focus on the actions of, and feedback from, your community.
Converting online activism into action
The digital era has given rise to the ‘slacktivist’. These members of your online community often open your
marketing emails and read your social media posts, but rarely do more than click on your links or add
your campaign hashtag to their social media post. While some engagement is better than none, the real
challenge is to spur this audience into action. Here are some practical steps for converting ‘likes’ on social
media, into action in real life.
Connect with your audience through authentic stories
Use all your communication as an opportunity to tell the story of your organisation: its purpose, progress,
and the wonderful people who work within the organisation. Profile your staff members, your leaders,
your partners and, most importantly, your beneficiaries. The one thing we all have in common is our
humanity. Positive, authentic stories that demonstrate how your organisation delivers on its purpose and
its connection with other people are the foundations of building engagement and relationships.
Remember that storytelling happens in many ways. Develop the capacity inside your organisation to tell
stories, whether with words, pictures or videos, and invite others to share authentic stories about your
organisation and its impact.
Create and nurture engagement
Map out your organisation’s digital platforms and the communications you distribute, and assess the responses that you receive through those touchpoints. Whether it is an email address, a social media profile, a telephone number or snail mail, track and monitor response times. The quicker your organisation responds to a supporter, the greater the opportunity for dialogue.
Once you have established connections, invite your supporters to share more about themselves. A donation is an obvious option, but perhaps not the best way to start your relationship. Instead, find out more about why they have shown an interest in your work. Tell them more about what you do and find ways to keep in touch through communications, events, and by signing them up to your organisational database; noting as many contact details as possible, including their social media handles. As far as possible, integrate your systems to improve responsiveness when supporters engage with your organisation.
Build and maintain relationships, recognise and celebrate change
Building and maintaining a relationship is not easy. It requires the effort of both parties. In the world of digital overload, the best way to cut through the noise is to test and then promote your emails and social media posts. When your message does reach your audience, recognise your recipients. Interact and celebrate the next phases of your story’s progress with them. You know that you have formed a positive relationship with a supporter when they share your stories with their own networks. View these supporters as an extension of your communications team. They are not only acknowledging your story, but taking it further than you would be able to without them.
Donations may be the goal, but the first step is to build trust between your organisation and its supporters, and to celebrate their engagement with you. If you aren’t prepared to adapt your online behaviour to attract and more effectively engage your audience, you cannot expect them to do the same.
Do better than the politicians who tweet
The internet and social media have changed the way we connect and communicate with each other. Those who have the expertise, tools and technology at their disposal have been able to harness the power of new media to create behaviour change and generate sentiment towards their objectives. Our most vivid reference points are the companies and politicians who use social networks to generate information advantage and leverage their respective interests. There is tremendous opportunity for the development sector to do the same.
To realise progress and ultimate success, organisations and their leadership need to build their experience, infrastructure and appetite for digital platforms. When deciding what to do and how to do it, remember you and your teams are the first and best judge of what works. Whether for your loyal supporters or first-time visitors, use your digital assets to initiate and build relationships.
Storytelling impacted the trajectory of history. Tell your stories well, to show how your organisation and its work will improve our collective future.