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| Posted by: Andy Tonner

What does digital really mean? We asked Ruth Richards, charity marketing professional

What does digital really mean? It is complex, constantly evolving and cuts across so many functions in an organisation. It can refer to specific tools and skills, it can also be a strategic focal point for an organisation. To help us to better understand the scale, challenges and opportunities for the beyond profit sector, we are interviewing a range of sector experts on digital.

For our first instalment we spoke to Ruth Richards. Ruth is a marketing professional with extensive experience of managing brands, projects and teams. Ruth has worked in the charity sector for thirteen years in a number of senior roles including Director of Marketing and Digital at Place2Be and before that she was Head of Marketing and Communications at Mind, overseeing their marketing, digital and communications work.

What does “Digital “mean to you?

It is funny that people still talk about digital like it is a “thing”, when really it’s just business as usual, particularly when it comes to marketing. You need to work out how you are going to reach and engage with a specific audience, and the most effective way to do that now is often using digital tools.

When it comes to services there should be a similar approach – how can we better reach the people we’re supporting? Sometimes people can get focused on something because it is new or “cool”, when really you need to think meaningfully about how it can improve a service/function that you feel is needed.

I think the charity sector is brilliant at digital when it comes to marketing but possibly a bit scared when it comes to looking at these digital services. People talk about digital transformation as if it is something new – when in fact it is change management.

We hear a lot about there being a “digital skills shortage” in the sector. We hear it from our clients and you read about it in publications such as the Charity Digital Skills report – what are your views?

There is a lot of talk about the skills gap at the top – that was certainly outlined in the Charity Digital Skills report. Trustees can be keen to do digital, or to be seen doing it, but there can be a lack of experience which means you have less senior people trying to influence decisions based on what they know. I think it would be helpful for CEOs/Trustees to recognise that these people are usually the ones who understand the environment best as experts, and for them to trust us more.

I certainly don’t think there is a skills shortage in marketing and communications – there is a huge number of great people out there. However, I think within the sector you don’t see so many people with the real technical or development skills – for example having someone who can do coding or answer the question “How do we design this API?”. When you are the in-house digital lead maybe there is an expectation you can do all those things when really it depends on your skill set.

It isn’t always realistic to have a whole team of people who can do those tasks; if you only have the resources to recruit one digital person you can’t have a whole team of developers – most SME businesses certainly wouldn’t have a team of developers in-house. So it’s probably right that charities use agencies for this side of things. That’s an area where you do need quite specific skills – to procure and manage a digital agency you do need a certain level of knowledge.

What do you think is important in managing a digital project?

Making sure you truly understand the scope of the work at the beginning is critical. There needs to be a clear understanding of the user needs and requirements – what they want from a product or service – as well as a clear sense of the business objectives. Sometimes these two don’t match up and that’s where you need to work it through and find a balance.

Agile is a great project management approach for digital, but – especially in the charity sector – you also need to be clear about your budgets and scope, and what you are trying to achieve.

What’s the best use of digital you have seen – in or out of the sector?

This was a really difficult one but I tend to admire organisations using digital to do what they already do, but better.

If you look at Parkinson’s UK or NSPCC, who are doing great stuff, firstly they have really good websites – people often forget about them but they are still key – but they have also thought carefully about how their services can be delivered digitally.

For example, Parkinson’s UK started looking at the apps that were available for people living with Parkinson’s, rather than inventing their own. They now have a curated library of health and care apps and devices for people with Parkinson’s.

In terms of mental health, which is my area of work, Samaritans, Mind, NSPCC and ChildLine have all embraced digital technology to offer support. The Mix and CALM are also doing great stuff. Things like text services and chatbots are a great way to reach people who may not want to speak on the phone. It’s not a substitute for face-to-face talking therapies, but the reality is that that isn’t immediately accessible to most people and these services are filling a gap when people are alone, late at night, with their phones.

What could the corporate sector learn from the beyond profit sector on digital – and vice versa?

What the charity sector does really well is thinking about its user engagement and really understanding what the user needs and wants to do. That’s a natural extension of our values – we’re interested in people.

I am not sure I am qualified to be an expert on how the corporate sector is using digital, although I am always in awe of how well they can use data to drive marketing. It feels like they’ve mined my brain sometimes!  

The corporate sector can maybe be a bit more nimble and has the ability to take more risks. It’s not that the charity sector isn’t innovative because it totally is – it’s about the cost of projects on limited resources. Not only that but the costs of digital projects can be hard to predict – particularly if you are doing it properly and scoping out users requirements, and that can cause nervousness or funding challenges.

Android or iPhone?

Android. I just started with one because I couldn’t afford an iPhone and carried on. I’m put off by the updates that the iPhone seems to need constantly. It always seems to cause a lot of stress ….  

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