My new life as a consultant has seen me wandering around talking to many folks who work in charities – large and small. Quite a few have asked me why I think that Age UK (where I was Head of Digital) got ranked top in Third Sector magazine’s recent Web Check. One or two people have ventured opinions about just how easy we must have had it at Age UK, what with all the money (errr) and all the strategy already set for us (hmmmm).
There’s some truth that we were lucky. Merger most horrid it may have been but it did present the perfect moment to wipe away 15 years of ‘organic growth’ or digital mess.
Whilst the merger talks were going on, I was analysing the scale of the challenge we would face online. It quickly emerged that it was going to be massive. There were 300 separate websites with individual ‘owners’, no standard user journeys and the sites were on just about every type of technology known to man and geek.
In normal times this would have been a huge challenge, but like every other department in the two charities I was restructuring and, in turn, being restructured. Generally people were not keen on talking about what a future they may or may not be a part of would look like, but the timelines were tight and we had to focus on the endgame no matter how tricky things were internally.
It was clear that the new organisation, which didn’t yet have a name, would be a big and complex beast. Now fully formed it consists of something like 164 local Age UKs (independent charities in their own right), 4 national partners, 500 retail outlets or thereabouts, 600 associated groups (known as ‘friends’), 1 financial services company, 1 international partnership (Help Age International) and a biomedical research function.
It’s also further along the line than most to becoming a social enterprise, with two thirds of the income delivered by the trading areas of the organisation. The financial services it offers takes it into an online market that’s about as competitive as it gets. This would provide a second set of challenges and one that will be familiar to many a charity digital lead – how does the commercial sit next to the charitable?
We did have a few things going in our favour though. One was that at the very top of the organisation were people who really believed that digital should be ‘at the heart’ of Age UK. That gave the team the remit to push ahead as one group presence, not 300 hundred separate ones. The ambition at the outset was clear, the organisation wanted to deliver the definitive web presence for older people – it was a long-term objective, but one that set the tone for the level of customer-focus we would need. We also had the history, so it was easy to look for what had and hadn’t worked and make sure we only carried the good forward.
On their own though a clean slate and support in the boardroom would never have been enough to take 170 organisations on a journey with us.
A few good decisions at the outset really helped. Like many digital leads I am a huge believer in evidence-based and user-centric as the way to build digital. Quite often the challenge with this is getting senior management buy-in, often when silo’ed need pushes against user-centric requirement it’s not the right one that gets shoved out the door. We started with research, taking in our own database and connected groups, users of the website and, of course, those groups the new organisation wanted to speak to but who weren’t connected with us before.
That research led us to some controversial decisions. Here are some of the big questions that the organisation needed answering and what the research told us:
- Should the local and national organisations be separate online? The users were brilliantly clear on this one. They told us they simply didn’t care about our organisation’s structure they just wanted to find information relevant to them quickly.
- One site for the entire group, or many? This was resolved by looking at where traffic was driven from and to. It turned out that only one separate microsite had ever returned more traffic than it had taken from the central group.
- How should we sit commercial and charitable content together? Again, the users were clear. Where internally we saw problems they saw none. They had clear areas of interest and they wanted us to tell them what we knew on those subjects. And so our site became navigated by their interests (Money, Health, Travel, Work, etc) and not on the more standard charitable structure (About Us, What We Do, How You Can Help, etc).
These were just a few of the ‘big questions’ that were resolved at the start and, as far as we could, all answers were evidence-based. We listened, prototyped, tested and kept learning. If you are reading all of this thinking it must have cost millions, it didn’t. User Experience was a skill we had developed within the team at Help the Aged and that meant that a lot of the work could be done with our own resources.
That research took us to some places that we very definitely wouldn’t have gone to without it, some of them were highly controversial. The local research told us that we needed to join our national and local user journeys and that we needed a consistent quality for those local sites. The solution was to bring an end to the individual local charities having separate sites and move to a common platform. That became a formal requirement for the Age Concerns signing up to become an Age UK and it was a source of serious and heated debate within the organisation.
It landed us on the front page of Third Sector and internally the pressure was close to boiling point. It also landed my team with a work programme that was incredibly ambitious, we were now going to replace 300 old presences with one new platform. The strong evidence base and some solid project management (we had local partners as senior stakeholders for this project and they had been a full part of all decisions) meant that the argument stacked up. In terms of managing the scale of it, again a strong base helped enormously. Age UK owns and builds its own digital (we used agencies, but the code, the technology, the strategy and the project management is all owned within Age UK and the team runs close to an agency model) and investing in strong infrastructure in terms of humans as well as machines allowed us to expand to take the amount of work. It wasn’t without its moments of pure pain, but it did mean that it was an incredibly cost-efficient way to deliver such a huge platform and that we would be independent of any one particular supplier.
And spending time getting our relationships right and building a team that included key stakeholders, our own staff, agencies and contractors was vital. We were again lucky, the team was outstanding.
Out of all this came a really clear digital ethos for the new organisation, there are five key principles and they are really simple:
- Build for users
- Be inclusive
- Design an engaging interface
- Be simple, intuitive, consistent
- Focus on the content
All sound unbelievably simple but are surprisingly hard. Building for users is obvious until it conflicts with what the organisation thinks it wants. Being inclusive, a no-brainer until the agency are proposing a total Flash execution etc. And being simple and consistent is an art.
The Third Sector Web Check measured things like accessibility and level of engagement on social media. These, to me, are small parts of what sprang out of a user-obsession – get the ethos right and things like accessibility aren’t box ticking they’re core – you build so people can use. Social media is one area where the price for not putting your user at the heart of what you do can be high – the people you view as ‘your audience’ will not stop talking about the subjects your organisation used to ‘own’ just because you choose not to engage.
So, for my money, it’s the user-obsession that won it for Age UK. And if they, and other large charitable organisations, are to really thrive in a world where digital and social are revolutionising how you win hearts and minds then that user-obsession needs to grow and spread to every corner of the organisation. The entry barriers to do what it is that charities have traditionally done have been lowered enormously by digital and social media and to stay in the game major change is required, and not just from your digital team (though you can bet that’s where it will be felt first) but that’s a subject for another blog, another day.
Any questions or thoughts or whatever happily received…. firstname.lastname@example.org or @wearemc2.