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Wasted opportunity
 
Advancements in new media now allow target audiences to be engaged in cost-effective and imaginative ways with demonstrably positive results. So why are so few charities making use of it, asks Jane Dudman
 

Terms such as ‘podcast’ and ‘blog’ may not be familiar to some, but they deserve recognition, and increased use, as these kinds of new media can provide an excellent, cost-effective way for charities to extend their communications out to a wider audience.
While the evidence so far suggests that such terms are more likely to strike fear or, at best, bafflement, getting familiar with new media is likely to pay dividends.

Sadly, though, research suggests that few charities are making use of new technological ideas. A recent survey by online developer iConcertina has revealed that UK charities are not making use of innovations in new media and, in fact, are failing even to make the best use of existing online resources. The firm says it was surprised and disappointed to find that the UK’s top 110 charity websites suffer from a lack of transparency, communicate poorly and score catastrophically low in accessibility.

Some charities are addressing these issues. Help the Aged has already re-launched its website to improve accessibility and RNID is another major charity that has recently redesigned its website, with almost immediate results. The RNID redesign resulted in a 50 per cent jump in sales for the organisation’s online shop, demonstrating the value of improving website usability.

The iConcertina research also reveals that few charities have a blog that is easy to find. “Charity blogs do exist, but when we are ‘webscoring’, we feel that if you can’t find it within 10 minutes, it’s reasonable to assume that other people won’t either,” points out Michelle Mace, head of sales at iConcertina. It is surprising that blogs are not more prevalent within the sector, given that they are easy to use, simple to manage and cheap to run. “Blogging is a wonderful opportunity for charities to really engage with donors,” says Mace.

Mace feels charities, however, are still wary of blogging because it is seen as a ‘new technology’. She says charities are worried that blogs take up time and that they may not know how to respond to comments. In fact, she points out, blogging need only take up a few minutes, a few times a week, and guidelines are available to help charities run blogs. “There is a bit of fear, but I think they will be adopted more and more,” she says. “It enables quite small charities to punch above their weight.”

Blogging is just one of the many forms of new media that can be used cost-effectively by charities to reach out to new audiences, according to Jen Topping, now head of Channel 4’s video on demand project, and former head of new media at the Media Trust, which provides professional communications skills to the voluntary sector. Topping says charities need new technologies, including mobile phones, blogs, podcasts and video on demand to reach out to new audiences, particularly young people, who are at home with interactive media.

Monitoring the effectiveness of these new media is important and can be challenging. St John Ambulance has recently launched a series of podcasts, called iFIRSTAID, designed to refresh first aid skills in an easily accessible format.

“After 7/7, we had enormous feedback from people, many of whom had been on first-aid courses, but needed to brush up their skills,” explains Sarah Jasar, of St John Ambulance. “The idea of the podcast is that it is downloadable, so you can take it with you, and listen to tips.”

Recording the podcasts has been straightforward, says Jasar. The podcasts are relatively short, lasting between one to three minutes and the organisation wanted its podcasts to sound professional, so it did two sets of recording in a studio, which cost £500 a day. “We were also insistent that we would use one of our own trainers on the podcasts, rather than a celebrity,” says Jasar.

Monitoring the success levels has been harder, although it was not a key aim of the project. “The podcasts are free and make this information more accessible, which is in line with our overall aims,” explains Jasar. There has also been good direct feedback: “People have said the podcasts are useful,” she says. But more detailed statistics are harder to get. “The podcasts are accessible both through our own website and through iTunes. When people subscribe to them through our website, we can keep track of those figures, but iTunes doesn’t release its figures. So it is difficult to measure – but we did go to number 54 in the iTunes podcast chart.”

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Following its web re-launch, Help the Aged is also looking at the potential of podcasting, which according to head of new media Allison McCormack could provide further ease of access to information. But first, she says, the charity needs to get beyond what she sees as the “barrier” of new technology terminology. “Quite a few of our audience does have access difficulties and we want to see if podcasting will help, particularly since podcasting can be done at a low or almost non-existent cost,” she says. “If you use the term podcasting, it sounds young and trendy and our audience may assume that they need an iPod, but in fact, a podcast is just an audio track.”

McCormack also acknowledges the importance of monitoring the use of new media, including podcasting, as is the ability to link up different aspects of new technologies. Help the Aged is building a link between its new website and its central database in order to look at how its online activities affect its overall engagement with donors. “That can make our fundraising more effective,” she points out. “We are not looking to replace paper-based advice, but we can do a lot more with electronic advice or audio.”

Some charities are able to put much greater resources than others into new media. Major UK charity Comic Relief, which raised £65 million on its 2005 Red Nose Day, has made substantial use of new media technologies. The charity has an eight-strong team dedicated to monitoring and developing new media systems and uses technology such as desktop email alerts to get its message over to its target audience.

Amanda Horton-Mastin, Comic Relief’s director of new media and development, says the charity is constantly looking for new technologies that will help it reach new audiences. “It’s all about keeping your eyes open and looking out for an amazing film, or a great use of Flash,” she says.

It was during the 2005 Red Nose Day campaign that Comic Relief added desktop alerts to its range of publicity mechanisms. It spent several thousand pounds on software from push technology specialist Skinkers to send out messages to supporters, including news and fundraising information, during the five-week period of the campaign.

The aim was to reach a youth audience of 18- to 24-year-olds, but Horton-Mastin says the response to the alerts was evenly split between those aged 12-24 and those aged 25-50. For next year’s Red Nose Day, Comic Relief will be using desktop alerts again and will also be running an RSS service, which Horton-Mastin describes as a “funky new bit of functionality”.

RSS is a web feed, providing links from a website to news stories and other content. “We are in a unique position, because of our presence on TV, which enables us to drive vast numbers of people to our websites,” acknowledges Horton-Mastin. “But a lot of what we do is applicable to other organisations. It’s really about keeping a constant eye on what works.”

While Comic Relief has substantial resources to put into new media, as well as the presence to be able to strike advantageous deals with suppliers, a lively approach does not have to cost a lot and the whole point of new media is the ability to implement cost-effective, imaginative ideas.

In 2005, for instance, UK charity Tearfund developed a game on its website to raise awareness of issues about aid money from EU countries for water and sanitation projects. The game cost £2,000 to develop and generated 10,000 letters to DFID. Tearfund’s website editor Nick Harris says: “Our policy team was very happy with the result. We learned that online campaigns and multimedia can be used effectively and intelligently to convey complex policy issues.”

And that is really the main idea. By embracing new media and using it in creative ways, a small cost can result in large gains, whether to further a charity’s mission, to raise awareness of a campaign or to better engage with donors. It’s just a matter of overcoming the fear and grabbing hold.

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