‘Digital by default’ – what it means, and five easy ways to get started

Arbie BaguiosArbie Baguios is the digital communications trainee officer at NCVO. He supports the organisation’s work on social media and online engagement, and advocates for digital’s role in the charity sector.

Strip ‘digital’ of all its deterministic and Luddite assumptions and we get a simple tool – in the same way that a pen or a spoon is a tool.  Human beings have always communicated with each other and eaten food, regardless of whether there was a pen or spoon around to help them do it.

But digital is a little bit different. It allows us to do some things a lot faster and more efficiently – like instantly messaging our friends on the other side of the planet, or making an online order for a foreign cuisine takeaway for dinner.

It’s also worth noting that many people are still digitally excluded, with no access to computers or the skills to use them. No technological change has ever swept through society instantaneously, and there’s no reason to assume that this would be any different. That said, the government is paying attention to digital inclusion and other organisations are also trying to help people who are beginning their digital journey.

So, what is digital by default?

‘Digital by default’ means making services so easy to access online that it becomes the natural place for people to go to. This has been the stated plan of the UK government since 2010.

Now, digital by default is more than just providing services online. It’s a way of thinking and behaving, one that allows your work to thrive in the digital age. It means being:

  • open
  • transparent
  • collaborative
  • unafraid of failure
  • learning by doing
  • adapting to change
  • open to service-users helping you to shape your services and decision-making processes.

Digital is widely accepted as a communication tool in government (David Cameron broke the news of a #reshuffle on Twitter), and sometimes even in the very way we work (Unicef UK created a ‘digital hub’ within their organisation).

Digital tools, however, remain as fallible as the human beings behind them. It can go wrong, but mostly it goes right:

Okay, great – got some tips for beginners?

1. Talk like a human

Behind your charity’s Facebook or Twitter page, there is a human being – so make it sound like one: chat with your supporters, engage with people from the sector and talk with other organisations.

The ‘Feel Good Guide to Better Communications’, produced by Forster Communications, has the best tips on how to do that effectively:

  • don’t be afraid to show your sense of humour
  • apologise for your mistakes
  • avoid bombarding your followers with a sea of messages – you will be ignored
  • be honest and authentic.

Instead of saying…

‘We’re conducting a public consultation for a new initiative.’


‘We’re doing something new and we’d love to hear your thoughts about it!’

2. Be brutally honest about your website

Ask hard questions.

Does your website…

  • …look and say what your brand stands for?
  • …let people get information or donate quickly?
  • …easy to navigate, especially for people with accessibility needs?

A website that is just 250 milliseconds slower than its competition will lose. Your website is the window to your charity’s soul. But what if members of the public barely even looked at it – because it’s too slow, too busy, inaccessible, or just aesthetically unpleasant? Our friends at RaisingIT can help your website look as good as your organisation’s work.

3. Tinker with advanced settings

Try setting up advanced and complicated-sounding stuff like Google Analytics, Twitter Cards, or search engine optimisation (SEO). These are small things that make a big difference.

Google Analytics, for instance, can tell you who’s visiting your website:

  • where they come from
  • what device they use
  • which country they live in.

This information can help you to shape your content and services to make them more effective. So, if you’re providing online support for teenagers, you might be surprised to find that they access your service more from a mobile than a desktop. If you’re matching older people with volunteer befrienders, you might discover that most of them are tablet users.

Don’t know how to set-up these things up? Perfect – do a Google search, click that set-up button yourself, find someone you know and trust to help you out, or look for a volunteer with IT skills. The best way is to learn by doing.

4. Test the waters

Create two different versions of the same thing (an email, a tweet, a way to register for an event – whatever). See which works best and build on what you’ve learned about your audience.

Obama did this during the 2012 US elections campaign: his team were making different versions of an email asking the public for donations. Using the best version of the email, they raised over $1.5m more than if they had used the worst one. If it worked for him, it will work for you.

5. Come up with an idea, then do it fast

Don’t plan too much. Use resources wisely, then deploy them. Whether it’s big-ish like an event, or small-ish like a newsletter, just do it.

Chances are you won’t be 100% successful. But – if you follow tip number one – with a little bit of honesty, sincerity and sense of humour – people will appreciate it and give you feedback. Listen to what they have to say and apply it next time.

Before you know it, you’ll have a really well-made product, which you wouldn’t have done otherwise because you were too scared or got caught up with all the planning.

A lot of start-ups that are now multi-billion ventures started this way. This is what some entrepreneurs call ‘failing fast and failing often.’ And although this may not be applicable in every single case, that risk-taking attitude is definitely welcome in this digital age.

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