Four things to consider before rushing in to a digital-centred strategy

You don’t have to leave anyone behind, says Becky Gulc

We are living in an increasingly online world, and the pandemic has only accelerated that trend. So it is natural that many organisations are putting more time and resources into digital engagement.

However, this poses a risk. Recent research showed that Covid has intensified the digital divide. Around eight million people don’t have access to the internet, and of course it is the poorest who are hit the hardest by the widening information gap.

Many of the organisations that we have conducted customer insight or social research for have been pushing forward on digital engagement, and there are clear advantages to a more extensive online strategy. But we know from experience that a speedy switch to digitisation can leave behind some of the very customers and audiences they’re there to serve.

Here are a few things to consider before embarking on a digital-only engagement plan.

1. Understand your target audience

Who is your customer or service-user? Are they mostly tech savvy and comfortable accessing services online? In that case, starting a digital conversation might be the best approach. However, many of the companies and service providers we work with require feedback from audiences you might define as ‘hard to reach’ – and they are usually hard to reach digitally too.

2. Adjust your approach

The digitally excluded are not going to see the social media messaging shared by most organisations today. So how do you reach them? We worked with a utility provider who needed to gather insights into the most effective ways to encourage behaviour change among a particular customer group to improve the company’s environmental performance.

We drew up a careful and targeted plan to engage with them, using both telephone and face-to-face interviews. It proved crucial to generating real ‘this is how it is’ insight. Not everyone wants to or is able to speak to us over digital engagement platforms just because we can. Appropriateness and flexibility are key.

3. Go digital with the right people

On the flip side, we’ve found that some people are far more likely to engage in a consultation via digital channels. We’ve recorded notable successes in engaging younger audiences via health messaging and responding to calls for volunteers through social media. These same audiences did not always respond favourably to more traditional approaches, through phone calls for example.

4. Check-in after making changes

Even a well-intentioned plan to be inclusive can have unforeseen circumstances. One charity we worked with moved from a mainly printed newsletter to a mainly digital one. The idea was that those without emails could still request a paper version of the information, so everyone would be happy. But some of the service users who had no email addresses were unaware of the switch and so didn’t request paper versions. It meant messages were failing to get through to some of the key people they were aimed at, leaving them feeling disengaged. So before and after making changes to a communication strategy, check-in with the most vulnerable to ensure you take them with you.


Every communications strategy and consultation process should consider the needs of the digitally excluded and unconfident. After the rush to go online created by the pandemic, it is time to take another look at the needs of audiences and customer bases. Can you take them on the digital journey with you? If not, how do you keep them engaged? Put together a mixed and targeted plan of action, underscored with genuine consultation, and you can develop your online communication systems without leaving anyone behind.

Becky Gulc is a research manager at Qa Research. You can contact her on or 01904 632 039

Photograph: Creative Christians on Unsplash