The brand power of digital inclusion

CMO speaks to those on the fringes of digital literacy and utilisation in Australia as well as industry experts to shine a light on digital inclusion as a strategy and corporate responsibility

The online world has delivered massive benefits to Australian corporations and consumers alike. Well, most of them.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports 86 per cent of households had access to the Internet at home in 2016-17. That sounds impressive, until you consider that the launch of every new online service and feature widens the gap in society between those who can easily access such services, and the 14 per cent of households for whom reasons of age, disability, remoteness or affordability means they can’t.

Each year, The Australian Digital Inclusion Index, created by Roy Morgan Research and sponsored by Telstra, measures the ability of society to make full use of digital technologies. The 2017 report found the gaps between digitally included and excluded Australians are substantial and widening. This was particularly true when measuring the gap in digital skills between households of high and low income, and between younger and older Australians.

Australian retailers, media companies, banks and other corporations have benefitted greatly through offering services online, thanks to reduced transaction costs, improved marketing opportunities and increased customer loyalty from superior service experiences.

These benefits were recently highlighted from a government perspective by the Minister for Human Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Transformation, the Hon. Michael Keenan, who stated that while one face-to-face or over-the-counter transaction cost on average about $17 to process, an online transaction could cost less than $0.40.

If even some of this monetary benefit applies in the commercial world, then the impetus to engage with consumers online is strong.

However, to date few commercial organisations have sought to build digital capability among the broader Australian consumer community, let alone the digital fringes. This is despite consumers on the digital fringes often being the most disadvantaged when services are migrated online, such as with the closure of bank branches.

Fringe facilitation

The importance of being participation in the online world has become very clear to CEO of western Sydney-based not-for-profit, Leep NGO, Cecily Michaels. The organisation recruits, trains and manages volunteers using funding from Federal Government’s Be Connected program and Good Things Foundation, and works with elderly and disadvantaged citizens to boost their technology skills.

She relates the story of one learner, who had suffered a traffic accident that left her visually and mentally impaired, but who was determined to learn technology.

“This seems so basic, but for someone who was so isolated, to discover she could use email and communicate with photographs was a huge transition for her,” Michaels tells CMO. “She found a reason to live through that. She no longer felt suicidal.”

Michaels has also seen first-hand the challenges of raising the digital capability of those on the far side of the digital divide.

“It is not just a lack of skills, but a lack of understanding about what people are doing with technology,” Michaels says. “Once they figure out that there is so much utility in what you can do online, they get really excited and motivated, even though it is really slow.”

Those organisations which have taken up the challenge of closing the digital divide are represented by the Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance (ADIA), whose membership includes government, academic and community organisations, alongside a smattering of corporates including Telstra, Australia Post and Google.

ADIA facilitator, John Huigen, says his organisation’s role is to close the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots in the digital world by addressing issues of ability, affordability, and accessibility.

“The digital juggernaut goes further and faster, but the people who get left behind are the people who will be affected the most,” he says. “So there is a social equity issue here, but there is a cost to the economy by people being left behind.”

The cost to the economy from those stranded on the far side of the digital divide is unknown, although the ADIA has a working group tasked with understanding the scope of this problem. Huigen says, to date, no banks, retailers or media companies have become involved in the ADIA, although he believes it would make sense for them to be tackling this challenge.

“The better companies recognise they have a social contract, and part of that social contract is thinking about the full breadth of the population, not just the haves,” he says.

Building digital literacy

Much of the hard work of building digital literacy has been left to not-for-profit organisations such as the Indigenous Remote Communications Association (IRCA), and Melbourne-based social enterprise Infoxchange, which uses technology to tackle challenges such as homelessness and domestic violence.

“Our experience is often the business cases for companies moving services online and investing in digital projects is built on assuming they can shift transactions from the shopfront or the phone to online,” says Infoxchange’s CEO, David Spriggs. “A lot of the projects are focused on providing a better user experience from a digital perspective.

“In our view, you are not going to achieve that channel shift just by having a better user experience. Most of these businesses are working with customers ultimately lacking the digital skills and confidence to engage online. And so if they are going to achieve that channel shift them they need to invest in building digital skills.”

Spriggs says the problem for consumers is not just limited to missing out on a potentially superior service.

“A lot of businesses will offer customers a discount to receive their bill and to pay their bill online,” he says. “That is a significant benefit to consumers, particularly low-income consumers who may be in public housing, as well as to the business.”

However, corporates often view closing the digital divide as someone else’s problem.

“They think that government is going to come along and solve this problem,” Spriggs continues. “And in our experience, government hasn’t put substantial resources in to solving this problem. And government would often see this as a private sector problem, as they are going to get all the benefits of this business case through the channel shift.”

Up next: How digital inclusion as a strategy builds brands, plus insights into what's required

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