Bridging the digital divide in 2021

Covid saw rapid acceleration of digisation. Yet 2.5 million Australians remain on the other side of the digital divide. We explore how brands are navigating the line

Digital empathy for the digital disconnected

Mackenney says this thinking leads to a very different driver for the development of service delivery.

“It is more driven by empathy than by a commercial outcome,” he says. “That is one of the outcomes we have seen out of Covid - these much more nuanced conversations around personalisation are becoming top of mind.”

This notion of empathy is a key driver of service design at IAG, where chief marketing officer, Brent Smart, says the insurer is aware how the context of an interaction determines the most appropriate channel.

“We definitely want to deliver great digital experience,” Smart says. “But there are certain parts of our experience as an insurance company where the face-to-face channel and the call channel are incredibly important. That is mainly when people are going through big claims.

“The empathy of another human being becomes incredibly important to the experience. And we haven’t worked out yet how to replicate that in digital.”

Smart says IAG is not trying to be 100 per cent digital but is keen to deliver great digital experiences when appropriate.

“More customers have a preference to deal digitally,” he says. “So we need to be able to deliver on that. However, for those customers who still want to call, or want a face-to-face interaction in our branches, then we want to cater and make that as equally a good experience.

“Our brand stands for help, so we have to be helpful in every channel.”

Much of IAG’s digital investment is not seen directly by customers, but goes into its contact centres, to ensure workers can deliver the best possible experiences.

“A lot of work we do is in the back end to enable those front-end experiences to improve those,” Smart says. “No matter what channel or what policy you want to talk to us about, we know it is you, and we can talk to you as an individual.”

Valued regardless of financial worth

As the Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2020 found, one key determinant of digital inclusion is a person’s income. While the absolute cost of Internet data has gone down, households are now spending more money on internet services due to greater usage.

The report also found low-income households lacked access to technology options and suitable devices, paid more of their household income for digital services than others, and had lower digital skills.

But according to Spriggs, none of this captured just how hard life could be for those people on the far side of the digital divide.

“Digital inclusion is not just a binary thing of owning a computer or having access to a smartphone, it is really about social and economic participation,” he says. “That massive surge in the use of digital we have seen during the pandemic has further exacerbated that divide between the haves and the have nots.

“There are significant gaps based on income for low-income families, based on age, based on geography, and levels of education and employment. For those groups, it is a much bigger problem. It came to the fore during the pandemic when we saw images of families having to do school from home. That really brought out that it was a significant problem in low-income communities.”

While not all brands have their sights set on low-income consumers, the 2.5 million Australians not digitally included nonetheless represent a significant proportion of the population.

They are certainly of interest to the Telstra offshoot brand, Belong. Head of brand, communications, and culture, Kelly Schulz, says even while her company is a “digital front door” business, it still strives to support a range of users in terms of accessibility and affordability.

“We believe doing the right thing creates value, and the more value we create, the greater our capacity to do the right thing,” Schulz says. “Our purpose is to make our world a more inclusive place by giving more Australians the tools to ‘Belong’ in today’s digital world. For us, that means we’re providing value and uncomplicated products.

Belong’s capability building work includes partnerships with organisations who are directly supporting people, from First Nations organisations to women experiencing domestic violence and homelessness and those seeking support for mental health challenges.

“Inclusion means we’re raising the bar for everyone on digital access, not simply reverting to analogue to meet people where they are. It’s about supporting them to be included in where the world is and is going,” Schulz says. “Those partnerships are funded from our print and advertising budget. But they don’t get traditionally measured for return-on-investment, nor do we seek to promote our involvement – if others choose to provide that recognition, great.

“It comes down to doing the right things. Yes, we are a business, and we must create value. But it’s wrong for any business to think that value and ‘the right things’ are at opposite ends of the spectrum. They’re synergetic.”

Building digital capability

Other brands are also recognising the value flowing from helping digitally disconnected Australians build their digital skills. Australia Post, for instance, has operated a long-term program called Go Digi, in conjunction with Infoxchange, that included face-to-face learning events, mentoring and an online platform.

“That was about connecting with communities through their local Post Offices or community partners to learn digital skills,” Spriggs says. “That had a significant community benefit, but it also had a benefit to Australia Post in terms of those people being more confident to go online and order products and services online.”

Infoxchange has subsequently engaged with Great Southern Bank to role out a new program to build digital skills in the community, leveraging another program developed in conjunction with Google called Digital Springboard.

Great Southern Bank chief customer officer, Megan Keleher, says the partnership will help support customers and community members improve their financial literacy while helping Australians on their digital journeys.

“Two modules were created using digital tools to build financial confidence - one that helped people manage their money and budget online and one providing skills to stay safe from online scams,” Keleher says.

Team members volunteered to train as trainers and delivered training across Australia for community organisations and customers in Great Southern Bank’s branch network.

“This is important for Great Southern Bank because our world is increasingly online, and helping people with digital literacy regarding their finances progresses our work outlined in our Financial Inclusion Action Plan,” Keleher says. “We believe the more informed and resilient community members are in relation to online finances, the more they can achieve the goals and aspirations they have.”

So while a person’s ability to interact digitally will play a pivotal role in how they can participate within Australian society, a growing number of brands and executives are coming to realise a lack of digital ability should not automatically doom that person to a second-class experience.

And if brands truly care about maximising choice for customers, that must include concessions regarding their choice of channel. For Dominello, it all comes down to empowerment for citizens, regardless of their digital ability.

“I want people to be empowered to make informed decisions and choices about their lifestyle,” he says. “Where in terms of government service delivery, they can pick and choose based on quality, where there is transparency around that service, and where they can choose to use a paper medium or a digital medium, because it is about personal choice.”

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