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

One of the lasting legacies of 2020 will be the boost it gave to digitalisation projects in Australia, as consumer flocked to the Internet to buy groceries, order food and entertain themselves.

According to Australia Post’s Inside Australian Online Shopping report released in June this year, Australia saw 47.5 per cent year-on-year growth for online shopping in May 2021 when compared with May 2019, with 32 per cent more households shopping online over the same period.

But not everyone joined the party. According to Telstra and Roy Morgan’s Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2020, despite the explosive growth of digital, as many as 2.5 million Australians remain offline.

This finding puts a hard boundary around the audience for purely digital brands and services. But it also represents a potential opportunity for those brands that strive to reach across this digital divide.

“The Covid pandemic exposed digital inclusion as such a massive issue in Australia,” says not-for-profit technology provider Infoxchange CEO, David Spriggs. “But the issue was always there. There are still over 2.5 million Australians that aren’t online. That number hasn’t changed as a percentage of the Australian population going back as far as 2015.”

This number should give pause to any marketer who aims to increase their use of digital channels – especially those who seek to provide services to all Australians, such as the bulk of Australia’s banks, insurance companies, telecommunications providers – and government agencies.

Digital inclusion has been on the mind of the person who has championed the development of digital service delivery in Australian government agencies, the NSW Minister for Customer Service, the Hon. Victor Dominello.

“We have to appreciate that there are two worlds, and there is a transition in between,” Dominello says. "There is my world, and then there is the world of my mum, that has no idea about digital. It’s not an age thing – there are just people who are not confident with it, or just don’t want it. We just have to understand and appreciate there are two worlds.”

For Dominello, that means balancing his other role as the NSW Minister for Digital by ensuring citizen engagement through Service NSW caters to people of all abilities, while still pushing forward with digital service innovation.

“We are always going to have to provide non digital options for key service delivery, that is just plain reality for the next decade or so,” Dominello says. “I can do things through digital that might feel efficient. But if people do not feel empowered by the end of the process, then it is not a good process.”

Building digital capability within customer segments

It has been 20 years since education consultant, Marc Prensky, first popularised the concepts of digital natives and immigrants. While most of Australia’s population has made the journey, not all can, or will.

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2020 measured three attributes of digital inclusion: Access, affordability and digital ability, and awarded Australia a digital inclusion score of 63.0. While this was a 1.1-point improvement on that of 2019, it was a smaller increase than for any of the preceding five years.

The report found Australians with lower levels of income, employment and education were significantly less digitally included, giving rise to a digital divide between richer and poorer Australians. This was exemplified by the score for people in low-income households of 43.8, whereas that for people in high income households was 73.8.

These results also favoured city dwellers, with the digital inclusion score for capital cities of 65.0 being 7.6 points higher than for than in rural areas.

Recognition of the need to service Australians of all levels of digital ability is an important element of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s brand proposition, and a motivation behind the creation of its Community Bank model. This has seen the bank keep branches in many locations where other providers have withdrawn.

According to Bendigo and Adelaide Bank general manager of marketing, Sarah Bateson, the bank also acknowledges if digital represents the future of service delivery, the bank should play a role in helping customers build their digital capabilities. Hence it has used its branch network to provide digital training through a digital coaching program.

“If a customer wants to use digital but is not confident, we have digital coaches in every single branch who spend time with the customer helping them,” Bateson tells CMO. “And we still deliver the physical experience. There are a few ways we can ensure a customer can interact with us and not be disadvantaged by the digital evolution.”

Bateson says this multi-channel approach was critical during the height of the COVID crisis, including for one elderly customer in regional Victoria, whose family had bought her an iPhone, but had then just left her to it.

“One of our members of staff spent two or three hours with her, not only getting her signed up to e-banking and things like that, but showing her how to use the phone,” Bateson says. “Now the question is, how do you make that scalable? That is what the digital coaching program is about.”

A personalised approach

While the evolution towards digital service delivery has built inexorable momentum, it is worth noting not all digital delivery needs to be self-service.

According to practice lead for digital strategy APAC at Adobe, John Mackenney, some of the most noteworthy work in creating inclusive digital service delivery is taking place in the back end of customer management systems and might never require that customer to interact via a screen.

“We’ve talked about personalisation to orchestrate a commercial outcome for a brand,” Mackenney says. “What we are now thinking about is how can we use someone’s preferences and needs to drive personalisation in a different context.”

Bateson says Bendigo and Adelaide Bank has strived to appreciate that different customers will have different experiences and needs in their own digital journeys. Personalisation efforts have strived to incorporate elements of inclusive thinking, with the bank working in conjunction with organisations such as Vision Australia and the Australian Disability Network.

“The teams across all our platforms have done so much work on access and inclusion to ensure that anybody can use our digital services,” Bateson says. “For example, our call centre uses personas, and one of our personas has been developed with Dementia Australia to ensure we can cater for customers that might be suffering from dementia or a similar condition.

“We are certainly not the experts on this, and we have to partner with those organisations to make sure we are delivering the right experiences. Because ultimately we are very committed to providing experiences to all customers.”

The bank is now testing biometric recognition, so people with dementia no longer need to remember passwords or pins. It has also developed credit and debit cards that are easier to use for people with visual impairments.

“Australians come in all shapes and forms, and they have different needs,” Bateson says. “Our approach is to deliver experiences tailored to the customer as much as we can. That is going to be an omnichannel experience.

“We want all customers to be able to access our products and services – because that makes commercial sense – but in the way that they choose. So we are not forcing them down one route. It is about customer choice, about us really thinking about the experiences, enhancing the experiences, and making all our channels accessible to the customers who want to choose them.”

Up next: Rethinking service delivery and measures of success, plus the notion of empathy driving IAG CMO's experience approach

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