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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Brand benefits

It is a different story in the UK, however, where Barclays Bank’s Digital Eagles program for example is helping both customers and non-customers to understand and embrace the new digital revolution, including free ‘Tea and Teach’ sessions which provide practical and helpful advice to build confidence with computers and the Internet. These are held within branches, libraries or local community centres across the UK.

According to a Barclay’s spokesperson: “We firmly believe Barclays has a commercial and social responsibility to ensure that no one is left behind on the digital journey - not just receiving support to send an email, connect through social media or knowing how to bank online but in understanding the emerging language of the new digital economy.”

UK-born social change charity, Good Things Foundation, has been coordinating the efforts of public, private and not-for-profit organisations to build digital skills across the community, including Lloyds Banking Group and the telecommunications company, Talk Talk. Good Things is also now active in Australia, with 1500 network partners.

According to Good Things’ CEO, Helen Milner, there are three key benefits in a company or brand supporting digital inclusion.

“There's a huge overlap between people who are excluded from society because they can't use the Internet - unable to get a job to being lonely and isolated - many businesses support vulnerable and excluded people and digital inclusion is another cause they can and should support,” Milner says.

Secondly, she says many businesses are improving their offer through digital, and the link between their better digital services and making sure everyone has the skills and confidence to use those services is strong.

“The third benefit is large businesses want their staff to feel part of the rapid evolution of their services and offers, which are all digital. Being digital champions or digital mentors gives them a chance to feel involved in the digital revolution outside of the pressures of the office/branch,” Milner says.

Spriggs also sees the possibility of using digital skills training to create positive brand experiences.

“If you are running a digital skill pop-up anywhere, it is great way to engage your customers and a great way to promote your brand without explicitly selling anything,” he says. “And you have the added benefit of building those skills, so customers will be more confident to use the online services.”

In Australia, several commercial organisations have stepped up to the challenge, including Google and Facebook. While both have been active in creating programs and technology to extend access and skills in the developing world, using technologies such as high-altitude balloons and free limited access services, they have also been active in fostering digital skills development in Australia.

Google, for instance, has been working in conjunction with Infoxchange and local partners to deliver its Digital Springboard program, which helps consumers learn the digital skills they need to thrive in work and life.

Facebook has also been working to build the digital skills of people in regional communities, working with local newsrooms, small business, not-for-profit organisations, students and parents in Mackay and the south-west of WA. Facebook has held 70 workshops and trained more almost 2000 small businesses and not-for-profit organisations, while also hosting online safety workshops for more than 120 students.

One Australian-born organisation that has also taken on the challenge is Telstra. Its general manger for digital inclusion, Nancie-Lee Robinson, says this is in line with the ASX-listed telco’s purpose to ‘create a brilliant connected future for everyone’.

“We believe everyone should be able to use digital technology, to manage their health and wellbeing, access education and services, organise their finances, and connect with friends and family,” Robinson says.

“With a growing range of education, information, government, and community services moving online, internet access is increasingly regarded as an essential service. The benefits of the digital economy cannot be shared equally when some members of the community are still facing real barriers to online participation.”

Australia Post has also swung significant effort behind digital inclusion initiatives. While its research has identified 9 per cent of Australians as non-online users, it has also identified a further 34 per cent who are online but only in a very basic way.

“The best part of 50 per cent of Australians aren’t engaging in the Internet in a way that maximises the choice and opportunity around accessing products and services, as well as the way they connect,” says community relations manager, Julia Symons.

As a result, Australia Post has developed several programs designed to raise skills and change behaviours, working in conjunction with Infoxchange and community organisations such as the Australian Seniors Computer Club.

“We’ve been connecting Australians for years and years,” says Symons. “The way people connect with Australia Post varies, and the digital world is no different. People engage in a way that is relevant to them, and we want to provide that choice for people to be able to connect online. And we recognise four million Australians just don’t have that choice.

“Because we work so closely with local communities, we can learn from the way they are already upskilling in the digital world and try and enable and empower those community organisations and our people to help in that area.

“I can’t think of a more important area we should be playing in.”

Case study: Regional remoteness

While 86 per cent of Australian households now have ready access to the online world, that still leaves 14 per cent of households on the far side of the digital divide, including Tiani Cook, whose family runs a cattle station in the Northern Territory.

Cook is the Northern Territory president for the Isolated Children and Parents Association, and frequently hears stories of the social isolation that lack of access to digital communications can create. While accessibility has improved with the advent of NBN services, she still suffers frequent dropouts, and her overall experience is still inferior to those of city dwellers.

“You never have enough data,” Cook says. “We don’t have the luxury of getting on and watching YouTube videos, and we don’t get to use it for social reasons.

“We are already physically isolated due to geographic location, then to have that compounded by the social isolation on top. There is so much emphasis on mental health at the moment, and it is definitely something that is definitely identified as contributing to mental health and social and emotion wellbeing, from not feeling that connectedness.”

It is an issue Cook believes is actually becoming worse as more services are migrated online.

“It doesn’t matter who you call, they’ll say ‘go to a web page and click on a link and you’ll have all the information there’,” Cook says. “So people’s expectation is that everything is at your fingertips.”

But you don’t need to live in a remote community to reside on the far side of the divide.

Gisele Mesnage is visually impaired, and while she was initially thrilled by the promise of the Internet delivered when she first came online 20 years ago, she soon hit issues in the form of inaccessible websites, which led her to lodge a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

Three years ago, she took Coles Online to the Federal Court after its site became inaccessible.

“It was settled amicably, and since that case Coles has been doing fantastic work in that space,” Mesnage says. “The company realised it is not just about winning a legal action, this was really something that would be good business. But it took quite a long time to get there.”

These experiences also led her to form the Digital Gap Initiative, to push for legislation and standards. To this day, she says only 26 per cent of government websites are fully accessible.

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