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

Page Break

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.”

Don’t miss out on the wealth of insight and content provided by CMO A/NZ and sign up to our weekly CMO Digest newsletters and information services here. 

You can also follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page