How digital technology can engage hard-to-reach groups

By Patrick Nash

‘Hard-to-reach’ is a term that describes those sections of the community that are difficult to involve in public participation and to engage with services.

It can include people with a mental ill health diagnosis, such as low mood and depression or anxiety, those who misuse substances and people for whom English is not their first language.

When it comes to delivering services to hard-to-reach individuals, common barriers include intimidating environments or staff, access and transport difficulties, and inflexible service hours or appointment systems.

Charities need to concentrate on removing these barriers where possible, as it is generally those hardest to reach that require the most support. However, the overall demand for charity services is increasing, against a backdrop of falling income.

So how can digital technology help engage the hard-to-reach when cashflow is at its tightest?

Our top tips are designed to help charities focus their attention on hard-to-reach groups, while maintaining high performance levels and keeping costs low.

Be accessible

Providing people with different platforms where they can seek and gain help is essential. Not everybody is willing, or feels comfortable enough, to pick up the phone and talk to another human being. Therefore, charities and social enterprises should offer information and support though other avenues such as websites, social media and live chat. Wherever possible, this also includes being available for as many hours of the day as possible, as peoples need for support is not limited from 9am to 5pm on weekdays. Allowing users to self-serve through your website, perhaps even on their mobiles is one way of extending hours of service to deliver around the clock without any increase in cost.

Be proactive

As a result of constraints such a lack of funding or staff, many charities are focused on delivering services reactively. However, one fairly cost-effective method of being more proactive is monitoring online activity, including social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and seeking out those looking for help, and offering them tailored support. Simply setting up a search for a hashtag or key word could be the start of changing somebody’s life.

Keep it simple

Currently, according to 21st Century Challenges, 10 million people in the UK have never used the internet, and of those people, 4 million are the most socially and economically disadvantaged in the country. The Government Digital Service is currently tackling this issue, and charities need to ensure their websites are ready, when these groups of people get online.

By building a web presence that is both informative, but simplistic in design, charities can accommodate all users no matter how web savvy. It can be easy to fall into the trap of producing expensive, flashy ‘over designed’ webpages that do not actually offer the support services they were created for. Beware of that, and keep your website clean and easy to navigate, and remember to conduct regular user testing.

Digital service delivery can be part of a charity’s portfolio of how it delivers services to people. It won’t suit every service user – but where it is used by those that prefer digital channels, it takes the pressure off other channels such as face to face and telephone servicesand allows staff to focus their attention on the people that need it most.

Be prepared to invest

Using digital technology to target hard-to-reach groups requires upfront investment. Systems such as RightNow offer social media monitoring, data collection, data feedback and marketing. Though there is always an outlay involved in implementing systems of this sort, if it is done well it can easily be eclipsed by the gains. This can help charities ensure that their staff spend more time supporting service users who need it most. We have helped many of our clients improve service delivery while driving down costs using this sophisticated contact management software. Crucially, it opens up many new ways of reaching and supporting potential users.

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