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Innovative thinking and the potential of tech: Q & A with a digital engagement strategist

28 March 2019

A combination of thinking innovatively and understanding the potential of the tech that’s already out there (and often freely available) can put insight and understanding within the reach of charities like never before. We spoke to Si Muddell, digital engagement strategy director at Scope, who shared his insights on the relationship between innovation, digital and technology, and how to bring the three together for the win.

No different from the commercial sector, charities’ marketing budgets continue to move away from the generally more expensive above the line channels to low-cost, and often free, digital marketing channels. Performance measurement, cost, targeting, and the ability to quickly follow a ‘test, learn, evaluate, repeat’ approach is attractive to get the best bang for your buck.

Test, learn, evaluate

It’s no secret that the sector as a whole overly relies on face-to-face fundraising to drive donor income. The sector needs to think differently (and quickly) about how it can diversify and generate other sources of sustainable income.

In addition to the above, Scope has recently (and boldly) divested its services to  significantly increase its reach and effectiveness in achieving everyday equality for disabled people. Digital services, such as Scopes’ online community and the Virgin Media sponsored Support to Work scheme, are at the heart of Scopes’ proposition of reaching, helping and supporting more disabled people. To increase awareness and recruit new audiences to these services effective digital marketing is crucial.

Work with me business guideWork with me poster

Mindful Monsters Campaign image

Photo by: Paul Rowland

My team at Scope consists of three core sub teams:

  • Digital marketing, digital marketing measurement and conversion rate optimisation
  • Mindful Monsters programme
  • Innovation and new product development

Would you consider Scope an innovative organisation?

Absolutely. At Scope’s core is an appetite to think differently, to be pioneering, challenging and bold. This was evidenced in the recent divestment as mentioned above, and it can also be seen in our new office space that has been co-created with disabled people to be fully accessible. In my world, Scope has invested in Mindful Monsters and income diversification, which shows the appetite to be innovative. The most exciting aspect is there is still an immense amount of opportunity at Scope to educate staff about innovation techniques and tools. Ultimately, this will help us move even closer to our vision of everyday equality for disabled people.

What does innovation mean to you?

Innovation is a funny word isn’t it? For some, I think it’s almost the apparently esoteric and hip silver bullet that will solve all the problems of an organisation, if only it was understood. For others it means a ton of fancy sounding buzzwords, risk, ambiguity, resource drain, cost, and continued failure, and therefore, like an emu, never really gets off the ground!

I recently ran a workshop at Scope with 65 members of the marketing, fundraising, and communications department, ultimately to ask them this very question. The word cloud is a consolidation of what came back. To be able to drive and lead innovation, we need to understand the perceptions people have about it, what challenges they face in doing these things and where our team think the opportunities are. After all, they are experts in their own fields and my team’s role is to enable these new ideas to blossom.

Wow cloud

For me, innovation is all of the elements in the above and a bit more. It means striving for improvement, big and small; it means identifying a real problem, it means listening and working with the audience to ideate and develop possible solutions, it means continually testing ideas — failing, learning, failing, improving (or not, so moving on). It means using insight to improve something that already exists or to develop something completely from scratch. It means regularly talking to and collaborating with lots of people.

Problem solving isn’t synonymous with innovation; it’s a basic principle underpinning any commercial decision. If you pitch a commercial idea to an investor, the first thing they’ll ask is “what problem does it solve?”. If you can’t answer this basic question then you need to rethink.

I think innovation is something that can’t and shouldn’t be owned — we can and should all ‘innovate’ in our roles — but it is something that can and should be championed within an organisation. This became apparent when asking people throughout the organisation why they weren’t doing a lot of the things that they answered innovation was. The common responses were “time”, “expertise” and “budget”.

You can’t bake your cake and eat it at the same time.”

The phrase “you can’t bake your cake and eat it at the same time” comes to mind when I think about how some organisations (both charities and commercial companies) approach innovation. We want the possible upside that good innovation can bring but are often unwilling to embrace and accept that failure is a major possibility and is a healthy part of the journey to creating a sustainable viable product. On this note, if you haven’t read Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, then I highly recommend it.

You focus on digital strategy, but do you think digital and technology are prerequisites for innovation? How do you see the relationship between what digital can do and what innovation can do?

Absolutely, in the last 10 years innovation has been largely driven by digital — both in a technological perspective and a marketing perspective. Developing products is substantially easier, quicker, and less expensive to do. There are so many tools for creating prototypes. Likewise, reaching audiences for feedback and smoke testing potential products is becoming amazingly simple and cost effective. Plus, everything we do digitally can be tracked giving us data insights to feed into product development.

That said, innovation isn’t just about digital. It can exist without digital or at least supported by digital — there are some great examples out there of this happening across the advertising world and the charity sector. Think Poppies in the Moat by the Royal British Legion. I mean what a fantastically creative and innovative campaign.

For you, what are the main wins from using innovation to shape what you deliver at Scope? Does it get you closer to the user? Does it increase engagement? Does it make you more efficient?

For Scope, using innovation to drive supporter income is a relatively new thing. My diversification team is five months young and has been spending a lot of time understanding the situation and talking to our audiences.

We have looked back through past insights and ideas with a view to identifying potential opportunities. Work to date can be split into two key areas:

Diversifying Mindful Monsters we created a chatbot and surveys to gain product feedback from customers, undertook numerous focus groups and phone conversations, prototyped 16 lesson plans in a school with a post session focus group, created a number of hackathons to help with product ideation and development, and prototyped a number of new products that are currently in the create and experiment stage.

Created the DICE innovation process  all of this work has moved us closer to the end user, after all the audience must be at the heart of our solutions, particularly when it comes to Mindful Monsters. Their contextual feedback has been invaluable to the point where initial hypothesis about certain products have been completely turned on their head once in the experiment phase of DICE. While we want to succeed, we also welcome failure along the way, as failure is the only way we will ultimately learn and succeed.

Likewise, internally, we are now working on a number of potential products for other teams, and are linking up with other innovators across the organisation to ensure all groups aren’t reinventing the wheel and that we remain as streamlined and effective as possible. Regular internal knowledge sharing and education is an essential part of our strategy and we have found it brings stakeholders closer together to benefit from one another’s expertise.

Welcome failure along the way, as failure is the only way we will ultimately learn and succeed.

We’ve seen a massive explosion of what looks like disruptive innovation over the last decade with brands like Uber, Deliveroo, AirBnB and Amazon revolutionising markets and categories through their use of tech. What can charities learn from these relatively new dominant forces?

I think we can learn a lot and the interesting thing is even these leaders don’t have perfect product offerings.

All of these products focused on improving a customer need, fixing a problem, not settling for the traditional norm. All of them depend on peer reviews and creating a positive and frictionless user experience. All of them started with an initial investment where success wasn’t guaranteed but they were bold enough to challenge the status quo. And every single one of them has data insight at the heart of their strategies to drive continued development, improvement and product diversification. That is true innovation and product development. I mean take Amazon and its product roadmap from launch to now, and also Uber for that matter. Amazon has gone from a small online bookstore to a global technology company worth $177 billion focusing on ecommerce, cloud computing, video streaming and publishing, and whole foods, to name a few. They constantly reinvent and diversify their product offering, always and famously putting customers at the forefront. At a much lower scale, many lessons can be learnt from its business model and approach to business in general. Yet, it still isn’t perfect!

What do you think are the main benefits to be won by working innovatively, especially within digital?

Personally, I don’t think this is necessarily about people working innovatively or not. I would say you have people who have fixed mindsets and people who have growth mindsets. People who have growth mindsets are solution focused, problem solvers, and driven to continuously make things better, to develop themselves and to think differently. I think working innovatively is a by-product of a growth mindset. Sure, there are tools and techniques taken from the innovation toolkit that can help but ultimately, if someone has a fixed mindset, I don’t think they can truly be innovative.

So the benefit of working innovatively is a continued and relentless drive to make things better. This drive is entrenched in audience insight and the patience of testing, learning, adapting, and actually failing.

Where do you look for innovation inspiration?

I read a lot! I always have. I write an innovation and tech blog, and when I started this it was to ensure I went out and wrote about the things that inspired me. Now I have a four-month old child and a three year old, I seem to have less time to do it!

I love TED Talks, particularly the TED Radio Hour. I am a big fan of entrepreneurs, innovation leaders, and life coaches such as Tim Ferriss (4 hr working week man), and Tony Robbins. I use BlinkList to be able to read books quickly to get the main points from them. If I like what I read I then read the whole book either in hard copy or using Audible.

I use the Feedly service to create a tailored newsfeed of all the things that interest me, innovation being one of them. This allows me to capture blogs and articles based on related keywords. It keeps my finger on the pulse so to speak.

I love mixing with like-minded friends, family and colleagues — some of whom have their own companies. There is always a ton of stuff I can learn from them.

I try and put myself out of my comfort zone by doing new things. I am not afraid (mostly!) of failure and like trying new ideation techniques in workshops.

And lastly, I look to my children. The innocence and creativity that fills a child’s mind amazes and inspires me. They are often not confronted with the “this isn’t going to work” way of thinking that can often cloud our own minds. They just get on with it. There’s something very inspiring about this and it takes you back to your own youth. Play should be (and often is) a big part of innovation.

There are a ton of books and other podcasts I’d also recommend. Get in touch with me via LinkedIn and I’d be happy to share. If you haven’t read Hooked or Black Box Thinking, then these would be my first shares.

Find out more about Scope’s work at www.scope.org.uk

This case study is part of CharityComms’ Innovation guide.

Photo: Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

Si Muddell

digital engagement strategy director, Scope

Alexander Scott

brand and content consultant, freelance

Alex Scott is a strategic communications and content specialist with 18 years hands on experience with charities including Macmillan Cancer Support, Breast Cancer Care, Samaritans, NSPCC and Anthony Nolan.