Tell, show, do — the time to be useful online is now

Too many charities and NfPs are barking up the wrong tree on digital, worrying about telling a better story and making a better case for support and donations. The rise of so-called ‘story telling’ strategies is a notable and, to be fair, not entirely useless development of this. There’s nothing wrong per-se with better writing and using images, personal stories and long-form content to create empathy — but really, we should have been doing that all along right?

The big upside in ‘story telling’ is the general realisation that popping press releases and miles of self-justifying text on your site is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, lying.

That’s the website as a ‘telling’ machine. If we tell you how great we are then you will give us money, and hopefully a lot of it when you die. That’s web content strategy 1.0 and it’s still used by organisations that are scared that someone will ask them a real question about their effectiveness.

I have been there. I have served as digital manager in a charity that refused to look at anything but ‘tell’. Partly they were terrified of digital and the honesty and transparency it requires, and partly they used it as a wall while they carried out the real mission of the charity, which seemed to be accumulating enough reserve to make sure the pension pot was healthy. So ‘telling’ was all about PR and control and messaging, AKA putting up a wall. The problems with walls these days is that they can be scaled with one FOI, two minutes on the charity commission website, awkward questions to the board of Trustees, or a bit of citizen journalism.

So story telling, even in it’s more elaborate forms, is just that — fiction. It might be good fiction, but the audience don’t know that; how can they tell good fiction from false fiction online? At first glance they can’t, and so, because the entire internet is a first-glance medium, they can’t tell the difference between one organisation and the next.

This is where ‘story-showing’ comes in. Now, as well as your lovely narrative, you throw in a real third party example. As well as telling me you are the best charity for an issue, you show me examples of what you do by demonstrating impact, either through facts and figure or humanised examples of your work. A story about say, Jo, helps me create a relationship — I could be Jo, or maybe I know a Jo, or I am a parent of someone like Jo. More ways in, more empathy and you the get the double-up of a factual story about impact multiplied by empathy.

It’s no wonder that ‘show’ is so important in fundraising and campaigning — we are much more likely to give in this kind of scenario.

The advanced ‘show’ tactics happen in social. Here we are doing enough that our supporters will show themselves, either by taking an action on our behalf and signing it in one way or another (social proof) or by taking our side in a debate or even educating an audience in the organisations favour for free (citizen advocacy).

All good! But I think ‘tell-show’ still misses the point. Lets rewind a bit and look at Google. Now I am not a big fan of Google the company and I think US firms need to lose their ‘but the good is self evident’ b/s and start paying some taxes. Lots of taxes. However Google gets one thing absolutely right — they are doers.

If you can remember back to the days of Altavista and Ask Jeeves as I can you will remember the first time you used Google. Just a form and a button and a logo that looked like someone had typed it, then taken a photo of the type, then applied some colours in MS paint. As far as ‘brand’ was understood back then it was horrible. But it had utility. Loads of it. It just worked in a way that made the internet suddenly useful. It was a site that did one thing very well. And it was a very important thing at that.

A utility brand. The story telling and showing didn’t matter. They didn’t need to have a campaign that showed how Jo’s great search results resulted in her writing that grade A essay. They didn’t need the story about the thing because the thing itself fulfilled a genuine need.

That’s where I start thinking about a website project these days — what is the genuine need that this organisation is serving? What are they doing that really helps someone? That can be a very awkward question to ask an organisation, particularly about their online estate. Often they aren’t really sure, or have luke-warm answers. The easiest sites to get right are lead-generation sites of one kind or another because what the site needs to do is obvious and direct.

But in an organsation that is trying to help people, where there is a clear need that you can answer digitally or with a omnichannel service (what a horrible set of words that is) then that’s what you should do.

This is obvious, no? Do something useful.

There are difficulties though. Here are just some of the excuses and issues at play inside organisations that will stop them doing the obvious, useful thing online:

  1. It’s hard because it’s new.

2. It’s organisationally hard because people are scared of change and losing their jobs (that’s the ugly and very real side of digital disruption).

3. It’s a hard design problem and the people who can help you think about it (service designers mostly) will want to talk to you and your customers/clients a lot.

4. It can be expensive technical problem that leads you into awful money-sink projects that fail to deliver the promise.

5. You have to talk to your clients/customers and for some oganisations that’s a first and a significantly bracing experience, one that requires confidence and a robust corporate culture to undertake.

6. Sometimes you will need to change everything and it will have consequences. You can’t, for instance, have any forum, chat or social presence without someone on it pretty much all the time. That person might be very expensive, or not very happy about typing into a box all day.

7. It’s just hard, and someone has to give a sh*t enough to want to do it and those people can be rare and hard to find.

The upside should be pretty obvious though. You will be able to do something that helps people. And on the back of that it is much easier to have a relationship with your audience. They know that you understand, not because they are telling them, but because you have given them a useful (or even fun) tool to use. They know from experience.

People will not read your website in any depth anymore, there is simply too much fantastic content elsewhere, for free, to make an organisations view of itself interesting enough for ordinary people to want to read. And if I really want to know about a charity I go straight to the annual report and/or to the charity commission website.

No, give me something useful instead please. It doesn’t have to be Nobel prize material, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It can be a simple wizard to analyse my issue, a place to talk to someone who knows, a way to find something local, a way to add to my knowledge, an opportunity finder, a matching service, a filter, a targeted reminder system, a booking system… something that is relevant to your audience and that you have the moral authority and, I would add, moral obligation, to provide.

This is the insight that lies at the base of programs of digital transformation. Organisations suddenly get it and then they are off on the adventure. It’s not an easy thing to do but any charity or NfP that is not on this ‘do’ mission is probably on the way out. If the organisation is a very effective offline ‘doer’ already that’s great, then the need to stitch up the offline and online into one smooth experience is paramount.

The trick is of course that this has got nothing to do with ‘digital’. You have to design the best service and provide it using the most effective and affordable means. Digital is just a medium and a set of tools, not particularly different conceptually to logistics and resource planning and product design. It’s all one thing now and you have to be able to think about moving seamlessly back and forward from ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ realms. Mostly your audience will judge you on your online and offline work equally — they don’t differentiate between the real and virtual organisation anymore, and neither should you.

Tell, show, do.

Tell me your story by all means, and show me that what you do matters, but please do something really great for me, that will turn me into someone you have helped, and I will become an advocate for you. And I might even leave you lots of money in my will.