More than finding the most persuasive platforms to present information, the job is now about reaching through all the clamour and clutter just to get noticed. "Broadcasters have no idea about its potential," he said back then of TV. Reading it now, he could be talking about all of us now wanting to harness the internet to reach people who could use our help.
The trouble is, the digital divide is real and people on lower incomes are on the far bank, immediately estranged from anyone reading this. Like with notions of poverty in the 1800s, homelessness in the 1960s (right up to the 1990s), and financial exclusion up until the 2008 financial markets crash, the impact of the gap between the internet have nots and the internet haves still seems to be news to policy makers. In McLuhan’s terms, the challenge for socially responsible broadcasters was that the poorest didn’t even have TVs.
There's no better example of the policy/ reality mismatch around new media than Universal Credit and its digital by default agenda. Anyone working with claimants will tell you how many are confused and confounded by a conspiratorial lack of access to decent IT hardware, skills or appropriate support on hand as they need it, and comprehension skills to know what information is being demanded. The system itself is not even fit-for-purpose, timing out or requiring someone to start from scratch if they don't have all the details they need first time.
Landlords are at various stages in their forays into the digital world. Some are publishing tenant newsletters online, led by the need to make savings, and it would be interesting to see if cost-effectiveness has gone up or down, in terms of engagement, since moving from hard copy. The Social Publishing Project has been asked to provide a PDF version of Quids in! and outside a couple of pilots, we’ve resisted. It’s hard enough to engage readers with their financial wellbeing. A PDF in an email in someone’s inbox just doesn’t feel as compelling a celebrity cover smiling up from somebody’s coffee table.
We’ve spent 18 months exploring ideas for electronic publishing that’s fit for our purpose. It needs to engage from the inbox, (or later via an app or virtual newsstand). Its appeal must be immediate and the benefits quick, through interactive links, whether to competitions, further information, or direct to support.
The first officially digital edition of Quids in! will be published in May. It's been a long time coming but it's now in a format we feel has as good a chance as any to reach a decent sized readership. It will be licenced to landlords, authorities and support agencies, who will then provide access to their residents or users. It will be supported by social media and opens the door, potentially, for direct purchase by readers. All interaction can be monitored and we’ll really see if online publishing has the same power as conventional means, vital when the job in hand is to influence behaviours and nudge people towards good financial habits.
TV may now have hundreds of channels but reaching people online is multi-dimensional, with audiences fragmented by different platforms. My dad watches old films on YouTube, my mum shares sentimental memes on Facebook. There is no single route to any particular audience via the internet and maybe the idea that (effective) digital comms will be more efficient is a myth.
Then there’s McLuhan’s lesson about the medium we choose. The Quids in! YouTube channel may shape up like a magazine show like This Morning. The Quids in! Facebook page is already largely powered by the ‘likers’ who share what they fancy, so it’s fast turning into a ‘cheap eats’ speciality page. As broadcasters, we really are just waking up to the internet’s potential.