Nick Scott, Head of Digital at Médicos Sin Fronteras, sits down with us to discuss the cultural challenges faced by digital teams, alongside sharing key insights into proving the worth of the digital journey.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in digital? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
I guess that digital was my passion before I realised it was something I could work in! I started creating little websites at 15, when we first got the Internet at home (I’ll age myself by saying it was 1996). Looking back at the websites I created for myself, perhaps they show I “got” the Internet a bit too much: one was a site where you could submit short messages about things you hate, the other was one where I uploaded music copied off CDs! If only I had had a more entrepreneurial flair, perhaps I could’ve beaten Twitter or Spotify to market :-)
My first real job in digital came in 1997 when I started working weekend shifts alongside school, uploading football match reports on a site called football.guardian – one of the first websites created by The Guardian, a newspaper that did not yet even publish its news stories online. From there on in all my roles have been in and around the digital world.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the digital sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
I think an acceptance of change is essential. In fact, more than that, you should be a proponent of change. You need to be curious to keep up with the constant innovations; and then you need to be able to translate for others who may not understand why these innovations could be important and how you could start trialling them.
I think there’s also a lot to be said for having a very analytical and strategic mind: there’s so much choice, so many channels, so many tactics that you can use to achieve a mission that you need to be good at working out the best route forward at any given point.
Finally, I find I rely on my technological aptitude a lot: though I am no coder, I have dabbled. And even in my job, where I don’t need to code at all, it is important to be able to get my hands dirty sometimes. I often find myself trying to do work out an advanced formula in Excel, or create automations using sequences and logic in the same way as you do in coding.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
The key challenge is, in many ways, cultural: doing digital well is not doing it within a team like the one I lead at MSF - it is every one that is around us doing it well, and that is hard to achieve. But I’m clear that the end goal of a digital team should be for there not to be a need for a digital team anymore. To get there you don’t just need to build the skills and provide training to colleagues in different internal teams - though that is really important - you also need to change the very way the organisation organises itself. You need teams that are able to respond at a speed appropriate to that of the digital era: where consumers adopt new tools and behaviours much quicker than many organisations can. You also need to be able to overcome siloed thinking to really see the links that are made between different teams communicating through digital channels.
The past year - and COVID lockdowns – presented both an opportunity and a challenge in this regard. Overnight consumers were at home and key fundraising and engagement channels MSF Spain used were shut off. No more face-to-face fundraising or physical events. The accompanying move to digital was a great opportunity to quickly move forward a number of different initiatives that had been hard to kick off in more normal times. In MSF Spain, some notable initiatives were the launch of a number of chatbots over the course of 2020, and a pilot of Facebook Messenger as a channel to acquire regular donors. Yet I think it is fair to say that our audience have moved a lot faster than us as an organisation. Our audience perhaps surprised themselves by how quickly (overnight) they swapped the office for the home office, or the party for the zoom party. Each change we made as an organisation was harder and much slower.
How is the role of digital perceived in your organisation?
The perception of the role of digital is, I think, constantly changing. I would say that a few years ago it was definitely perceived as a set of (additional) channels. Over time, however, there is more and more understanding that digital’s role is much harder to define so clearly. There is an awareness that digital connectivity is a source of important change in terms of consumer behaviour and expectations - in this case the donor - and that this change affects all channels and the very way in which our NGO both perceives itself and is perceived by others. This then leads to a need to adjust our business models, strategies and tactics to better respond - and update our skills, competencies and internal structures.
At React & Share, we’re obsessed with measuring our efforts to prove our worth to internal stakeholders - what measurements do you think digital teams should be presenting to their board?
Proving the worth of digital is tricky. There can be a bit of a false conception that digital is a cheap investment, when it often isn’t. For example, digital marketing in the NGO sector is often still a small source of new donors compared to long-standing channels such as face-to-face recruitment, and achieving the same kinds of scale in terms of donor acquisition is very tough for many organisations. So I think the most important thing is that whatever measurements are presented to boards they need to be given context: trendiness, where you are in the journey and what you are learning, a comparison with competitors.
For example, we present reach and engagement figures regularly for social media channels, but ensure that these show year-on-year comparisons or comparisons to other similar NGOs. We also pick out highlighted content that has done well or badly - along with learning points. Because your worth to the organisation isn’t just about results: it is about the journey you’re leading the organisation on, and in digital that should be a journey with constant learning and seeking iterative improvements.
Another example is in my team’s adoption of an Objective and Key Results (OKR) planning framework - this allows us to set quarterly objectives that become our key focus. We set ambitious key results as our targets and measure week on week our progress towards these. If we do this right, it should prove our worth: our objectives should clearly show how we plan to focus and help the organisation reach its mission, and our key results should reflect the measures we are using to achieve that objective. It is a great methodology for driving and measuring change: a key part of a digital team’s mission.
What advice would you give to those at the start of their career?
The world of digital has changed a lot over the past ten years, and there are a lot less generalist roles around. So I guess to start off I would suggest thinking about where you want to start specialising - community building, content design, digital advertising, product management, user experience, analysis etc. But I would not stop there. For me the best individual profiles are those that are “T-shaped” - where there is a deep area of experience but also a broad generalist understanding. Because it is no good being just an expert in advertising on Facebook, you have to understand how that interacts with Facebook as a community-building tool or know how to design content that works for users. So specialise and gain that digital knowledge in your area, but also keep reading and connected with what is happening in areas outside of your specialism.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in digital?
Curiosity. If you aren’t constantly curious and wanting to understand and learn more, you’ll very quickly be left behind!