The digital switchover has presented one of the biggest communications and marketing challenges ever experienced in the UK. Not only is it a highly complicated and technical task, but the logistical implications are immense.
Put simply, it involves turning off the analogue TV signal, transmitter by transmitter (the UK has more than 1000), and switching on a higher-powered digital one. Nearly every home and most of the 60m TVs in the UK will be affected, making it one of Britain's biggest-ever programmes of social change.
Digital UK is the body that was set up to lead the communications campaign and address this task. It was briefed to work in partnership with the Switchover Help Scheme, which has been providing practical help with the switchover for eligible older or disabled people. The communications job was exceptionally challenging because it involved breaking down people's resistance to a mandatory and, in some cases, costly change. What's more, the technical nature of the switchover meant detailed information relating to transmitters, aerials and recording equipment had to be presented in a format easily understandable by consumers.
The challenge was compounded by Digital UK's need to reach such a wide audience, the most vital group being those with analogue TVs, the 'traditionalists', who were typically older, less affluent women, uncomfortable with new technology.
Digital UK's first task was developing the strategy and raising the funding for the £200m, five-year communications campaign for the switchover. We developed plans for three tiers of communication, with a national campaign launch in May 2006, followed by regional and then transmitter-based communications.
Results from research carried out told us that beginning early was critical to reducing resistance to change. We therefore planned to begin the national marketing programme two years before the first switchover. We also believed that having a local presence - whether via the creative used or by working with stakeholders and local charities - was key to building momentum and lessened the feeling that the change was being imposed by an anonymous external force.
This was particularly challenging in rural locations. For instance in the Scottish Borders - the biggest area in Europe not served by a single railway station - there were just two six-sheet poster sites. Ultimately, we reached the community through 'lamppost media', which had a big impact. At the heart of our strategy was the desire to make complex messages about the digital switchover relevant to individuals.
Initially our first instinct was to create a campaign to build a sense of a national movement. We talked about creating a sense of a 'brave new world', using dramatic and eye-catching creative work. It sounded good, but we were stopped short.
It was one of those more profound moments in research that marketing professionals sometimes observe. We were watching a group of elderly people who had analogue TV. There hadn't been any hostility to the ideas before; the group was trying to be constructive. However, when they saw the friendly little robot 'Digit Al', created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, they suddenly looked relieved, leaned forward in their seats, relaxed and said 'Yes - we'll have him'.
This elderly group did not want to know the benefits of digital TV; they wanted simple help with what to do, delivered in an unthreatening way. The robot was seen as a warm, approachable bridge to something that was quite intimidating.
Confident that 'Al' was right for our audience, we then rolled out the brand mascot across all media and through the line. Two years on, more than 50% of people in the UK recognise him, and more than 80% of people in the switchover areas recalled Digit Al and identified him as a symbol of important switchover help and information. Likeability proved high across the age groups, not least among the over-75s.
However, no programme of change can succeed through traditional outbound communications alone. From the 'Think' road-safety work to the Change4Life anti-obesity push, successful marketing campaigns that change consumer behaviour rely on strong private-public partnerships to multiply the impact of traditional advertising messages.
In the case of switchover, the government placed obligations on the broadcasters to deliver it in exchange for the use of the airwaves. The broadcasters in turn set up Digital UK to communicate with viewers and to co-ordinate industry, local government and the third sector.
At Digital UK, we needed to ensure we delivered on our promise of independent advice. We established a call centre and launched a website, which has a step-by-step guide on how to switch as well as a wealth of technical information.
We recognised that retailers were a critical source of support to consumers, so we also developed an extensive retailer training plan. Additionally, we invested in a substantial programme of regional roadshows, which have been well received by consumers and stakeholders alike.
Communicating with the hard-to-reach has been a significant aspect of our activity, and is critical to our overall success. To address this, we have worked alongside the Switchover Help Scheme to establish small regional teams to build relationships with local stakeholders, parish councils, local authorities and housing organisations. We developed a two-pronged communications approach, targeting the more vulnerable directly as well as members of the community that might help them. This has included direct mailings, TV ads specifically addressed to older and disabled audiences, and community-based media in doctors surgeries, post offices and pharmacies.
Uniquely, we worked with the third sector to set up Digital Outreach, a national consortium of charities, to identify local charity partners in each region. We have provided materials and training for them so that they can pass on relevant information, be it during a 'meals on wheels' home visit or a community centre event.
So far, yes. Nationally, the rate of digital TV penetration has increased from 68% at the beginning of the programme to 88% - with 50% of people citing switchover as a reason for converting. In the most recent switchover in the Scottish Borders, everyone to whom our researchers spoke was aware of switchover, and 97% of homes had converted to digital on the eve of switchover, with the remainder within the next day or two.
Will it work?
Yes, probably. Nine out of 10 people across the demographics found the process of installing the equipment easy, or easier than they had expected. In Copeland, Cumbria, this positive disposition translated directly into some older people taking up internet classes at their local Age Concern centre for the first time.
Other developments on the horizon are the roll-out of HD TV through an aerial and IPTV services. The list will go on. What is important is that we are upfront with consumers about what their real choices are. If we do that, the momentum created by the switchover communications programme may take us a long way. n
Make a change: top 10 tips for public sector marketing
1 Technology needs to be humanised. A 'brave new world' is terrifying for some, so technology has to be made relevant to people's current reality.
2 Be careful not to 'sell'. Non-threatening help is key to unlocking entrenched audiences. Make any benefits personal, and downplay them to build impartiality.
3 Create a moment of compulsion or action. If you do not have one, create one, for example, Red Nose Day.
4 Do not underestimate the power of 'local'. It makes the message more personal and helps build momentum.
5 Work with human nature rather than against it. Start early to create a sense of inevitability, but focus most resources at the last minute, when the majority will act.
6 Convey the right message in the right language. Keep each message simple and in language that is relevant, fun and upbeat. Do not dodge difficult messages.
7 Ensure there is proper care and assistance for the vulnerable. Fund appropriately - some audiences can be engaged only through personal networks.
8 Think holistically. Real momentum is created when government, industry and communities all work together.
9 Roll out programmes regionally. It maximises effectiveness by creating a hot-house of activity, and allows for learning from one area to the next.
10 Lastly, invest in good project management. A programme of the scale and complexity of the digital switchover would not work without strong co-ordination.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk