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Digital Literacy Challenges & COVID-19
April 28, 2020 |

If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how interconnected we are. Despite all the headlines in recent years about the ways in which we’re divided, a virus has brought us to our knees, showing us the ways in which we are still very much the same. 

In this unprecedented moment, we as business leaders have a critical decision to make: Will we hunker down and away from each other, defending what’s ours? Or will we embrace our interconnection as a source of strength? I’m here to advocate for the latter. Specifically, I’m here to call on fellow business leaders to embrace a service mindset — for the good of our economy and our humanity.

In crisis, a chance for a fresh start

Back in December, I read the news out of Wuhan, China, and the prepper in me sprung into overdrive. As I filled my fridge and purchased my toilet paper, I also started thinking through the broader implications of the coming pandemic, even going so far as to start a pandemic communications and prep committee at Phase2, the digital experience agency where I serve as chief of staff. I felt like Chicken Little, but then, when the sky actually fell, I was glad that we were as prepared as possible to lead our staff and company through this unprecedented crisis.

But the preparation isn’t over. If we listen to the experts (...which we should), we can expect that this pandemic will continue to occur in waves and cause disruption in our lives and businesses for the foreseeable future. On the one hand, that’s daunting, terrifying—but on the other hand, it’s hopeful, because it means we get another shot at being ready. 

Being ready for the future means letting go of a lot from our past. If we’re all lucky enough to still be in business, the task before us is not to rebuild what was, but to reimagine the ways in which we serve our customers in this new world. At the core of this reimagining must be a commitment to being of service. Here’s what that looks like.

To be of service, you need to take action

In a Digiday article about marketing during coronavirus, Burger King CMO Fernando Machado is quoted as saying, “The first thing we did was to find ways to help in whatever way we can. Not with ads but with doing things.” Those “things” included donating meals to frontline workers. As a proponent of healthy eating, I’m not usually one to quote a fast food chain, but I admire that their response in this moment was to be of service.

Whether their motivation for this service was altruism or the brand boost that comes from doing good—or both—the results are the same: Food in people’s bellies, and, I would imagine, goodwill for their business. Whether that goodwill turns into dollars in the short-term or manifests down the line, I have no doubt it will pay off.

I know, and you know, that corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is nothing new, but it takes on a new level of meaning in this moment. Given the state of the world, I would argue that acts of service are in fact essential to creating customers for a new economy.

To be of service, you need to engage customers with compelling digital experiences

In this era of social distancing, if your business model previously relied on in-person connection, then it’s critical that you begin offering digital ways for customers to access the goods and services you offer. 

I know that for some readers, it seems absurdly outdated to be arguing for the necessity of digital in 2020. But the truth is that even now, many companies, even leading brands, treat digital as a silo rather than integrating it into the core of their business. This siloing was already hurting them, pre-pandemic, but in ways they could deny, or attribute to other factors; now, the damage is so obvious that there’s no getting around it.

Certainly, at some point, doors will open again, but the disruption of this pandemic and other global events will continue. If you want to be able to offer consistent and meaningful experiences for your customers, then you need to conduct your business via digital customer experiences—not as a “nice to have,” but because it is key to your company’s survival. And you need to do it now.

Don’t beat yourself up for what you haven’t done on the digital front to date, but do commit to making up for lost time.

To be of service, you need to boost digital literacy

The more we rely on digital technology to fuel our economy, the more critical it becomes to make sure everyone can access digital technology. “Going digital” isn’t enough, unless your customers are ready to go there with you. And that could very well mean adding technical training and support to your marketing and customer service offerings.

It can be easy for those of us in the digital elite to take for granted the ease and savvy with which we navigate the digital economy, but I recognize, we are not the majority. According to an October 2019 report by the Pew Center for Internet and Technology, a majority of U.S. adults can answer fewer than half the questions correctly on a digital knowledge quiz, and many struggle with certain cybersecurity and privacy questions.

Last week’s recorded-from-home version of Saturday Night Live included a sketch poking fun at office workers’ discomfort with Zoom. Almost every personal video call I’ve been on recently has included someone who is deeply uncomfortable with the technology.

It’s not just about video conferencing. My husband works at a lighting company (mostly on the design side), and the other day, he told me that to help his home-bound customers, he’s been asking them to email him pictures of lighting fixtures. Many of his customers don’t know how to do this. We take for granted that things that are easy for some of us are easy for all of us; this pandemic is showing us just how wrong we are.

For the past week or so, I’ve been asking people, “If you knew then what you know now, what would you do differently?” If my husband knew his business would need to operate more online, he might have spent January and February teaching his customer base how to take and send photos on their phones.

On a personal note, for all my preparation, the thing I deeply wish I’d thought to do is to spread digital literacy in my own community and beyond. I’m talking about people at the supermarket, at church — the people outside of my profession, who populate so much of my world.

To be of service, you need to close the digital divide

As more of the economy moves online, we need to remind ourselves that, according to Pew’s internet and broadband fact sheet, 1 out of every 10 Americans doesn’t even have Internet access. And about 25 percent of those who do have access do not have broadband, which means their experience of using the Internet is not at all like yours or mine.

Nearly 20 years ago, my first big tech jobs involved wiring a New York City public school for the Internet. Meanwhile, as the current pandemic took hold of the country, the New York Times reported, “On March 23, the New York City public school system moved its 1,800 schools online. However, the city has an estimated 114,000 children who live in shelters and unstable housing, which makes offering accessible online education a challenge.”

As we imagine rebuilding from the rubble of this pandemic, we have to take a hard look at all of those who lack fundamental access to the digital technology that now stands, more than ever, as a gateway to the economy, and to participation in community. 

This is a key moment for humanity. Will we withdraw further from each other, or will we come closer together? The decision is ours to make, and we express our philosophy with every choice we make at work and beyond. It’s time to imagine all the ways we can meet people’s needs, even if it means stepping well outside the roles we’re used to playing. It’s time to look at clients and even competitors and see partners and collaborators. We’re rewriting the rulebook on the fly, and if we do it in community, I believe that both our economy, and our humanity, will be better for it.

 

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