Interview with Michael Laffan of the British Lung Foundation

Michael has been digital and marketing manager at the UK’s lung health charity, the British Lung Foundation, for four years. With 12 years’ experience in previous digital roles, Michael was recruited to transform BLF’s use of digital.

In this interview, Chris Scott, managing director of Headscape, explores with Michael how he’s succeeded in transforming digital at BLF and some of the lessons he’s learned along the way.

Chris: You’ve been at the British Lung Foundation, BLF, for nearly four years now. How was the charity using digital when you started?

Michael: Back then it was print-first and digital was very much an afterthought. For example, the information we put online was just copied and pasted from print. Consequently, it contained a lot of phrases like “For more information see our leaflet”.

The website was a kind of “skip” where we just dumped lots of stuff. This wasn’t helped by having a distributed publishing model. Lots of people throughout the organisation were given a bit of training, made responsible for a section of the site and then left to get on with it.

Chris: BLF has moved a long way since then. What has your strategy been?

Michael: Firstly, the BLF knew that it wanted to change, but it didn’t know how. It was my job to define what the change should look like and then communicate it to the senior management and teams across the charity.

A core of the strategy has been to change how the organisation views digital – from seeing it as a technical function to a position where digital is assumed to be part of how BLF meets its objectives. This change of culture has taken time and I’ve been chipping away at it constantly.

Our strategy has been to establish a framework for how digital works rather than a detailed multi-year roadmap. The main pillars of this framework are:

  • having a focus on users – understanding our different audiences and their journeys
  • thinking digital first – but acknowledging that print remains a vitally important medium for a lot of what we do, for example health information distributed in hospitals and surgeries
  • being cost effective – by being smart in how we use digital, such as demographics-based targeting of Facebook ads, we’ve been able to extend our reach way beyond what was previously possible with our limited budgets
  • by constantly thinking about what we can do to achieve organisational aims

Chris: Can you give some examples of how this strategy has impacted some of BLF’s activities?

We had a target of 60,000 people taking our online breath test and are now well over 300,000.

Michael: Our vision is about clean air and healthy lungs. We campaign on issues such as air pollution, we fund research and we support people with lung conditions to live full lives. To do all this we need to do a lot of fundraising.

Our campaigning is now digitally led. Our demographics-based targeting of Facebook ads for our Listen to your lungs campaign has been incredibly successful – far more cost effective than previous channels. We had a target of 60,000 people taking our online breath test and are now well over 300,000.

Engagement with our website and support on social has grown massively over the last few years. And donations through the website are growing. I put that down to a combination of many factors such as the first-person stories told by people living with lung conditions, our consistent messaging, constant reminders of our need for donations and great online donations usability.

We provide support for people with lung conditions in many ways including health and “living with…” information, a helpline, an online community and local support groups.

Previously, people with a lung condition would be distracted by links to content about other conditions. Our user-focused approach naturally led us to re-architect based on a model in which we have hubs, you might call them microsites, for different conditions within our main website. The information is really practical, positive and well written. For most lung conditions our content is top of Google search results. It’s become definitive online information for these conditions.

Chris: It’s sometimes hard for a charity to demonstrate the value of its digital activities to trustees, particularly if you’ve got a mix of long term and short-term actions. How have you done this?

Michael: When I joined the BLF I’d say that the organisation recognised the need to do digital well, but I think it’s fair to say we weren’t clear what that meant in practical terms.

Internal communications has therefore been really important. It’s an education and learning process. Data can play a big role. For example, if I’m talking about reaching people I can explain the meaning of different digital metrics and compare with traditional media coverage to make a point.

Scepticism actually gives you opportunities to explain what digital can do. For example, we have a feedback facility on our condition information pages. Data and user quotes from this facility just can’t be captured from printed media, but this feedback is really persuasive when making the case for digital.

Chris: What have been your biggest challenges so far at BLF?

Michael: Top of the list has been moving the culture of the organisation – a gradual chipping away at the mentality that digital is a “techie” thing to realising that it is strategic; that it needs to be embedded in business planning; that we need to be experts at using digital.

I’ve always sought to ensure that we are focusing on organisational objectives that are digitally enabled rather than digital systems or digital assets.

In building up our digital capabilities I’ve always sought to ensure that we are focusing on organisational objectives that are digitally enabled rather than digital systems or digital assets. That’s why it’s been really important that our digital people are part of a larger digital and marketing team, not just another silo. A big challenge is to keep up to date with what’s possible so that we can keep on innovating.

I guess another major challenge has been to keep pushing the message internally that the “less shiny things” are actually really important. I’m thinking of things like investing time and effort in basic SEO, good story telling, optimising our PPC, regular and consistent social media messaging and high-quality email marketing.

Chris: What direction do think digital will take at the BLF over the coming years?

Michael: I’ve been around long enough to see loads of exciting predictions about the future of digital sink ignominiously without a trace! Anyone remember So, I’m wary of making predictions. So, with those caveats, I’d say there will always be a market for good-quality, reputable health information.

It’s really important that charities like ours continue to make that information available. Also, watch digital as a fundraising platform over the next few years. It will really come into its own. And finally, I think there will be more applications that enable people with long-term conditions to monitor and manage those conditions. I suspect there will be crossover with existing services. The same way Uber and Deliveroo piggyback tech on top of existing businesses, we’ll see the same with health services. So technology will become an integrated part of the journey. I see lots of people making this mistake: thinking digital is a standalone panacea. To work it needs to work as part of a holistic service.

Chris: What advice would you offer someone who has recently taken up responsibility for digital at a similarly sized charity?

Michael: Here are my top pieces of advice.

  1. Fix some things that need fixing. When you arrive in a new post there are always going to be some quick wins that you can make. This will help to build credibility and confidence.
  2. Learn and understand the culture of the organisation so that you can influence it. You aren’t going to change the culture if you don’t understand and appreciate what it is now.
  3. Take a strategic approach. Develop a framework of core principles that you can use to position your more detailed plans.
  4. Finally, get on with it. You can’t hang about waiting for other people. You have to move forward. For example, one of the things that I did really early on was to develop a web style guide – things we do and don’t do and a rationale for why. This helped me to get a handle on content – and content is key.

Chris: Michael, that’s been a fascinating exploration of how you’ve transformed BLF’s approach to digital. Thank you.

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