How to translate vision and purpose into engaging content

Empower’s Director and Co-Founder, Ben Matthews spoke to Nick Ellison, Managing Director & Founder of Purr. Purr is a digital technology consultancy and their podcast, Exploring Digital with Purr is well worth a listen for all entrepreneurs and CEOs who want their businesses to benefit from a digital-first approach.

In this episode, Ben and Nick explore the challenges some charities experienced during the past year as well as the importance of communicating purpose with content the right way. Topics covered include:

  • The pros and cons of working with your partner
  • How to create meaningful content for charities & purpose-led brands
  • The biggest digital challenges facing the charity sector
  • The rise of purpose-led brands
  • Fundraising during COVID-19
  • Digital Marketing for charities in 2021 and beyond
  • The importance of work-life-balance

Tune in now or have a read below!

About Empower

Nick Ellison  

Welcome to Exploring Digital with Purr, a podcast for entrepreneurs and CEOs who want their businesses to benefit from a digital-first approach. I’m joined today by Ben Matthews, who is the Co-Founder of Empower, which is a digital marketing agency in London which specialises in working with charities and brands with purpose. Hi, Ben. Nice to meet you. 

Ben Matthews  

Hi, Nick. Thanks for having me on. 

Nick Ellison 

Pleasure. Do you want to kick us off by giving everyone a little background on who you are and how you came to co-found this business? 

Ben Matthews

Sure. So Empower started seven years ago now. Started with my Co-founder, who’s also my wife. And we started off by freelancing, specialising in charities and for-purpose brands, and basically, we’ve grown year on year ever since then, and we’re now up to a team of 12, hiring three more, so it’ll be 15 very soon. And one other thing to note is we’ve been remote-first since the beginning, so: typical startup where we were on our kitchen table at first, but have kept that going throughout – have never had offices – and that’s quite interesting in the context of COVID, as well, but we can talk more about that.

Nick Ellison 

Absolutely, yeah, I think you’re possibly the first start up or agency we’ve had on this that’s working with their partner. Do you think that brings any particular challenges to it? Or is it – other than being able to share the kitchen table for work and dinner afterwards – are there any particular benefits, do you think, that have made it really special?

Ben Matthews  

Yeah, I think, you know, the reason we’re married is because our values are aligned and the way we think about the world is aligned.

Nick Ellison   

I’d like to think it’s because you love each other, but there you go.

Ben Matthews 

(laughs) We’re good friends, and good partners, and good colleagues as well, and so it’s been quite straightforward, actually. A lot of people ask us that. But yeah, we’ve managed to make it work. I guess downsides are it’s harder to leave work at work, especially actually as a remote agency as well. So you know, I have my laptop here, in our spare room, and my wife and partner talks about the business all the time, so it’s a little hard to switch off. But that’s been helped by having kids as well. So overall, I would say definitely, there’s a lot more benefits than negatives when it comes to running an agency with your partner.

Nick Ellison 

Absolutely. And what about some of the…how did you end up with this vision, specifically, and the values you mentioned, of working with charities and brands with a purpose? How did that decision come about? Or was that just an extension of what you’d been doing as freelancers?

Ben Matthews 

Yeah, I think it’s an extension of what we’d been doing as freelancers. So we both started off in technology PR – very much at the height of things like Blackberry – and when O2 were coming onto the scene. And we just felt it was really good and gave us good grounding and experience in how to work at an agency and how to run PR campaigns. But we were quickly moving across to things like digital and social as they were taking off more, and just our personal values being aligned with helping charities rather than selling products. And so over time, as freelancers, we just moved across more to working on charity clients. So Jaz, my partner, started working with the UN Refugee Agency – that was one of her first big charitable clients – and I worked with the London 2012 Olympics, and so was able to work across to a more cultural and arts side of things. And eventually, we just built up our portfolio with charity clients and for-purpose brands. And over time, we just got a reputation for it, so actually niching down into that area over time…it just kind of snowballed over time, and now we’re just known for that, and people come to us for that, and it’s quite easy to say no to things that don’t fit, or clients that don’t fit within that framework, really.

The biggest digital challenges facing the charity sector

Nick Ellison 

So what are the main problems you solve when you’re working with a new charity or a brand with purpose? What are the issues that these businesses have had traditionally, with digital strategy?

Ben Matthews 

I feel a typical client is someone who’s from a comms background, so they’re generally dealing with the media. They know that things like social media, email marketing, paid ads, search, are important to the success of their organisation and their comms function, but they often don’t understand, obviously, the technicalities behind it; often don’t understand the strategies that are effective. And so what they need is a partner who can basically translate what they’re trying to achieve from a comms perspective into areas that they’re not comfortable with or aren’t 100% up to speed on, and so we are often seen as an extension to their comms team, and we look after website, email, social, paid for those clients and so we almost become part of their team. And I think that’s really where they find value. And it’s actually what we enjoy as well: we enjoy feeling embedded in the team rather than, you know, like a hands-off agency is just there to deliver.

Nick Ellison 

Do you think it’s fair to say that within the charity world that there are…people don’t necessarily appreciate the differences that they’re going to have to deal with in that comes role, even just down to the fact that there’s a whole subset of technology that’s specific to that world that people who aren’t used to it just won’t be experienced in?

Ben Matthews  

Absolutely, and we find that charities are attracted to bigger agencies who work on big name brands, because they have a sexy show reel, a flashy website, and have, you know, the team to come and help them. So they often come with pro bono support, or they can severely discount support. But the challenge we often find charities have is that working with a typical agency who’s more used to dealing with commercial clients, they’re looking at things that aren’t related to the impact that a charity has. So it’s not selling widgets, and improving selling products, it’s the impact that you have as a charity – the social impact – and there’s a language around that, there’s a way of measuring that, and strategies to help achieve that for charities, technology being one part of them, as you said, but ultimately, there’s just a different way of thinking, a different way of behaving. And often yes, charities sometimes get a slick advert or a slick campaign, but does it actually help them to achieve the social impact they’re looking for? Generally not. And that’s why even though budgets are typically smaller, when you’re working with a charity, the actual impact you can achieve is obviously really good as well. And yeah, I think that’s some of the common challenges or some of the common differences we find. So that’s why we’re happy to specialise as a charity agency.

How to create meaningful content with purpose

Nick Ellison  

So obviously, you’re boutique scale by comparison to a big team yet you’ve got the charity focus. What’s special or different about your process that gets the brand or business to that outcome? What’s your process of just not ending up with a flashy ad at the end, but something meaningful?

Ben Matthews 

I think we work to understand the organisation across what it is trying to achieve, and often because we’re embedding ourselves in the client we can come up with unique perspectives that not only help deliver their immediate challenges, but point the way to other things to think about – other areas of work – where digital could help support them. I would say it’s fair that some organisations are a little bit behind their commercial equivalents in how they’re using technology or digital channels to communicate about what they do. But, you know, there’s lots more charities as well who are more ahead, and I think doing interesting things. So yeah, just basically being a guide for them in the digital world, and helping them understand where they are now, and where they could look to be as a kind of trusted partner has got us where we are now, and I think shown in our track record and the length of time that our clients stay with us. Our retention record is really high, and that’s because we come across as a trusted partner rather than an agency just aiming to deliver that flashy campaign.

The rise of purpose-led brands

Nick Ellison 

It’s interesting you mentioned that some businesses are more behind than others when it comes to communicating purpose. A number of the chats we’ve had recently with other digital marketing or PR-type agencies have been very focused on purpose – purpose is a big topic at the moment – and it does feel as though businesses are far more aware or self-aware in that regard now than they were a few years ago, specifically, because of things like B-Corp certification and increasing environmental focus, and the pandemic definitely had an impact on that as well. 

So do you think that there’s actually more push from brands who weren’t previously purpose-led, let’s say, but suddenly are now considering “well actually this needs to change our comms overall”? So are you seeing more businesses suddenly interested in your services because of this overall trend?

Ben Matthews 

Yes, definitely. I mean, we’ve had an increase in our revenue over the last year, which is probably a reflection of the interest in what we can offer, and also businesses being interested in more purpose in their work, but that’s overall a good thing. Like if the whole of the business sector, for example, is focusing more on purpose, it doesn’t matter if it’s coming to us or not; it’s great that more businesses are thinking that way. It’s being led by several things: it’s consumer demand, wanting more purpose-led products, and you see things like vegetarian, veganism products taking off; business models with inbuilt sustainability, for example, taking off as well. And so it’s been driven by consumer demand, and that can only be a good thing. The other side of things is government policy as well: if, for example, we do a lot of work in the sustainability sector, a lot more pressure is being put on businesses to be more sustainable, both in the products they create and services they deliver, but also in their supply chains, and also for big companies it has even become a requirement of their reporting that they have to report on their sustainability measures. It’s not just a consumer driven thing. It’s also becoming a business mandate in order to build this kind of thinking into the work they do.

Nick Ellison  

So the moment it becomes compliance-led is the moment where all the all the interesting purpose bit gets killed from it normally, but –

Ben Matthews  

Yeah, but it’s a good thing, though. It’s a good thing, though. If we can be a more healthy, responsible way of doing business, then that should be applauded. Hopefully, people aren’t seeing this as a money-making opportunity as well.

Nick Ellison  

Absolutely, no, it’s a boon, and a benefit, hopefully, to society. It’s going to be interesting to see how wholeheartedly people adopt it, and whether it’s just a trend that is part of a wider shift, I guess. You mentioned earlier – or we touched on – how in the charity world technology is its own beast: there are specific suppliers, there are different conventions, there’s a collection of different audiences that people don’t think of in the same way. You know, charities are one of the few people in the world who have these kind of… legacies, for example, is a whole different market that most brands ever even have to consider – the idea you’re actually targeting someone in relation to their death, you know, there are so many intricacies to that market. Does that dictate your approach to choosing or recommending a technology approach, whether it’s a charity or just a brand with purpose? How far do you go into identifying the needs that are specific to their audiences for that campaign?

Fundraising during COVID-19

Ben Matthews   

I think most charities have similar…not just setups, but the way they interact with audiences. So as you pointed out, legacies is one area there. There’s also cash givers. So people who are giving one-off donations; there’s regular givers, so people who are giving monthly over time. And then you have things like high-value donors, which are people who can give, you know, multiple 1000s, if not 10s of 1000s of pounds to charities, and write them a cheque to go and spend that. So there are common ways of charities thinking about the audiences. I think the challenge that a lot of charities are facing is that – again, you pointed out legacies –  that tends to be older people who have a certain way of giving to charity. So they might get a bit of literature through the post and write a cheque on the way back. And I know for some charities that’s their biggest source of income, they’ll literally send out a brochure saying the work they’re doing, asking for support; they’ll include, literally, a prepaid envelope with almost step-by-step instructions about what to write and how and how big to donate. And that goes back and that fills their bank account. So that’s good. The challenges that’s going…that’s going to go as a way of giving or a source of revenue for charities, as those people start to pass away. And so the challenge is, how do you get young people into the mindset of giving to charities regularly? Now, there’s lots of innovation happening around areas like influencers, so working with influencers and how to help work with them as ambassadors for charities. That includes things like gaming, so you have things like 24-hour gameathons, where someone’s live-streaming on Twitch, and they’re encouraging their watchers, their fans, to give to charity whilst they’re playing. And lots of everything in between. And I think the need to step away from legacy giving as a kind of guaranteed source of income is – and also with COVID as well – the kind of reduction in face-to-face fundraising – so you couldn’t have chuggers out in the street for a whole year…charity muggers or – what are they called? – face-to-face fundraising, I guess you’d call it…and also a reduction in challenge events, which is what you’d call things like the London Marathon. Like the London Marathon didn’t happen. That’s a massive source of income for many, many charities. So there’s a lot of innovation being driven around how to make up for that shortfall, and digital is naturally the way people go.

Nick Ellison  

Yep, absolutely. We’ve been involved in a couple of campaigns this year with one of our products, Social Pops, which has been used by charities to drive engagement with either regular givers or around specific funds that people have been donating to, because I think charities have found it…not necessarily harder to reach out to people in a way – it’s easier if they’re at home – but that trying to maintain the relationship and ensure that people are aware of the work you’re doing is just as much of a challenge as ever. And yeah, what can you do when you can’t physically see people on the streets? So it’s been interesting being exposed to that. Well, I mean, on the flip side, we also are partial owners of a donation platform running on event challenges in the States and, you know, obviously ground to a halt over the last year, and we’re picking that up again, now, so I guess, across the charity world, we’re seeing that people have really had some challenges over the last year, and everyone’s got to rethink their position. It’s not just about technology, it’s about how you fundraise, I guess. And that then dictates a lot of the strategies that have to be put in place.

Ben Matthews 

And your point there is picking up on relationships with people. And I think that’s been one good thing about COVID is that the more human side of business, and everyday life, I think, has come through. You know, people have been working at home with kids, or working at home, in their flats, and so haven’t been able to go out. I think, also people have been at risk of burnout or mental health challenges, and I think there’s been a massive recognition of that, compared to where we were before the pandemic hit. And again, I’m hoping that continues. I’m hoping that we focus on the human side of things: remember that people are people; remembering that people can’t be on Zoom calls from beginning-to-end every day; remembering that people need to actually switch their laptop off and have personal lives and personal issues as well. So I’m hoping that a more human side of business is carried on as things return to – such a cliche – but the ‘new normal’, as it were.

Nick Ellison 

So are you seeing any change in the way people used to…not say “no” to things, but the limitations in which a charity or brand would say “no, sorry, that’s not right for us; that doesn’t work for this audience”. Are people starting to think a bit more creatively or re-evaluate approaches?

Ben Matthews  

I think you have to because if many charities are saying similar things, and reaching the same audiences, and if brands come in and start to say the same thing – like climate change, for example, lots of people are saying similar things – I think it gets harder to stand out and show why you should be the cause that people are supporting over some other charity who’s doing something very similar. There are many, many great causes out there. And yes, the ones that are more creative and more thinking about that are naturally the ones that are going to…not be winners, but deliver the most impact, is the way I think about it. I think you also have to think about the size of charities. So you know, the big top 10 in the UK will have more resources in order to withstand something like this. But also have more resources and capacity for creating creatives – coming up with excellent creatives that stand out – because that takes time and money to do well. But I think there are lots of organisations that are, you know, maybe following more of a startup mentality, or trying different things out of necessity, and showing good results. So I think…well…we’ve seen some interesting things over the last year, and I think we’ll continue to see some more as we come out of COVID.

The importance of work-life-balance

Nick Ellison  

Evidently, it’s been a big shift over the past year, but fortunately one that’s shown increased revenues for you. Other than upping headcount and bringing in more people into the team, is there anything you’re changing about the way you run campaigns, or you work with clients, in order to support that increased demand but also potentially different ways of working?

Ben Matthews 

Yeah, we’ve generally brought in more capacity because we found that our team was working too much. During the last year, we actually found the biggest risk to us was burnout for our employees. With COVID and lockdowns, there were times when people couldn’t do anything else apart from just being around their houses – weren’t allowed to go outside – so naturally, people were working longer. They sat in front of their laptops for longer, stretching into the evening, and potentially into weekends as well. So we were definitely encouraging people to switch off, try different things and make sure they’re not working late at night. We emphasised to our clients as well about when we’re available or not. And I think that’s another thing to pick up on is that a lot of clients who have been used to going into an office and working weren’t used to working remotely, and so their boundaries kind of blurred as their work and home merged into one. So I feel like we were working extra hard as well to deal with the increased demand from clients who weren’t used to remote working. And so that’s been a big challenge as well. So yeah, basically, it’s increased capacity, it’s to make sure we’re communicating clearly with clients about our preferred way of working, and making sure that our team are taking appropriate breaks and appropriate time off, taking their holidays. We’ve had a lot of organisations who are having to force their team to take holidays because people just haven’t been taking them. So I think, again, emphasising the more human side of things – you know, we’re not robots, we can’t just carry on work indefinitely – we need time off, we need something different, we need breaks, and actually we’ll come back more refreshed and more effective as a result.

Nick Ellison 

Definitely. And then, was there anything about – other than just the way your team is working – is there anything that’s specific about…are you revisiting your discovery process with clients, in order to identify new opportunities?

Digital marketing for charities

Ben Matthews 

Yeah, so we have been successful offering audits at the beginning of our relationship with a client. So often, no matter what aspect of the main service that we brought in on, whether that’s video or social or paid, we generally say to them we recommend doing at least a light touch audit across different parts of their business, and their organisation, both to understand how they operate internally, but also to identify other opportunities. Now, it’s always about, ‘how can we make the most of the work we’re doing with the client?’ But also, we often don’t actually implement a lot of it. So we often are capturing ideas and recommendations for digital opportunities for clients. And then at least the client then knows where they stand, what they could be doing. And often we find as well, digital is so integrated now across the organisation – and to different activities that they undertake – that for us to perform our job well, we often need the other parts of the organisation to be up to speed as well. And so if we can help do that by giving an audit at the beginning, that helps us in our work, and also the client understands where they need to be. Otherwise, the risk is, we come up with a beautiful social media campaign with paid media elements, we send all this fantastic audience and traffic through to their website, and their website can’t cope with the demand or isn’t optimised to convert those people into donors or petition signatories, or whatever they’re trying to do – and often it doesn’t-  it means our results aren’t as good as they could be, and so it affects the way our work comes across. And so we’re taking the time to help clients make sure that all of their digital activity at least has the foundations in place, and identify future opportunities for them to improve.

Nick Ellison   

Brilliant. So what are you seeing at the moment tend to be those opportunities? Is there a trend in terms of people who haven’t traditionally, I don’t know, optimised their website, with that mindset? You know, charity websites used to be very sort of… informational. And suddenly, there’s far more pressure on them to be generating leads or generating signatories, as you said. Is that one of the bigger opportunities or are there others too?

Ben Matthews 

I think what some charities do is – because of COVID, and then the need to go to more digital fundraising – they improve their donation page and their donation form. And then start looking at things like Facebook ads. And running campaigns and expecting people to go straight from seeing a Facebook ad for the first time, through to the donation page, and then giving…it doesn’t quite work like that: you can’t just go from naught to 60, and expect people to give to you. So I think people are starting to learn that in order to do that they need to build up campaigns that aren’t just about conversion and get people to donate – it has to be around relationship building – as you touched on earlier – it has to be about brand recognition – being made aware of who you are and the way you do. So there’s a whole suite of content that needs to be created in order to start engaging with audiences so that when the time comes to make a donation, they are ready, they know who you are, they know what the need is, and are much more ready to support you. And the other side of it is that charities who are a bit more advanced and have that in place, are looking at other ways of generating income. For example, subscription boxes have become really popular. A few charities launched subscription services…I think they’ve done quite well, which is why other charities have latched on to the idea and set up their own subscription services. These are things like boxes that come through the post on a monthly basis with activity packs, whether that’s to do with mental health, or children’s activities, or, you know, whatever kind of related aspect to your cause. One other thing that’s happened is obviously – as I’ve touched on earlier with challenges events like the London Marathon – because that couldn’t happen, there’s been a move to more virtual events, where people have been fundraising for charities through challenges that they do in their own time. So rather than raising £1000 through running the London marathon, you raise £1000 through running the London Marathon, but across two months in your own back garden, a bit like the Major Tom kind of thing where people aren’t coming together to do activities, they’re doing activities, or fundraising, in their own time, but coming together online, to talk about it and support each other. There’s been a quite interesting rise of virtual fundraising and virtual challenges.

Nick Ellison  

Really cool. Okay, so adopting those new practices, implementing these new opportunities, that’s gonna be part of your strategy for clients for the year. Other than increasing headcounts to deliver that, have you got any particular business goals that you’re trying to achieve over the next 12-month period? Is there something that makes 2021 a really successful year for you guys?

Ben Matthews 

Yeah. Because we’re a team of 12, soon going up to 15, one thing we’re introducing is, more capacity per head. At the moment, we’ve been operating at quite high billing rate, basically. So our capacity to actually have room for taking time out or when new projects come in, is quite limited. And so we’re just trying to add capacity, really. And so the idea is not to carry on as we are and have everyone be near-capacity, at all times, it’s to try and get closer to something like 80% billing capacity to give people 20% time to have flex in what they do, in order to do training, in order to do more personal development. And again, we feel that we’re going to get better results, if people are not feeling like they’re working at 100% all the time. It’s also because we have got a lot of clients in the climate change sector. There are a lot of events that happen at the same time. So for example, just yesterday, there was a big summit in the US. And something like six or seven of our clients were involved in that summit, and had their own launches and announcements happening. That means that our agency sudden becomes very, very busy in one area, and everything gets drawn into that. And often people are working across multiple accounts, because they’re climate change specialists. So they’re drawn into quite a few projects and have to deliver all at once. If their capacities are very high anyway, it’s going to be very hard for them, or very stressful, to deliver all at once. And so again, bringing in more capacity and more space for our team – more breathing room for when the activity really happens. Also a client on one of those accounts actually did point out that all the big events of the year happen between September and November this year. And she comes from a commercial background. So she was wondering, what is the climate change sector doing just putting all these events in these three months of the year? And so we now know that September to December are some of our busiest times. I’m guessing e-commerce and commercial clients know that, because it’s the run up to Christmas. But yeah, this is something that we just need to bear in mind as well, as we get towards September it’s going to be very, very busy.

Nick Ellison 

So what would be your top tip for charities or brands with purpose for this year? Is there one thing you think everyone can take advantage of and improve their business?

Ben Matthews 

I think yes, thinking about the relationship that you’re building with people and not expecting a financial return straightaway from that. I think we need to focus on building relationships over time, and that means not always asking, asking, asking. It’s ‘what’s the value you can give back to your supporters or potential supporters?’, which means over time, they’ll gradually be more inclined to support you in financial ways. So I think definitely emphasise the relationship, emphasise the human thinking behind that, rather than just expecting people just to be data on a spreadsheet or numbers on your bottom line. It needs to be much more longer-term thinking, and longer-term relationship building with people. I mean, that’s how we’ve built our business. We’ve built a business with long-term client relationships that are mainly retainers and improve over time. So actually, we started from a relatively small client base, brought in some high value ones…we’ve now been working with those people for five or six years. Our team members have been with us for four, five, six years. That means that we can better predict our revenue, better predict our headcount, capacity and resources that are needed, and ultimately build a much more sustainable and I guess slowly growing – but still growing – organisation.

Nick Ellison 

Brilliant. Well, best of luck for 2022 and really excited to see how you guys do.

Ben Matthews  

Excellent. Thanks, Nick. And you guys too. Thank you.

Nick Ellison 

Thanks for joining another episode of Exploring Digital with Purr. We’ll see you next time. Thanks for joining. Remember to subscribe and follow us and to share today’s insights with other businesses you know who want to stay relevant in a digital-first world.

Julia Tatai
Julia is an all-round social media wizard! She’s a content marketer and consultant who is passionate about using social media to positively engage people for good causes. Building on her experience in healthcare marketing as well as various agency and freelance roles, Julia has a special interest in digital strategies, content creation and social media engagement.

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