Digital habitat suits WWF-UK

In the latest of our in-depth looks at companies’ digital strategies, WWF-UK’s head of online, Adrian Cockle, tells Nicola Smith how its integration of online and offline work is reaping rewards in every part of the organisation.


The distinctive black and white panda logo of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) has changed little since the charity’s foundation 50 years ago. But much else has changed since 1961, when galvanising the support of more than 100,000 people for a petition to double tiger numbers would have been a near impossible task. Last year, however, what is now the world’s largest environmental organisation leveraged digital to attract this number of supporters in just two months. And Adrian Cockle, head of online WWF-UK, believes the charity’s Earth Hour climate change initiative – which sees millions of people around the world switch off their lights – would be unlikely to even exist without digital.

“From our market research, the sentiment we get for our online work is very encouraging – people love seeing us out there and have a lot of trust in our profiles online compared with some of our ’cousins’ in the charity sector,” says Cockle. “We are turning up the volume of what we are doing because we can afford to do so much more online – it is so cost-effective.”

When Cockle joined WWF-UK four years ago, he joined a team of “three or four” people, and a lot of the digital work was carried out in-house. Gradually the organisation has grown, bringing in project managers and forging partnerships with specialist agencies. Testament to the charity’s shift in focus was its recruitment of Cockle, a specialist from a digital agency. “There had been microsites developed for specific campaigns before I joined, but it was very much the old model of ’build a little microsite and hope people come to it’, whereas in the past couple of years, particularly, we have moved to looking at much broader, more holistic online communications and making sure they are very well integrated with what we are doing offline as well.”

Key to the success of this online and offline integration has been WWF-UK’s concerted effort to ensure digital is not retained in a separate silo but instead that its new media people, and their expertise, are very visible and accessible across the organisation. Cockle says this integration is an ongoing process rather than a ’job done’, but it is still far ahead of many organisations creating digital departments that continue to operate in isolation. “It is one of the huge advances in recent years – distributing the responsibility for work online outside of the online ghetto. Yes, the digital team are the centre of excellence, but it is about helping people throughout the organisation understand the opportunities for them that aren’t just traditional.”

WWF-UK has four divisions: fundraising, communications, programmes (that is, scientists and conservationists) and resources. Cockle sits within communications and is involved in a lot of the very early conversations around broader communications planning. There is also a digital strategy group that handles large campaigns and fundraising projects throughout the organisation.

Raising awareness: Scouts in Trafalgar Square take part in an event for WWF Earth Hour
Raising awareness: Scouts in Trafalgar Square take part in an event for WWF Earth Hour

One of the success stories within WWF-UK’s organisational structure is the formation of a social media council, made up of at least two representatives from each division. The initiative, suggested by digital agency Nixon McInnes, has been in place for 18 months and while the agency was instrumental in getting it off the ground, the charity has now gained enough internal momentum to chair the monthly meetings itself.

“That really helped – having someone external adding heat underneath it,” says Cockle. “But we have now got to a stage where we have enough enthusiasm to drive it forward, and not just from within my team. Different people chair it every month and getting people to volunteer for that isn’t a problem. It means we have so much more ownership of it. The last one was chaired by the campaigns team and it brings a different feel to it. Next month it might be someone from fundraising or from programmes.”

One of the groups represented on the social media council is WWF-UK’s Supporter Care team. This is the equivalent of a customer services team, answering calls and emails relating to everything from fundraising queries and volunteering opportunities to general information enquiries. “They used to have a very traditional remit, looking at traditional forms of communications, but bringing them into the social media council from day one has been fantastic,” says Cockle. “One of the things they have done through the council is develop guidelines for how to respond through social channels so they are interacting in a consistent, repeatable way and not spending time chasing their tails or responding to people who are trying to get a rise out of them – which does happen.”


Another, more fundamental challenge that the charity is using social media to help address is how to communicate its very complex product offering. While the majority of people recognise and engage emotionally with the cuddly black and white panda, the flip side is that saving pandas – or saving any endangered species – is only one aspect of what the WWF-UK does. “We work on forests, marine and freshwater environments and climate change and we also work on general sustainability of industry and government too. So how do we as an organisation communicate that, both to fundraisers and to engage people in what we do broadly? That is one of our big challenges.”

To help tackle this problem, WWF-UK plans to launch a blogging platform in early 2011. Some employees currently blog on the organisation’s main website, but Cockle feels it will sit better on a dedicated site. It is a bold step away from the relative safety of more time-honoured – and more formal – methods of communication such as press releases. “When we talk about what we want to do and the challenges we face, quite a common phrase is ’but we’re really funny internally’ – but if you look at our public communications you don’t get a fraction of that. So how can we help people to talk about what they do for this organisation, the money people have donated to us, or the way we are achieving our mission in a much more personal sense, and really open up the stories within the organisation? A blogging platform will be a really engaging way to learn more about what we do beyond ’saving pandas and tigers’.”

Giving a voice to employees via a blogging platform is not quite as daring as it may seem. The organisation launched its intranet six months ago, gently introducing employees to the wiki-based technology and encouraging them to share information and interact – in a relatively closed environment. “People don’t usually talk about intranets when they talk about social media, but I do – I bore people to tears – because it is a really social tool. It has commenting functions and the usual social features, but it is really about getting people used to those modes of communications in a safe environment so, hopefully, it will reduce the barriers to doing it publicly.”

And the intranet has proved popular, with 98% of people in WWF-UK using it every day, and 45% of the organisation contributing to it rather than simply reading it – for example, by leaving a comment, editing the text or creating new pages.
The organisation is also taking advantage of the opportunities digital allows to test different initiatives quickly and cheaply before investing in major campaigns or activities. Aside from schooling employees in social media via its intranet, Cockle was quick to embrace Twitter three years ago, setting up the first WWF-UK account to explore the possibilities. It shows an arguably healthy lack of internal bureaucracy. “I didn’t really do a lot with it, just played around with it, but it was about what that voice looks like online and who we were talking to. There was no big approvals process, it was just me mucking around, and since then we have learnt lessons and stopped doing certain things.”


The charity has since expanded its Twitter activity, from a single trial account that was focused around WWF-UK’s online team, to supporting several teams and individuals, although lessons are still being learnt. “We’ve had a number of discussions about whether it’s better to focus all our effort on one account, or segment the accounts to match key audiences. Right now, we’re moving towards a more segmented approach, but with checks in place to prevent a proliferation of accounts that don’t receive the attention they deserve.” Cockle also recognises that the organisation still needs to use its main account as more than a glorified news feed. “Our staff are incredibly passionate, knowledgeable and funny, so I’d love to bring more of that out for our followers.”

Twitter played a key part in WWF-UK’s Save the Tiger crusade in 2010 – the Chinese Year of the Tiger – adding a real-time dimension to the integrated campaign aimed at doubling tiger numbers before 2022. The campaign used online and offline aimed at getting 100,000 names on its petition for a meaningful deal to come out of a meeting of the 13 heads of state in St Petersburg. That target was increased when it was met two weeks before the three month deadline. “We were talking about it through our main Twitter account and we had celebrity ambassadors talking about it,” says Cockle. “When you signed the petition one of the calls to action you got was to Tweet that you had signed up, so we tracked the response to that.” WWF-UK also created a custom ’Save the Tiger’ twibbon – a small graphic that Twitter users can add to their profile picture – which 2,500 people adopted.

It is what Cockle calls an “agile approach to R&D” that allows the organisation to capitalise on digital in such a way, with the digital team being given a fair amount of flexibility for trial and error. “That approach of having ’very fast failure’ is something we do try to keep in there.” Alongside this is what he describes as a more mature version of such an approach – constant optimisation. “For example, with fundraising on our website there is a constant iteration of tests, doing multi-variate tests on the process people use to donate money to ensure it is as efficient as possible, down to the tiniest element.” This tactic doubled WWF-UK’s conversion rate between August 2009 and August 2010.

Having such a wide-ranging remit to explore new media is something many digital heads can only dream about, but this freedom has been won thanks to Cockle’s constant interaction with the WWF-UK management team, producing papers around both the opportunities that digital presents for the organisation and the opportunities it is currently leveraging. Cockle says getting top-level buy-in is “absolutely critical” in being able to embrace digital in this way. “The process of reporting back is growing in importance all the time. One of my personal challenges in the role is balancing the management of the team with talking to other people in the organisation – and external people – about what we are doing.”

A wider challenge will be managing the growing internal demand for new media. “To a certain extent, we as a digital team are victims of our own success,” says Cockle. “Everyone wants a piece of us. Every conversation about communications is ’what can we do online, we want to do this’.” He says the constant drive for digital is “fantastic”, but adds that while the digital team tries to raise people’s digital skill levels throughout the organisation to enable them to realise initiatives themselves, inevitably much of the work comes back to the door of the specialists. “There are eight of us now and it’s still not quite enough. Even working with some fantastic agencies, we are always feeling the pinch, so I do get that slight frustration that we could do so much more if we only had more.” It is universal frustration, but WWF-UK is certainly capitalising on what resources it does have.

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WWF’s 50th anniversary yearThis year marks WWF’s 50th anniversary, and Adrian Cockle, head of online at WWF-UK, says communications planning has been thoroughly integrated. “There are no longer the old divisions of online/offline, but more audience-focused planning. Activities are about engaging audiences with our work – whether it is an event, such as a Royal Mail stamp (to be released in March to commemorate the anniversary) or a conversation on our Facebook page. It is about using online as a platform that helps our audiences see the stories behind the simple message, to start a discussion, or to amplify our core message.”

This means using the more ’edgier’ digital platforms such as social media, as well as the better established forms. WWF relies on email as a “very efficient” way to talk to supporters, with many brand awareness and fundraising e-newsletters sent out. It is investing more in its email strategy, including looking at how it can engage people in its anniversary events.
“The newsletters have grown organically and we are looking at the wealth of emails we send out and how we can create a much better user experience,” says Cockle.

WWF will use email to talk about the pieces of work that have had most impact in the past 50 years, and to publicise current campaigns. With Earth Hour 2011 coming up in March, it aims to use emails to build a graded series of calls to action.



Key to WWF-UK’s online and offline integration is its effort to ensure the digital activity does not operate in a separate silo, and is instead integrated into the whole of the organisation.

  • WWF-UK’s social media council, in place for 18 months, is designed to ensure every team in the charity can understand and use this platform effectively.
  • In 2010, more than 100,000 people signed a WWF petition in just two months, aimed at helping to double tiger numbers – thanks largely to digital.
  • WWF-UK will be launching a blogging platform in early 2011, in order to help communicate the organisation’s character and authentic voices.
  • WWF-UK intranet has been a valuable digital testing ground for the charity, with 98% of employees accessing it every day and 45% of the organisation contributing to it.
  • Adrian Cockle, head of online at WWF-UK, places great emphasis on constantly reporting to the management team to ensure top-level buy-in to the organisation’s digital strategy.
  • Constant optimisation of the fundraising part of the organisation’s website using multi-variate testing has doubled the conversion rate between August 2009 and August 2010.




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