Digital marketers tend to be early adopters when it comes to tech. Call it professional curiosity or just standard-issue technophilia, but most of us are eager to try out trending apps and get our hands on the latest hardware. It should come as no surprise that the immersive virtual worlds of the metaverse have been quickly embraced by the marketing world.

But in the screen-centred lives many of us lead, it can be easy to lose sight of some important aspects of the world we’re living in – the things that are quite literally screened out of our awareness. And foremost among them is the fact that not everyone lives this way

As important as recent debates over filter bubbles and echo chambers might be, they can conceal a more fundamental problem. In reality, it’s far from true that everyone is trapped inside their own little digital paradise. For many, simply getting online in the first place poses a major challenge.

The blunt truth is that, while many of us manage our time by shifting seamlessly between an array of platforms and devices, this experience is far from universal. The UK, like many advanced economies, is fractured by a growing digital divide, separating those who can comfortably navigate the growing digital demands of everyday life and those who lack the time, money, or skills to do so.

The statistics on the UK’s digital divide are stark. As of 2021, approximately 11 million people in the UK lacked the essential digital skills for navigating everyday life. This means they might not be able to communicate with others using digital applications or set up accounts to make online transactions.

A lack of skills is often tied to a more fundamental lack of access, which in turn correlates with other forms of exclusion. For instance, only 51% of households earning between £6000 and £10,000 per year have home internet access. A recent report by the University of Cambridge makes the point in unequivocal terms: “The link between poverty and digital exclusion is clear: if you are poor, you have less chance of being online.”

The exclusionary impact of the pandemic

Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the UK’s digital divide into sharp focus. With months of lockdowns leaving us largely confined to our homes, many of us turned to digital forms of connection to keep us going. From Zoom cocktail hours to virtual quiz nights, new ways to stay connected – and stay sane – became ubiquitous overnight.

A group of masked people leaning out of laptop screens to produce charts and graphs.

But for those without the access or the skills necessary to forge or sustain those kinds of connections, the experience of the pandemic was quite different. Older people, who are disproportionately affected by digital exclusion, faced significant struggles to maintain healthy levels of social contact.

The problems of digital exclusion are likely to grow as we shift toward the “new normal” of a post-COVID world. Whatever the economic ups and downs of the immediate future, the digital acceleration of the past two years will not be reversed. We are looking toward a world of remote and flexible work, virtual socialisation, and the growing integration of digitally mediated activities into all aspects of our lives. 

But what does this mean for those already feeling left behind by the digital transformation of the past two years – or the past twenty, for that matter? And what responsibility do we have, as digital marketers, to keep this question in mind?

As we’ll see below, continuing to ignore the problem is simply not an option. In fact, confronting it head-on can have a transformative impact on how marketers speak to and engage with their audience.

Thinking beyond the divide: Digital exclusion in close-up

Digital exclusion is a multifaceted concept. This is part of what makes it such an intractable problem – and what makes it so important for digital marketers to tackle.

As is often the case, the terms we use are at least part of the problem. However catchy it might be, the phrase “digital divide” does a disservice to the real situation. It implies a kind of binary, reducing the problem of exclusion to a simple yes or no – can you access the internet or not? The digital divide separates those who can from those who cannot. Simple enough, right?

A keyboard divided by a large crack with a small figure standing on each side, facing away from each other.

In fact, digital exclusion is far more complex. Far from marking a rigid divide, it’s a subtle and malleable distinction shaped by a range of factors. 

For instance, some people may have access to a laptop or a tablet but not a reliable internet connection, while others have an internet-enabled device but no home broadband. Some may be able to perform a few basic tasks online but lack the confidence to explore new apps or try out new features, putting a limit on their digital activities. And safety is, of course, a perennial issue – even those comfortable navigating online may find themselves vulnerable to scams or misinformation.

Digital exclusion is also not a static, unchanging attribute. Some people move back and forth across the digital divide in specific circumstances. The term “data poverty” has been used to refer to situations where people lack consistent access to mobile or broadband data – perhaps they can only afford enough data for part of the month, or they are working on short-term or zero-hours contracts and their access to data changes accordingly. In this circumstance, it’s not a question of being included or excluded, but of ongoing uncertainty and precariousness.

If we take this broader and more nuanced view of digital exclusion, we can see that it encompasses a wide range of issues that affect broad swathes of the population – and this should be a real wake-up call to us as marketers. Even setting aside the ethics of being inclusive – which, just to be clear, are extremely important – there’s also a question of reach. Just how much of our potential audience are we failing to address by avoiding the question of who does or does not have access to the digital world?

As important as it is, deepening our concept of digital exclusion is just the first step. If we’re talking about the problem of access, then we’re also talking about accessibility. And unfortunately, this is yet another area where those of us who can smoothly navigate digital spaces have frequently failed to give our full attention.

Accessibility and the web: An unflattering history

From the very outset, the web was an egalitarian project. As Tim Berners-Lee himself has stressed, the founding principles of the web included universality and non-discrimination. And while these principles have a technical sense related to the underlying architecture of the web, they also have social and ethical meanings. Fundamentally, the web was supposed to be for everyone.

For this reason, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) founded by Berners-Lee established a set of accessibility guidelines to ensure web pages could be used by everyone, regardless of any disabilities or impairments they might experience.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were first published in 1995, and while they have evolved over the past quarter century, their core has remained the same. They provide a set of standards and principles that web designers can use to build sites and applications in an inclusive way.

Since the launch of WCAG 2.0 in 2008, the crusade to make the web accessible has been based on four principles. Websites should be:

  •  Perceivable: Users should be able to perceive and recognise the elements on a website regardless of any sensory issues they might face. For example, they should be able to navigate the page using a screen reader if they are visually impaired.
  • Operable:  Users should be able to explore and engage with the content on a website and make use of any services it provides regardless of any impairments. For instance, they should be able to get around the site easily using only a keyboard.
  • Understandable: The website should be easy to understand and offer a clear and easy-to-follow journey for the user by using clear language and consistent design features.
  • Robust: A website’s content should be accessible using a variety of different applications and interfaces, including a range of assistive technologies.

There are two things that should be fairly obvious from this list. 

Firstly, failure to meet these standards will amplify digital exclusion. A website that is difficult to navigate or understand will not only be challenging for those with disabilities, but also for those with limited digital skills. And for those affected by multiple forms of exclusion, the problem will be compounded. People who struggle with their digital skills will also be less able to find workarounds for accessibility issues.

Secondly, embracing these principles should be a priority for marketers concerned about both the ethical and economic downsides of the digital divide. Not only does a lack of accessibility further narrow your potential audience, but it will also undermine any claims to be a purpose-led agency

A drawing of people sitting at tables with laptops, one of whom is in a wheelchair.

Unfortunately, the obvious advantages of embracing inclusivity have yet to lead to significant practical changes. The inclusive impetus at the heart of the web revolution has failed to translate into action. At present, some 96.8% of website home pages fail to meet the WCAG standards.

It’s important to let this statistic sink in. The overwhelming majority of home pages – the page that most users will land on first – do not meet long-standing accessibility standards. As a result, users that suffer from impairments will almost constantly be struggling to navigate the web, confronted by frequent barriers to performing the simplest tasks.

And the potential costs of this are enormous.

The cost of exclusion: Quantifying the purple pound

It makes perfect economic and ethical sense for marketers to prioritise the problem of access – and to embrace the broadest possible resonance of this term. As we’ve seen above, more than 11 million people in the UK lack the digital skills necessary to navigate daily life, including making eCommerce purchases independently. But there are also some 13 million people in the UK with a disability – three-quarters of whom say they have walked away from a UK business due to poor accessibility or customer service issues.

Of course, these numbers overlap. If, as we’ve seen, poverty and age correlate with digital exclusion, so too does disability. According to research by the Office for National Statistics, disabled adults make up a large proportion of adult internet non-users. But this simply highlights the importance of a holistic approach to the issue of digital exclusion. 

Let’s be blunt: if your digital presence does not actively strive to reach as much of this audience as possible, you are substantially damaging the effectiveness of your marketing activities. The purchasing power of those with disabilities – the so-called purple pound – is enormous. Their online spending power alone is estimated at £16 billion.

But the value of being digitally inclusive is not limited to tapping into this significant market and getting your share of the purple pound. In fact, it can have a profound and transformative impact on how you engage with every user, regardless of their experience or how they identify.

In order to truly appreciate this, we need to think more deeply about what inclusivity really means.

“There is no average user”: Putting disability in question

As in so many cases, a quick-fix approach to digital inclusion will likely have limited impact – where it’s not actively counter-productive. Part of the reason for this is that much of the common sense around issues like disability and inclusion is at best limited and simplifying. At worst, it can even reinforce the problem.

In the context of inclusivity and accessibility, this common sense is exemplified by what has come to be called the “medical model” of disability. This model frames disability as tied to a physical or mental impairment that limits what a person can do – their motor functions, their sensory processing, their cognitive capacities, and so on. In this model, people are defined as disabled based on a medical diagnosis that identifies some measurable restriction on their ability to navigate the world and its demands.

This model is deeply rooted in how we tend to think and talk about disabilities – even down to the term itself, which implies, precisely, a restricted capacity, a lack of ability. And it extends to how we think about inclusivity and accessibility. Inclusivity becomes a question of adapting or modifying the way we design or build things to accommodate these various restrictions. 

Though the medical model has shaped much of our language and thinking around disability and inclusion, it has fundamental issues. For more than half a century, campaigners have challenged the predominance of this model, arguing that it reinforces exclusionary practices by focusing on the supposed limitations of the individual as the source of the problem.

Instead, they have proposed a social model of disability, in which the issues faced by individuals are the consequence of social barriers. These barriers range from exclusionary attitudes to narrow, unreflective design practices. In this model, it is society that is the source of the problems faced by disabled people. As Microsoft’s “Inclusive Design Toolkit” puts it: “Disability happens at the points of interaction between a person and society. Physical, cognitive, and social exclusion is the result of mismatched interactions.”

If we adopt this mindset, then inclusion is no longer about changing our standard practices to accommodate those with limitations – it’s about recognising that those practices are themselves limiting, based on a narrow and unreflective image of the “normal” or “average” person.

The move from the medical to the social model of disability is fundamental for how we approach inclusion in the context of the digital divide because it forces us to reframe our ideas about the so-called average user. Rather than assuming a normative set of abilities and capacities that the majority of people possess and then “accommodating” those who fall outside of this, it pushes us to put this widely shared assumption in question.

Once we move away from the medical model, we confront a fact that every digital marketer needs to have front and centre, whether they’re designing a website, writing copy, or planning a social strategy: there is no average user. And it is only by recognising this that we have a chance of closing the digital divide.

Inclusive design benefits everyone

The recognition that the average user does not exist sits at the heart of what has come to be called inclusive design. As the definition provided by the Inclusive Design Research Centre at the University of Toronto puts it, inclusive design is “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.”

From this definition, it should be clear what we mean when we say there’s no average user. Each person has their own distinctive way of inhabiting all these categories. And while we can always identify certain consistent patterns – if we couldn’t, the concept of an audience would make no sense – these should not be taken as rigid boundaries or static limits.

An assemblage of figures in side profile representing diverse cultural backgrounds.

Not only does everyone have their own unique set of capacities and characteristics that set them apart, but the categories into which they fit will change over time. This can have profound implications for our ideas of accessibility. For example, people who are currently physically able will likely become less so as they age. Similarly, those who currently feel comfortable navigating the web may struggle to adapt to some new innovation – the projected growth of AR and VR tech being a case in point. 

(This example sits close to my heart: as someone with monocular vision, I have no issues with a smartphone screen or a TV, but I will likely face problems with field of view and depth perception when using VR headsets.)

In sum, our abilities are not static, and while we may currently not be affected by exclusionary design practices, this may not always be the case.

Indeed, advocates of inclusive design often ask us to think about the way our abilities can shift not just across the course of our lives, but from moment to moment. After a long, stressful day or a night of poor sleep, our ability to process information worsens, and we are likely to value a website with clear content and a frictionless design. Or if we’re trying to navigate an app while standing in direct sunlight, we’ll likely benefit from features intended to help the visually impaired – for instance, the avoidance of using colours to convey important information.

This leads to yet another point frequently made by advocates of inclusive design. If we adopt the social model of disability and question the assumption of an average user, then this leads to the conclusion that inclusive design benefits everyone, not just some small (if significant) subset of users classified as “excluded”.

And in fact, the history of technology is full of innovations that prove this point. Some of our most familiar conveniences were designed to support those with specific impairments before being adopted more widely.

For instance, the typewriter – and by extension, the computer keyboard – has its origins in the work of Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri in the early nineteenth century. He aimed to find a way for his friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano to write letters after she had lost her sight. Needless to say, the usual solution at the time – dictating your message to someone else – lacked something in the privacy department. An early version of the typewriter was his solution to this particular form of exclusion.

More recently, both haptic feedback and the use of closed captions have become standard aspects of smartphone design and streaming services, respectively. Though they were intended to support those with specific impairments, we all benefit from their use.

Again, the lesson for marketers should be clear here. We are often encouraged to think of accessibility and inclusivity as secondary issues – worth tackling, no doubt, but relevant only to a small number of people. In reality, good, customer-focused design is inclusive design by definition – after all, there is no average user.

Embracing the process: The endless work of inclusion

Understanding both the scope of the problem and the importance of solving it is a prerequisite to tackling the UK’s growing digital divide – as well as the many other forms of exclusion that continue to drive it. And for marketers, this is not something we can simply leave to others, or that we can allow to slip down the priority list for a lack of time or expertise.

Of course, this does not mean that the solution becomes simple once we do begin to develop this understanding. On the contrary – that’s where the difficult work really begins. 

A row of abstract faces in side profile in different colours.

Inclusive design is a process, not an outcome. No design can ever be fully inclusive, and new technologies or innovative features will continue to add new roadblocks. The WCAG remain an excellent starting point, but even they have their limitations – adaptations for neurodiverse users, for instance, do not form part of the standard “AA” level requirements.

In this sense, a commitment to inclusivity and narrowing the digital divide requires a cultural shift, one that shapes a marketer’s approach down to the most granular level, to the messy details of our processes and the unspoken presuppositions that shape them. 

Most importantly, it asks us to open out our viewpoint, to look beyond the screens that tend to interpose themselves between us and the world, and admit that we don’t have all the answers.

In the 1990s, disability activists began to use the slogan nothing about us without us. Their goal was to stress that any question of how to tackle inclusion must listen to and learn from those affected, lest it simply reinforce the barriers it aims to remove. This is something that marketers looking to focus on inclusive design must be mindful of. Embracing the always-ongoing process – testing, iterating, improving – is essential, but so too is involving those you are looking to include from the very outset.

It cannot be overstated: inclusivity is difficult, effortful and time-consuming work. But the results can be transformative.