Kirsty Marrins: My Oxfam - a hit or a miss?

It's a bold move, writes our columnist, but the charity's app might just be trying to do too much

The global aid and development charity Oxfam recently launched a new mobile app. The idea is that the app will bring supporters closer to the cause and help to rebuild trust in both the charity and the sector in general.

Called My Oxfam, the app offers people a glimpse into the work that Oxfam does, with videos, news stories and diaries from the field. Of course, it also offers people the opportunity to donate. Supporters can see their gift histories, including any money raised from items donated to Oxfam shops (although this takes a few days to generate – two days in and I am still waiting for mine). The app has its own online shop where you can purchase items that have been donated to the charity, such as art and clothing. Supporters can opt in to be alerted when there is an emergency response campaign.

I’ve downloaded the app myself to see what it’s all about and how it works. I think it’s been well designed, is visually appealing and the premise is a good one, but I’m not convinced it will be successful (though I’m hoping to be proved wrong!).

Why do I think this? Let’s take my own phone usage as an example. The only apps I use on a daily basis are for social media  (Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp) and for banking. I have more than 6,000 photos on my iPhone, so space is at a premium. In fact, I often have to delete apps on my phone that I barely use to open up more storage space.

I’m making the wild assumption that this is also the case for most of you, but I do have some research to back this up. According to a report by Appboy, a provider of mobile marketing software, less than 25 per cent of people who download an app will return to it a day after they first used it. That’s if you can get people to download it in the first place – apparently, on average, people download zero new apps each month month. By the first week, the retention rate drops to 11 per cent. So that's not great news…

I’m not the only one in the sector who has doubts. Simon Scriver, a fundraising consultant and coach, says: "Charity apps are notoriously difficult to make any reasonable return on investment from. You have to ask why would a member of the public download them and stay engaged with them? I've yet to see any real success stories and can usually suggest dozens of better places to spend time and money. But I'm hoping Oxfam's app will prove me wrong."

Matt Jerwood, head of digital fundraising at Oxfam, says: "We only launched a few days ago, and downloads are going well, exceeding expectations."

Asked if there will be a desktop version of the app, Jerwood says: "My Oxfam is a mobile app because some functionality can only be delivered by an app. A mobile web equivalent wouldn't deliver such a strong supporter experience in terms of the features we've included in My Oxfam. That said, the development of the app has had a positive knock-on effect and might lead to new features for other digital channels over time."

There is a supporter contact option within the app, which did make me wonder if it had been developed in response to the impending Fundraising Preference Service, but Jerwood assures me that this is not the case: "Our work on this project has been shaped over a fairly long period. For some years our digital fundraising focus has been on the mobile experience for the supporter.

"The concept of a mobile proposition like this – with supporter timeline, controllable regular giving, visibility around support history and new forms of digital content to show the impact of support – has been in discussion and development before any of the proposals for an FPS. We've always tried to be agile in approach, to allow for any changes in needs and priorities as they've emerged. As such, we have paid close attention to changes in the fundraising environment and have considered at length the supporter needs around contact preferences."

I do like what Oxfam is trying to achieve with this app, but I think it's a mistake not to have a desktop version because this will limit how many people will register with My Oxfam.

Mandy Johnson, chief executive of the non-profit consultancy Second Gift, says: "I downloaded the Oxfam app the second I heard about it, driven by intrigue more than anything else. I think it’s a great idea and I love what they are striving to achieve. Having had a good play around with it I feel like they have tried to make it a one-stop shop for anything and everything that you could do for Oxfam rather than a place for focused calls to action. For example, the Get Involved section just takes you to the Oxfam website. My views might change as I receive the once-a-month notification I have agreed to but, so far, it feels like the charity might have sacrificed focus in favour of keeping every department in the head office happy."

Jerwood says the went through several rounds of user testing (from the initial concepts to early prototypes, and at different stages leading up to and during development. He says: "The feedback from both supporters and non-supporters helped us immensely with product development and removed the chance of us being blind to what real users would think or feel about the supporter experience. So far the feedback on the final product has been very positive."

It's early days, of course, and I wish Oxfam every success with this app. What defines success is not really clear, though. My Oxfam seems to have many objectives (greater transparency, contact preference options, donate features, online shop and so on) and I’m not entirely sure how they will be measured.

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