Behind the National Trust’s historic digital roadmap

The first five years of the Trust’s digital transformation have seen the launch of a slick new website as a single online destination for supporters – we find out what’s in store for the next five years.

Chloe Green | 19th Nov 18
Image shows National Trust expert presenting a bust for display. Image credit: The National Trust

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The National Trust is in the middle of its biggest ever digital transformation – a ten year strategy that will overhaul both its supporter-facing and back-end infrastructure, helping give a consistent and beautiful new face to the Trust and ensure its long-term mission of keeping Britain’s cultural heritage ‘for ever, for everyone.’

Since the launch of the new National Trust website in November 2015, visitors have more than doubled. Now that the first five-year digital transformation plan is halfway through in its fourth year, we caught up with Tom Barker, Head of Digital at the National Trust, to find out what’s next and what they’ve learnt.


Charity Digital News: So, why transform digital at the National Trust? Give me your ‘elevator pitch.’

Tom Barker: The current digital roadmap was to create a perceived single online destination for our supporters. When I arrived at the Trust we did an audit and found that we had something like 364 different websites. So a large task of mine has been closing them down, consolidating them and moving to a single website for all our products and services.

We want to give people visiting our website the consistent brand experience – these 364 different environments all had a different look and design. Now to the user it might look like a single website but if you lift the bonnet you have lots of moving parts.

Screenshot from the National Trust's homepage, showing headers including 'days out' 'art and collections' 'holidays' 'shop'
Image credit: National Trust

But as well as the supporter experience there are harder reasons why we needed to do this – with so many different websites you’ve got production inefficiencies because they’re all being maintained or created by different people, and security and stability is affected.


CDN: As a charitable organisation, how have you met the challenges of budgeting for such an ambitious long-term transformation?

Tom Barker: One of the things I was keen to do when I joined was to stop what I call the ‘build it and walk away mentality’, where a product degrades over time and then you build something new.

What we do is now what we call ‘functional enhancement’. We build a product and improve it on an ongoing basis, because as tech gets ever more complex people just expect that your products have more and more sophisticated functionality.

So rather than asking for the budget to deliver something, we ask for the budget to deliver the whole life of a product. We tend to build the business case and say it’s going to cost this much to build it and then this much for each year of its life.

Image shows screenshot from National Trust website inviting people to 'join and get involved.'
Image Credit: National Trust

Now the business can sign up right at the start knowing the whole cost, and it’s then a lot easier asking for budget later down the line because it’s already been approved – you just need to make sure your business case is still relevant and you can demonstrate that you’re meeting your original KPIs and objectives.


CDN: How do you ensure the backend infrastructure and front-end digital presence are both aligned on what you’re trying to accomplish?

If you’re working in the digital space you can’t exist without IT and they need digital to actually bring their solutions to light and make them supporter-facing. I think it’s very important to be seen to be presenting as a coherent unit.

Four years ago after I’d written the original roadmap for the Trust, which didn’t set out to become a transformation roadmap, I was just briefed with ‘can you give us a vision for our online strategy and presence’. But the more I lifted stones the more I realised we needed an overarching strategy.

Screenshot from the National Trust website's 'days out' page
Image credit: The National Trust

After I’d written the digital roadmap we had a new CIO charged with doing something similar but across IT as a whole. He created a ten year roadmap and that was about our entire infrastructure from licensing approach to connectivity to tools we use as an organisation.

We wrote that piece together so that we could make sure that the digital roadmap absolutely complemented what was being talked about in it as a whole. We presented that roadmap back to the executive of the National Trust together.


CDN: Now that you’re almost at the end of the first five years of the roadmap, what are your goals for the next part of the roadmap up to 2025?

Tom Barker: The challenge for the next five years will be how we take what is already a large portfolio of websites and apps under our command and not only update those technologies, but also plan how we will engage supporters on entirely new platforms that are evolving in the next five years.

Voice activated tech such as the Alexas, Siris and Cortanas of this world already have a large user base. Visual recognition will also be huge in the next five years, because it will be built into many handsets. You’re also going to see much more in the way of AI and bots. The jury is still out on when they will really take off and hit mainstream adoption, but these things are going to change the game.

Screenshot from the Nationak Trust website's 'residential and farm letting' page
Image credit: The National Trust

As a charity with limited resources and budget you’ve got to hedge your bets about what will be important and what won’t – these are the things we’re trying to work around if we’re going to land that strategy that will take us to 2025 and beyond.


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