Adapted from a presentation by Louisa Taylor, Director, Refugee 613, and Lama Chami, Digital Training Coordinator at The Digital Messaging for Settlement and Integration Summit in 2020.

  1. What is digital messaging? 
  2. What role does it play in communication? 
  3. Why is it useful, and for whom? 
  4. Key Questions for success

Used well, digital messaging is an effective tool for creating information equity

At Refugee 613, we believe that information delivery is a frontline service in its own right, as well as a key component in delivering other services effectively. service providers often work in silos and struggle to communicate efficiently with each other and with their clients. At the same time, systemic barriers prevent many newcomers from getting the information they need, because traditional strategies and tactics often overlook the needs and practices of newcomer communities. It’s not in their language, or on the platforms they use, or tailored to what they want to know.

Our own work has convinced us that digital messaging is an effective tool to advance information equity, but it is often overlooked.

So our goal is that you will leave today with a stronger understanding of what digital messaging is and whether it would be a useful tool for your own service delivery.

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What we’re going to share today is based on our own experiences with digital messaging, which began with the Refugee 613 WhatsApp group for Arabic-speaking newcomers, which was created in 2017 and continues today on the Telegram platform, serving almost 400 members with information five days a week.. 

This success of this service led to the three-year Digital Messaging for Settlement and Integration project. We worked with partners in settlement, including ISANS in Halifax, Centre for Newcomers in Calgary, North Bay and District Multicultural Centre and a coalition of Francophone agencies in Ottawa, to test different models of using digital messaging.

Some of you may have attended our DMSI Summit in January, where more than 350 people came together online to learn some of the same concepts we’ll be sharing today. The project is winding down now, with our main activity being training and coaching, to build the capacity of the settlement sector to get the right information to the right people at the right time. 

We are very grateful to IRCC for investing in the DMSI project, and for making this work possible.

What ‘digital messaging’ is and isn’t

Digital messaging is just a tool. It’s not

A digital messaging service is not a goal by itself — it is a tool for reaching your goal

Whether we are talking about WeChat or Telegram, or email, or websites, we are talking about tools for communication. Tools are only effective when they’re right for the job. 

So the first step in deciding if digital messaging is right for your organization is to get clarity on what you are trying to achieve. What is your goal?

What are your goals?

Creating a digital messaging group or service is not a goal, it is a tool for reaching your goal. It’s essential to get clear about what you are trying to achieve and why, so you can make the right decision about how.

Do you want to reach more people with a specific message, or reach the same people more effectively? That is a communications goal, and digital messaging is a tool you should definitely explore. 

Do you want to offer a digital messaging service because you’ve heard it’s effective at reaching people? That’s not a communications goal. That’s not a gap you’re trying to fill. That’s a desire to innovate and try new things.

We all want to be innovative, but digital messaging is only innovative if it is used in the right way, for the right audiences.  

Digital messaging popularity among newcomers

Of more than 4,000 recent immigrants to Canada surveyed about their media consumption habits earlier this year:

Earlier this year, Refugee 613 collaborated with MTM, a division of CBC, on the first-ever study of newcomer media consumption habits. It confirms what many of us know: almost everyone has a smartphone these days, including immigrants. 

The study also showed that digital messaging apps are more popular among newcomers than among Canadian-born. 

This statistic refers to just one platform — WhatsApp — but we also have data that shows how popular other platforms are with newcomers. 

One of the rules of good communication is to go where your audience is, don’t force them to use a tool they don’t know or like. 

Newcomers are already on digital messaging apps for some very simple reasons: 

They are:

Immigrant communities have embraced digital messaging so much that there are  formal and informal digital communities serving different diaspora groups just across Canada. There are local and national groups on WhatsApp, Telegram, WeChat and Facebook for just about every immigrant community and in many languages, some for youth of a specific community, some for community leaders.

This is exactly why it should be a tool we consider for settlement information delivery. Just like email and the phone can be used for both work and social purposes, so can digital messaging. 

It is already being used by many organizations in our sector. Here are just a few examples:

Meet your audience where they are

But as popular as digital messaging is, you can’t assume all newcomers will embrace your digital messaging service. You might choose a platform you like but they don’t. You might assume that all demographics — age, country of origin, language, etc. — like digital messaging, but perhaps they prefer text. 

Deciding whether to use digital messaging for service delivery means paying attention to what your audience wants, because what your audience wants matters more than what you want. This is a crucial principle of good communication. 

Don’t put all your resources into an email newsletter if the people you are trying to reach rarely use email. Don’t make them come to your web site if their web navigation skills are limited. 

Don’t assume you and your staff know your audience’s preferences either – be sure to ask them. They may validate your assumption, but even frontline workers get it wrong sometimes.

You have a far greater chance of success if you communicate where they already are, not by asking them to use tools or platforms they don’t know or like. 

Find out where they are, and meet them there. 

If your audience is not already using digital messaging, it probably is not the right tool for what you are trying to do. 

If your audience is already using digital messaging, chances are high you should join them there. But first, do a little planning.

And keep in mind that it changes all the time. WhatsApp was popular when we started our group for Arabic-speaking newcomers in 2017, but later this audience started moving to Telegram, so we moved the group too. Signal and Discord are becoming more popular, as is Slack. So it’s really important to ask where people are right now. Our workshop, Choosing the Right Platform, walks you through some simple steps to making a more informed decision. 

Is your audience using digital messaging?

Think twice before you ask them to change platforms!

So that is the second key question to ask yourself when exploring digital messaging: is the audience you want to reach using digital messaging? 

If the answer is no, you want to really think twice about creating a service based on persuading them to move to digital messaging. You are creating an extra step in their busy lives, and asking them to learn something new. This is not advisable if your goal is to reduce barriers to information and service. It might work, it might not! 

One of the pilots we tested in DMSI started out using apps that their target audience was not familiar with, and they struggled to build that relationship right from the beginning. 

Should you really be starting a new digital messaging service?

Put the newcomer first — avoid forcing your audience to join multiple groups to get the information they need! 

Sticking with the theme of putting your audience’s need ahead of your own, the third key question to ask is whether anyone else is already providing a digital messaging service to the same audience, or for the same purpose. 

Maybe you have a goal of getting more information about employment opportunities out to a target audience. You have done some outreach and learned that there is a digital group operated by another agency, also providing employment information. Is there scope to collaborate? Maybe instead of starting an entirely new service, you can share your information with the moderators of the other group. This means you are strengthening an existing community asset, rather than dividing the attention of the end users. 

This is a really important point. Newcomers don’t want to have to join five different apps or groups offering the same service. Seek out partners and collaborate as much as possible, right from the earliest stages.

In Ottawa, five local agencies formed a partnership to create a Facebook group to help Francophone immigrants access services. They spent time establishing protocols for transparency and fairness in whose services or opportunities get promoted. It has been a big success with clients and more cost-effective than each agency having their own service. Most of all, it puts newcomers first by reducing the burden on them to join many groups. 

Set your service up for success

We know that digital messaging technology is easy to use, popular and in most cases the technology is free to both managers and users. But there is a cost that many organizations don’t recognize: staff time.

Whether you choose to use digital messaging for a one on one service – such as a tool for case management communication – or to create a group (like ours), you need to ensure you have the staff to run it. This means both staff time and staff expertise.

If you imagine that starting and maintaining a successful group is something you can add to the plate of a full-time staff member without taking something else off their plate, you are setting you both up to fail. 

Here is a list of the common tasks a moderator or manager of a digital messaging service needs to undertake on an almost daily basis: 

We had someone come to us for advice after setting up a service to share job opportunities with a specific language group. They had a very successful launch and soon had 250 members. But they hadn’t done any planning to figure out their goals, their resources, or their guidelines for members on how to use the group, and immediately the staff member who was assigned to run it was overwhelmed with questions and messages. 

What this team didn’t realize was that running the group would take a few hours of each day, and they didn’t have the buy-in from their managers to delegate other tasks so they could focus on running the group. As a result, they had to abandon it because they had no funding to continue. 

Making sure you have the resources you need

The amount of time the digital messaging service takes will vary depending on the service. Are you using it to replace a current tool — for example, WeChat instead of email? Then it won’t add considerable time to a staff member’s day. But if the staff member is managing a group with dozens or hundreds of members, it can be a full-time job.

You will also need to ensure you have the funds for a project phone and laptop for the person delivering the digital service. 

So let’s say you ask all these questions and you have determined that digital messaging makes sense for your goals, what next? 

You may need to make the case to a funder. This is not always easy, as for example IRCC has strict rules about funding phones. 

Sometimes you only need to flag that you are using digital messaging as a communications tool because it is the most efficient and effective for serving your audience, and justify having a project phone to support that. 

Sometimes the messaging is the project activity itself, as in group moderation. Then you will need to make the case for the staff and tech resources. If you have done your planning you can cite all your answers to the key questions above to as part of your funding request. 

Of course the ideal to have ongoing funding (funding that will continue year after year) or multi-year funding rather than one-time project-based funding. This can increase stability of staffing, service consistency and sustainability, and ultimately the quality of the digital messaging experience. However, it may be challenging to find ongoing funding. Sometimes opportunities come up unexpectedly, so it’s good to stay on top of funding sources and maintain service data that you can use to build a convincing case in your funding applications.

Here are some other tips on seeking funding:

We don’t recommend charging user fees, but there may be other ways to generate revenue that you can use to develop and sustain your digital messaging, including sponsorships.