Cottages, Conservation, And Consolidation: The New National Trust

by Caity Dalby, Content Manager, Figaro Digital
Ferry Cottage, Devon – National Trust Images, Mike Henton

The National Trust is a charity well known for its picturesque properties and conservation endeavours, but there is a lot more going on at the Trust than meets the eye. So how is The National Trust using digital to reconcile and consolidate the commercial and conservation aspects of the charity to foster support and bring about a new generation of supporters?

The National Trust is traditionally thought of as a garden and conservation focused organisation and whilst these are hugely important aspects of the Trust, the charity offers so much more than that. It is significant that National Trust Holidays, the online shop, retail stores, and food & beverage outlets are diversifying the Trust’s offering and consequently supporting fundraising initiatives. Having joined the Trust towards the end of 2017, Catherine Spencer, a Senior Content Editor for these commercial aspects of the Trust, talked to Figaro Digital about how the National Trust is evolving in the digital age.

FD: As a charity, how has The National Trust found itself evolving in the digital age?

CS: The Trust has evolved massively in the digital age. We have an incredibly successful, award winning membership magazine – the biggest subscription magazine in the UK – but our website has rapidly become our biggest channel. Our website is unique in that we have minimum 400 people editing our website on a regular basis, as it is maintained at a national, regional, and property level. It’s a brilliant thing to have that many content creators but it’s also a challenge in terms of making sure that we’re all doing the right thing and making sure that we all have a similar level of skill. So the national team look after the strategy from a content and SEO perspective, giving out best practice, and then that will filter back down making sure we are making the most of those regional and local insights, because obviously they know their properties the most and they are the people who will really bring them to life.

We are currently entering the third phase of our brand story. In the last year we have put out a new series of brand films sharing supporter stories across the web, social media, cinema, radio, and press ads. The campaign is built upon the tagline, ‘These are the places that make us’. Video is central to telling our supporter stories, so focusing on digital is really important for us, as long-term we’d like to collect more user-generated content. We also have an internal agency that leads our marketing strategy and sits at the centre of everything that is produced across all branches of the Trust.

© National Trust

FD: So the Trust has its own internal digital team within its marketing agency, why is that and what makes this necessary to the Trust’s digital journey and success?

CS: Ultimately it is because the National Trust has such a huge reach and so many touchpoints, including visits, days out, the cafes, the shop, holidays, volunteering, and fundraising (and much more). At any one time a supporter could be getting numerous different messages from us, so by having a centralised agency who have an overview of all the different communications going out, we can make sure that we regulate them and that our conservation message – we are a conservation charity first and foremost – is the primary one. We can ensure that we say the right things at the right times, and that our overall brand strategy is aligned.

FD: How important is it to reconcile the commercial aspects of The National Trust with the focus on conservation and charity?

CS: Working principally in Holidays is interesting as we’re not primarily known as a holiday organisation, but we have around 400 holiday cottages, as well as campsites, bothies, and bunkhouses. The National Trust fosters connections with places and this makes Holidays really relevant for what we do as a charity. You get to stay in, or close to, our properties and it’s a huge opportunity to grow support for the Trust. Significantly the average cottage stay is five and a half days, compared to a few hours spent at a property or garden on a day out.

Importantly we have to ensure we are reconciling the commercial message with the charity’s message. And ultimately, the profit made from holidays goes into essential conservation work. The properties used for holidays are actually conservation projects themselves and are often the outbuildings on historic estates that we look after and would otherwise be falling down. So it’s a way of conserving but also bringing in a line of income for the charity.

One area we are looking to improve on the website is highlighting those messages for holidays. Our plan for the next year is to flag the connection between holidays and conservation – to push ourselves as a holiday brand. National Trust Holidays aren’t a new thing, in fact we’ve provided accommodation since the 1930s, but having celebrated the first anniversary of the new Holidays website in July we are focusing on pushing ourselves on the new platform. The old website was a separate entity and now Holidays sits within the National Trust main domain, which is invaluable. The resultant increase in traffic has been gigantic, our natural search traffic share went from approximately 30 per cent to 60 per cent overnight allowing us to use paid budget in smarter ways.

Chesil Cottage, Dorset – National Trust Images, Mike Henton

FD: There have been a lot of changes within the Trust’s digital strategy in the last few years, could you talk me through these and the motivations behind them?

CS: The Digital team is headed up by Tom Barker, and he has created a five year digital roadmap for the team. As well as setting out an ambitious future for us, the roadmap makes sure that once we’ve built something that we continuously improve it. The main website is three years old and has had a continuous cycle of improvements, like an infinity loop.

In addition to the new website, the team have very nearly completed a huge website consolidation project. Due to the sheer number of properties and staff we have, we have had a high level of separate domains, blogs, and apps. This was not only a bit of a headache but, as a result of GDPR, it was really important that we consolidated everything and made sure it was compliant. The primary reason for this consolidation was to increase trust in the brand – there’s no point in investing in, and working on, all these great things if all the brand messages are disparate.

It’s easy to slip into the habit of teams operating separately and becoming siloed but the customer doesn’t see that at all. If they buy a National Trust coffee or go on a National Trust holiday, it’s still the National Trust to them. So it should all be one consolidated message.

FD: How do you see digital transforming the charities sector in the coming years?

CS: For us it’s going to be about increasing engagement with our supporters. Everyone has been saying that there will be a mass shift to user-generated content for years now, and that buzzword isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s certainly something we are aiming to do more of as, ultimately, consumers trust people’s voices over brands, even within the charity sector. As I said, our newest campaign is about the places that make us, so being able to capture those individual experiences to bring out the story of the Trust is so important.

The Tower, Norfolk – National Trust Images, Mike Henton 

We believe that the places and properties we care for have real, tangible, life-enhancing benefits. The only way to accurately portray that is through supporter stories and hopefully user-generated content – through the website, videos, or social media. Our social team are absolutely fantastic, they curate some beautiful content and are constantly engaging with our supporters. For instance, we have an NT challenge every Friday afternoon on Instagram. We set the challenge to go out into nature, collect specific things, and post them on Instagram – the results are fantastic and we often reuse the content.

Overall there has been a huge shift to digital storytelling within our content strategy. As the Holidays website is quite new we’re a little behind and the short-term strategy is very acquisition focused, but the long-term strategy will be focused on putting out awareness content and collecting these stories too.

Why are we different? Ultimately it’s about that connection to conservation.