We all know that when digital experiences are delivered to the right people, in the right way, on the right channel, they can be life-changing. But there are situations where these experiences can also potentially be life-saving — such as when victims of domestic abuse need urgent and confidential advice from a trusted source. This was the focus of one of the most captivating, compelling, and critically important Sitecore Symposium 2021 sessions delivered by Lisa King, Director of Communications and External Relations at Refuge, and Sanja Partalo, Executive VP of Strategic Development and Partnerships at WPP, parent company of Wunderman Thompson UK, a Sitecore Platinum Solution Partner.

Refuge was also named a 2021 Sitecore Experience Award winner during Symposium, taking home the honors for Best Digital Experience Transformation in EMEA.

Refuge’s mission and purpose

Based in the UK, Refuge is an independent, specialist charity that supports women fleeing domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence. The globally acclaimed organization has been doing this vital work since 1971, and each day its specialist services currently support around 7,000 women and children.

One in four women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives, and two women are killed each week in England and Wales by a current or former partner — a shocking statistic that has persisted for decades.

Children are also massively impacted by domestic abuse. One in every five children in classrooms across England are impacted by domestic abuse. Between 2003-2019, Refuge operated the National Domestic Abuse Helpline in partnership with Women's Aid, and since late 2019, it has been the Helpline’s sole provider.

Establishing new digital channels

While it’s often said that “hindsight is 20/20,” virtually no organization in the world predicted the size and scope of the pandemic. However, in 2019 — and well before the term COVID-19 entered mainstream vocabulary — Refuge’s visionary leadership team identified the need to create a new Helpline website and partnered with Wunderman Thompson UK to spearhead the project.

Said Lisa King during the Symposium breakout session: “We wanted to build a brand new and very easy-to-navigate, survivor-focused website to try to free up the National Domestic Abuse Helpline that is rammed with calls. We wanted to make sure that the number of women who need emergency, immediate, life-saving support could get to those services, and that those who would call for information about housing, how to keep safe, or to verify if they were experiencing domestic abuse could go to a website and find that information simply and succinctly, and have that really easy and good journey.“

To achieve these core objectives, Wunderman Thompson UK invested 1,300 hours toward understanding survivor needs, defining website requirements, designing and building the Refuge site, collaborating with domestic abuse experts, and improving the user experience on the platform. The new Helpline website was built using a managed cloud deployment of Sitecore Experience Platform™ (XP) that leveraged Sitecore Helix architecture. Key new features include:

  • A quick exit button in case an abuser suddenly walks in the room.
  • A secure webform that is 100% untraceable.
  • A tech safety tool chatbot that provides visitors with easy-to-follow instructional videos on how to secure their devices, and thus prevent their abuser from discovering their efforts to seek help.

Refuge’s new Helpline website and main website had the infrastructure and capacity to handle a tenfold increase in visits from 7,000/month in 2019 to 70,000 visits at the height of COVID-19 in 2020-2021. In addition, 77% of visitors said that they found the website and service "very easy" to use, and 100% of visitors said that they would recommend the service to others.

A few months later in May 2020, Refuge realized that while COVID-19 lockdowns were arguably beneficial for protecting public health, they were potentially catastrophic for women and children who were forced to live in very close quarters with their abusers; and in some households virtually 24/7.

To provide those at-risk with a vital communication channel and source of support, Refuge once again worked in partnership with Wunderman Thompson UK to create a live chat service.

“We responded really quickly to that insight that digital was essentially a lifeline for women, and so we provided a silent way in which women could reach out to us to access support when unable to pick up the phone,” King said. “We have had around 4,000 chats so far, and possibly more since that figure was released. Being able to provide that real-life, real-time support when maybe a woman had just a couple of minutes to isolate herself in a toilet, shut the door, have some her time, and make contact with us. I really can’t say enough how vital a digital response has now become to our whole program of work in responding to, and supporting, survivors of abuse.”

Digital rising to meet a need

There are absolutely no easy answers or quick fixes for domestic abuse. However, thanks to the vision, care, and compassion of Refuge — with help from Wunderman Thompson UK and Sitecore — the organization can now leverage new digital channels to respond rapidly to the changing landscape for women and children during and after the pandemic, keeping safety and accessibility at the forefront.

“I really can’t say enough how vital a digital response has now become to our whole program of work in responding to, and supporting, survivors of abuse.” King said.

Fiona Hilliard is a Content Marketing Manager at Sitecore. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn