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Marketing your public engagement

Introduction

Marketing is a really important part of getting people to know about and participate in your public engagement activity. 

There are four main parts of any marketing plan. Otherwise known as the 4Ps:

  • Product
  • Price
  • Place
  • Promotion

Most of this guide is about the last of these, but it's important not to overlook the first three.

Product

The challenge is this: to design a public engagement event – a 'product', in the jargon – that will achieve not only what you want but also what the public, or a particular section of it, wants.

In the commercial world, formal market research is undertaken to find out what people want; products are tailored to fit known needs and desires. In the academic world, resources for market research are generally harder to come by. Fortunately, you can achieve a lot through a blend of common sense and informal consultation with colleagues, intermediary organisations and members of the public.

Price

As well as designing an event that people will want to be part of, you have to price it appropriately. This is of limited relevance here, since so much public engagement activity – especially the genuinely two-way variety – is free.

Place (and time)

People have to be willing and able to get to and participate in your public engagement activity, for example, there is little value in doing everything at the University and expecting people to come to you. Consider whether it would be better to hold the event at an accessible off-campus venue. Timing is another key factor – weekday or weekend; daytime or evening; early evening or 8pm?

The essential point is to have regard to your potential audience's convenience at least as much as your own. You can find out more in our Who to engage with section.

Promotion

If all is well with the previous three Ps, your promotional task should be simple. By the same token, if something is seriously amiss with any or all of the first three Ps, even large amounts of clever promotion may not be enough to reach your desired audience.

The four questions to ask are:

  • What audience is this particular engagement activity for? 
  • Who else might be interested in the project?
  • What is our key message to those audiences?
  • What methods should we use to convey the message to the audience?

The 'Plan it' section should provide you the support you need to identify the key audiences for your public engagement activity, having done so, you should think about your message. Here are some suggestions:

  • Find the essence of your message and express it in one powerful 'headline' statement that can be unpacked later on in your letter/leaflet/press release; indicate the benefits to the audience of taking part
  • Use a striking quote – from a speaker, a distinguished academic or someone who attended a previous event – to support your message
  • Remember that you are communicating with non-specialists, so use plain English
  • Remember that people lead busy lives and are bombarded with information, so they appreciate brevity

Once you have a good idea of who your audiences are and what your key messages to them are, you can do some targeted promotion by:

  • Communicating directly with relevant organisations
  • Making intelligent use of any mailing lists you or your communications and marketing colleagues have
  • Piggybacking on relevant partner organisations' mailing lists (although there are rules about this – check with the lawyers)
  • Placing printed material in venues used by the target audience
  • Advertising in appropriate specialist publications

As well as targeting people who have an affinity with your kind of event, you should pursue wider networks. This can bring on board people who are not in the 'committed' or 'likely to be interested' groups but who are 'open to persuasion'. This often requires a bit of thinking outside the box, drawing a map of all the key issues and topics your activity relates to, and then developing a list of networks and organisations that also have an interest in those topics.

The approaches outlined below will be useful in reaching both the target audience and the wider market.

Different formats

Printed material

Most of us lead our lives online these days, but there is still something to be said for good old leaflets and posters. Make sure your activity is included in any 'what's on' publication produced by your institution. You may also wish to produce a leaflet and/or poster of your own.

You may also like to make the most of existing brochures and printed material. For example, the venue that is hosting your event may have a printed programme. To be included you would need to find out when their print deadlines are, and to plan this into your schedule. 

Your institution's communications and marketing staff can advise you how to go about this and may be in a position to provide practical help as well. Your leaflet can include an invitation to join a mailing list, provided there is someone to service and update it. Whatever you produce, make sure it is well designed. It does not have to be lavish, but it should look smart, clear and professional. It is important that you have distribution points for your printed material and a means of getting it to them.

It may also be worth considering gaining editorial space in relevant magazines and printed documents. Editorial is interesting and relevant content, it is different from marketing in that it is not designed to promote an event. However, you may be able to write or co-write a piece on your research, which could promote your engagement activity as part of the piece.

Web and new media

Your institution is sure to carry online events listings, so make sure your public engagement activity is included. Perhaps the event is sufficiently high profile to warrant a place, with a striking picture, on the institution's homepage. Perhaps there can be a link from the homepage to the text and images in your leaflet, which should ideally be properly web-rendered (dynamic) rather than in pdf form (static).

There are many other things you can do via the web and new media. For example:

  • Use Twitter to spread the word
  • Get an online discussion going before your event
  • Record the activity and (with participants' permission) put it on your website and/or YouTube

Media relations

Local radio stations are hungry for local stories, including positive ones, and may want to interview an organiser or speaker, especially if the event is novel. The same goes for local television, although competition for airtime is fiercer. Local newspapers may seem to have a voracious appetite for bad news, but it's a myth that they won't cover good news too.

The secret is to identify the story. The mainstream media are under no obligation to give free publicity to anyone, so you have to offer them an angle – something fresh, perhaps quirky – that will capture their audiences' interest.

Again, your institution should have experts in its communications and marketing office to advise you.

Don't forget the student media – the ideal way of reaching what might be a key audience for you.

Paid-for advertising

Some areas are well served by popular magazines that preview events. As well as seeking a free listing, you might consider buying space to advertise your activity. This can be quite expensive, but at least one knows that people who buy such magazines are seeking something interesting to do.

You can find out via an audience questionnaire how well your advertising (and other forms of promotion) worked.

Pulling it all together

The various ways in which you promote your public engagement event can work together and reinforce one another, creating a 'perfect storm' that generates excitement – and an audience.

It helps if the institution is alive to issues that matter to local communities. If it has a reputation for local involvement and openness, the climate for promoting specific engagement activities will be favourable.

Over time, as more such events take place, the momentum will increase:

  • Some people will become regulars
  • You can tell them about future activities and they can join the mailing list
  • They will communicate on your behalf through their networks
  • Journalists will notice the head of steam that is building up and take more interest

Other resources

The best sources of help are people with whom you can speak face-to-face. Your institution's specialists in public engagement and events and the communications and marketing team should be your first ports of call. Public relations is quite different from public engagement, but people who work in these areas have interests in common:

  • Public engagement events can be newsworthy and warrant attention from the Press team
  • Such activities can also be grist to the mill of the web and new media team
  • These events can be a powerful means of building an institution's brand and reputation