Comms on a dime; How to create powerful campaigns on diddley squat.

By Anne Nicholls
4th June 2023
Putting together an eye-catching communications campaign with a miniscule budget is a tough ask. But that’s the reality for many people who work with charities, public sector organisations and other not-for-profits. For many of us a budget of £15,000 sounds hugely generous, whilst some are expected to run campaigns on goodwill alone.
To help people tackle these challenges two CIPR groups, representing the Education & Skills and Not-for-Profit sectors, got together and set up an online panel event on 17 May with speakers (all CIPR members) who had created award-winning campaigns on teeny budgets.
Strike Communications (based in Bristol) was asked to devise a 12-month campaign in 2021 for a small charity called Pahar Trust Nepal to help raise £50,000 — a tough challenge during the Covid pandemic, particularly as most of the funding streams such as the London Marathon had dried up. The campaign was given the title ’30 for 30’ as it was exactly 30 years since the charity’s first school opened. The agency had a budget of just £10,000 to bring in the cash to build or refurbish 30 pre-school classrooms across rural Nepal. One idea was inviting people to do an activity from home involving the number 30, which prompted some zany activities from a 30-minute laughter yoga session to hiring an alpaca for 30 minutes to zoom in on meetings. The focus for Tiffin Week was inviting people to climb the height of Everest (collectively) on a fitness stepping machine in a Bristol shopping centre and make a donation. What was the outcome? The campaign brought in nearly £100,000 in donations and increased the charity’s social media engagement massively.
What were the success factors? “Quality photography and video, using social media channels to get the messages across, having ideas that captured people’s imagination and showing the impact of what we were doing.” (Catherine Frankpitt)
Oxford University Press has been running its Gift of Words campaign for three years, with a different focus each year. For 2020 celebrities and public figures, that included Giles Brandreth and Suzi Dent along with well-known journalists and authors, were asked for a word or passage from a book that they would “gift” to someone else. In 2021 the theme was all about parents choosing their favourite stories to read to their children. The focus for 2022 was on the power of language across borders. Throughout December OUP Group Communications Director Christine Richardson and her team invited multi-lingual people to gift a word from one of their languages that had a special meaning and would create a “feel good” reaction. They also created a beautiful social media calendar using some of the chosen words. Expenditure was around £3,000 for an agency plus a very modest fee for research. The outcome exceeded expectations with massive media coverage which took everyone by surprise.
What were the success factors? “We concentrated on what was unique to us and how we could build on that from available resources. This focus was all about helping people to understand the power of language.“ (Christine Richardson)
Tinnitus is a debilitating condition creating ringing, buzzing or hissing sounds in the ear. There is no cure and it can affect people’s mental health as well as their hearing. The charity Tinnitus UK wanted to create better awareness of the condition, generate funding for more research and set up a biobank resource. So they approached Yorkshire-based virtual consultancy Evergreen PR for help. The main aim was to attract 1000 people with tinnitus to share their hearing and health data for the biobank project. Evergreen’s CEO Leigh Greenwood knew they needed a powerful message that cut through the “noise”. Their Sound of Silence campaigninvolved producing content that explained what a tinnitus biobank was and what it would achieve, with an easy user journey so that people could take the desired action. The agency created an animation on the website, and used case studies and spokespeople to get the message across. This created impressive media coverage with 170 articles and broadcast slots including BBC Breakfast TV. The target was to get 1000 people to sign up to the biobank within three months. They actually achieved that target by 3pm on the first day of the campaign and, by the end of the week, had achieved 3,500 sign ups. 
What were the success factors? “Being clear about our desired outcomes and defining our goals clearly. Then finding the most effective route to achieving them, using our own prioritising methods and behaviour change principles.“ (Leigh Greenwood)

Five takeaways

Decide on what you want to achieve, but be realistic
Be really clear on what you can achieve, says event chair Emma Leech, Global Communi-cations Director at Heriot-Watt University. If your ambitions are completely unrealistic in terms of the resources that you've got, then you have to be pragmatic. If the purpose of the campaign has been thought through, evaluating it is so much easier because you know exactly what you want to achieve. Leigh Greenwood says the key is prioritisation. If you really understand what you're trying to achieve, who the audiences are and what they care about, you can quickly work out the two or three things that are most important to delivering the impact and focus on those.
Leave worries about budgets behind and think creatively
Having small budgets changes your mindset and means you have to be more creative, which is no bad thing. Panellist Ben Veal, Founder of Second Mountain Comms, says that some of the best ideas come from getting people with different ways of thinking together and kicking ideas around. That can sometimes be done by existing teams, but Ben often brings together like-minded people from different industries within his co-working space for the best creative ideas. Leigh Greenwood suggests asking people to research a particular audience or topic and then bring it to a meeting. Gathering together all the key insights and research that you've got can sometimes spark ideas. Above all, make sure you come up with compelling stories that have an emotional resonance.
Find influencers and celebrities who can support you
Celebrity endorsement can make a huge difference to a campaign at no cost. Catherine Frankpitt invited biologist and TV presenter Dr. Alice Roberts and author-explorer Levison Wood to promote the Pahar Trust Nepal charity through their social media channels and networks. This proved an invaluable way of reaching new audiences and giving the campaign credibility. Catherine’s advice is do your research, find celebrities who might be interested and then craft a powerful pitch to them. You need to create content that they can easily share so they don’t have to do much. Christine Richardson also secured endorsements from celebrities for the Gift of Words campaign. Her advice is to make sure that your campaign theme is relevant. So when approaching people in the political space, for instance, they needed to talk about a pressing challenge such as autism that would resonate with them.
Ben Veal, who hosts the ‘Good Journeys with Second Mountain’ podcast, says it’s all research and understanding people’s passion points, then tailoring your pitch and invitation accordingly. His podcast has featured experts across a wide ranging field of areas including neurodiversity, mental health or social mobility, all by taking this approach.
Use digital communications and social media and other low cost channels
Social media offer endless ways of getting to audiences for free. But you need to choose the right platform and be aware of their transience. The charity sector has undergone dramatic changes in the last few years through digital transformations which make it easier to run large campaigns that reach specific audience sectors. But many are still struggling with the basics, which is something that Ben Veal has encountered time and again in his third sector discussions. Then there will always be people who are digitally excluded with no access to the internet or mobile phones, so campaigns need to build in ways of reaching them at low cost using snail mail and print. For people like these local newsletters and newspapers that can be posted through letterboxes can work well.
Build in evaluation measures from the start
You need to set up your evaluation metrics at the start of any campaign. Panel members agreed that this tends to slip down the list of priorities for some people. But to win CIPR awards, being able to prove the effectiveness of your campaign is so important and it doesn’t have to cost anything as long as the baselines are set up from the start. The campaigns that really stand out are the ones that have the sharpest objectives up front, says Emma Leech. So for the Strike PR campaign it was achieving a fundraising target. For Evergreen PR it was getting sign ups to the tinnitus biobank. For the Gift of Words campaign it was media coverage and raising awareness. Having these clear objectives with metrics in place demonstrate the effectiveness of campaigns and are more likely to get you shortlisted for awards.
Anne Nicholls is a Chartered CIPR Practitioner and member of the Education & Skills and Not-for-Profit Sector Groups.