The secret of successful marketing on a tight budget (and it’s not more tweeting)

At the end of most projects I ask the question ‘how could we have marketed it better?’ This was a major reason behind studying for an MSc. in Strategic Marketing – I wanted to find answers. Working as a consultant in the arts and third sector, reaching more people is a constant quest.

The answers I get from the team always revolve around the same things:
‘more social media’, ‘more posters’, ‘leaflets through the door’, ‘put adverts on buses’, ‘advertise through Facebook.’

As the years go by, I’m less convinced.

Every audience survey will tell you the most likely reason for someone attending your event is ‘word of mouth.’ But the important question is: how did the mouthy person find out about it in the first place?

So here’s the secret of marketing on a limited budget:

Marketing & consulting with young people


Connectors are those amazing people who love their networks. Malcolm Gladwell describes them in his brilliant book The Tipping Point (2000) as ‘people with a special gift for bringing the world together.’

Gladwell tells the story of the fascinating experiment by the controversial social scientist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Milgram gave packages to 160 people on the west coast of the USA, asking them to get the package to a particular stockbroker in Boston. They had to do it by sending the package to someone they knew who would be likely to get it closer to the stockbroker. Progress was recorded and Milgram found that the packages got across the country in about six steps, reinforcing the growing concept of Six Degrees of Separation.

But here’s the point: Milgram found that the packages gathered in the hands of a few people. Indeed, half the packages came through just three people as they reached the stockbroker. Gladwell calls these three people Connectors.

What’s my evidence that this works?

I’ve just run two youth consultation events for the Arts Council of Wales. We wanted to know young peoples’ views about the future of the arts in Wales. I had about two weeks to get the message out there and zero marketing budget. I would have been delighted if a dozen turned up at each event. We had 29 in Cardiff and 42 in Bangor.

My zero-cost actions were:

  • Facebook events
  • Facebook postings on the RawFfest page
  • Emails sent directly to about 150 people in the youth and youth arts sector –  individual emails, mind you, not bulk.
  • Emails to three organisations who run e-zines.

But I focussed  on the young people I knew would be interested and tell other people. I emailed, texted, phoned and Facebook messaged the ones I know are connectors.

Can we do away with the posters, flyers and endless social media? Probably not. As John Wanamaker famously said more than a hundred years ago: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Even though I’m pretty sure at least half the adverts, flyers and social media postings are a waste of time, I don’t know which ones are useless.

More importantly, these ‘mainstream’ methods may help my Connectors – and Connectors deserve all the support we can give them.

I think tweeting is unlikely to get anyone through your door. But if we value our Connectors enough, if we make sure they know they are appreciated, then they are going to carry on telling their friends and getting people to engage.

What are the creative industries of the future?

A report published in June 2015 by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills calls for schools to focus on giving young people a combination of technical and creative skills (here)

Photo: Johan Larsson

Photo: Johan Larsson, creative industries

This brought to mind an unexpected conversation I had a couple of months ago.

I needed to find out the stats behind a website and app for a project I was evaluating. I phoned the man who had designed them and he explained the difference between number of visits and unique visitors; that having 94% of app downloads on iOS reflects the dominance of Apple in the smartphone market etc.

At the end of the conversation he said, “by the way Ruth, you might not remember me, but I was in the youth theatre you ran in Cynon Valley.” This was an OMG moment. The youth theatre was 20 years ago, so we had a lovely 5 minutes reminiscing.

I wonder what careers advice he would have got in the early 1990s. Heavy industry had gone from Cynon with the exception of the valiant worker-owned Tower Colliery. Things looked bleak for young men in the Valleys. What I can be absolutely sure about is that no one said “go to university and get yourself into the Creative Industries.” Do you remember the world when websites didn’t exist? When sending an email took ages and was presaged by that buzzing of  the dial up? When mobile phones were bricks that yuppies used?

This young person continued down a creative path, which he combined with an interest in technology and by the early 2000s he had his own company making websites – and more recently apps.

Yes, lets encourage a combination of technical and creative skills in our schools. But what’s more interesting for me is the impossibility of predicting areas of growth in the future. In 20 years time it will be 2035. I’m hoping there’ll be new, green, sustainable, equitable industries that we can’t even imagine yet. Just as 20 years ago we couldn’t imagine that a young lad in the Cynon Valley would be making a living designing apps.

What do we do with our heritage – when there’s someone living in it?

Tramping through the snow in Bute Town and knocking on doors has got me wondering about how we maintain our heritage and what happens to the people most affected by it.

I am delighted to be working as an Associate of Ceridwen with Caerphilly County Borough Council in Bute Town. I’m the Evaluation Consultant for a large bid to Heritage Lottery Fund. Bute Town is a fascinating village at the top of the Rhymney Valley. It is a unique piece of Welsh heritage; a model village built in the 1820s and still lived in today. The client needs to know the local residents’ views on the current condition and management of its heritage.

The three terraces of Bute Town were designated Grade II listed buildings in the 1970s. Quite right. They are amazing, unique; unlike anything you’ll see in the industrial heritage of working-class housing in Wales. They are all still occupied: living heritage. “Auntie lives in the next terrace. Gran is two doors up.” And there’s the rub.

As listed buildings there are regulations about what can and can’t be done to them: what sort of doors, windows, roofs. Ah, the roofs.

The roofs were renovated in early 1970s and it seems a pretty poor job was done. The previous local authority decided to use a concrete composite which had the appearance of stone, but – sadly – only a 30 year lifetime. 40 years on, there are buckets in attics, rain running down inside walls.

Some residents would be willing to re-roof their properties, but are told they can’t because it would need to be in keeping with the rest of the terrace. Other residents simply can’t afford to re-roof their home. Bute Town is in Twyn Carno ward: the 7th poorest ward in Wales – one of the poorest spots in the UK.

So what do we do with heritage that people are still living in; indeed whose families have been living in for generations? They can’t patch up the roofs because that wouldn’t meet Grade II regs. They can’t afford to do the proper restoration; we’re not talking about wealthy people here.

My fingers are crossed that Heritage Lottery Fund will ride to their rescue. But even if HLF do make an award (bless them), the local authority will still have to find a large amount of match funding from somewhere.

Or we could let local residents do patch-up jobs and ruin the heritage – not something the locals want. “We’re trustees of these houses,” one resident told me. “I want them to be here in 300 years time.”

Something’s gotta give.  At the moment, we are condemning people to live in damp, cold houses, changing the buckets in the attic.

Visual art – what do older people really want?

Ceri selects her favourite paintings

Ceri selects her favourite paintings

Scanning the internet, it seems to be a question that no one has got round to asking. Most residential care homes have pictures on the wall – do we know if the elderly residents like them? Would they like something different? And does it matter? Maybe each person’s taste in art is so individual that there is no point asking?

It matters because looking at things we consider beautiful stimulates the pleasure and reward part of the brain. Dopamine is released – the ‘feel good’ transmitter. Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroesthetics at University College London has conducted research using brain-imaging techniques. “Essentially the feel good centres are being stimulated,” he says. “When experiencing beauty, the activity in the brain goes up significantly.”

I have just completed research on behalf of Paintings in Hospitals who – sensibly – wanted to know if there are any broad preferences from older people, before they start putting up paintings in 3 residential care homes in South Wales. Basically: if buying visual art for this setting, could there be a brief to guide the purchasing?

So I’ve been showing reproductions of lots of paintings to lots of elderly people and finding out what they liked. Of course, it was always possible that the results would be widely varied. But the interesting thing is that THERE WAS HUGE CONSISTENCY in the paintings they liked most and liked least.

Here are my eight top tips for paintings that will increase wellbeing, based on my research:

1. Go for representational art. Older people want to recognise what they are looking at and don’t like having to ask “what is it?”

2. Look for paintings that are calming and peaceful – this was repeatedly given as a reason for liking a painting.

3. The strongest responses were to pictures of places: mountains, sea, clouds, the setting sun. People also like places they remember from holidays or earlier in their lives.  A picture of a mining village was more popular in the Valleys than in a coastal town.

4. Bright images are important to elderly people. Even a calm picture of a landscape would be rejected if the colours were dull or dark.

5. Think about the subject of the painting. Elderly people enjoy reminiscing. Nature pictures reminded them of walks in the countryside, seascapes of holidays by the beach, flowers brought back memories of placing flowers on the graves of loved ones. Many elderly people are no longer living in their own homes and have limited contact with families and friends – they like pictures of families to remind themselves of good times.

6. I’m sorry folks, but there was a strong dislike for abstract art. Elderly people were puzzled by a range of abstract paintings presented, and they didn’t like ‘not knowing’ what the painting was. They would very quickly become bored looking at the image.

7. Likewise, steer clear of stylised paintings – things in a Naive or Fauvist style. Elderly people generally rejected paintings that they thought had been done by or for children (other than the prized daubings of their own grandchildren, of course!). Think twice before hanging up that Lowry print.

8. Remember, nearly all elderly people will have failing eyesight. They need clear, bold paintings.

Red Square 1915 (evidence of time travel?)

Red Square 1915 (evidence of time travel?)

As a careful researcher, I tried to prevent my own tastes from affecting the process! If I ever get to the ripe old age of my research subjects, I’m hoping for a print of Malevich’s “Red Square” because it will remind me of my honeymoon. But that’s another story.

12 recommendations for a new youth arts festival

This group of brilliant young people has completed their research into what a youth arts festival for Wales could look like.

The group propose a festival that is by young people for young people. The festival will be fun, innovative and surprising. It will be about performing and exhibiting work, opportunities to get to know each other and learn from each other. The festival will be bilingual and be fully inclusive of people with disabilities. It will be an immersive experience over a series of days when a large group stay together, with additional audiences coming for single days.

We’ve made 12 specific recommendations to the Arts Council of Wales backed up by a lengthy report, giving our reasoning.

  1. A festival which moves to urban environments throughout Wales, anchored at an arts venue with satellite locations in the town/city
  2. The target audience is young people aged 12 – 25 years. Families and supporters will also be targeted to buy day tickets
  3. The inaugural festival to take place in 2016 to allow sufficient time to prepare for an ambitious programme
  4. The inaugural festival to take place in Newport and the following year in Bangor
  5. The 2016 festival to be anchored at The Riverfront plus spaces throughout the city
  6. The first festival will last 3 days: evening Thursday 18th to afternoon Sunday 21st August 2016. The number of days can build in future years
  7. In order to have an in-depth immersive experience, all participants should be accommodated close-by. The preferred option is to use university accommodation
  8. Partnerships will be crucial to the success of the festival, in particular working closely with youth arts leaders across Wales
  9. In order to generate interest for the first festival there should be a lead-up campaign from early 2015 which makes creative use of digital media
  10. Young people will be in the driving seat throughout the organisation of the festival. This will include forming a steering group, curating the festival, working as apprentices, and being trained as volunteers on all aspects of the festival
  11. Sponsorship or funding will be sought to cover the cost of accommodation and food, and / or a bursary scheme. There will be a charge for day tickets. The festival will be free of charge for volunteers and as low a price as possible for participants
  12. The festival will have paid staff to set up and run the event

We are delighted that Arts Council Wales has published the full report and its response here:  and that they would like Ceridwen to do further work on the journey towards a youth arts festival.

These are the guys planning a new youth festival…

YAF Working GroupDuring the Easter break, this fantastic group of young people joined Sarah Greenhalgh, Sarah Vining and me to start work on making a youth arts festival a reality for Wales.  The project has been commissioned by Arts Council of Wales and we are working as Associates of Ceridwen. By the end of August 2014 we will produce a report which details the practical and organisational implications.

This work is being led by young people  – after all, they’re the experts on what they want. We are delighted to have a team which includes people from all parts of Wales and represents a wide range of artforms and approaches.

Can’t wait to start taking them to other festivals in Wales, UK and beyond so they can really  clarify what could work in Wales.

Please leave a comment if you have any suggestions about what the Festival should include.

It will never rain roses

DSCF0006B“It will never rain roses. When we want to have more roses, we must plant more roses.”
Thus wrote the wonderful George Eliot.

I’ve experienced some wonderfully positive meetings over the past week. It makes such a difference to making things happen. Like the Town Centre Manager in Merthyr Tydfil; I am setting up a photography project with Looked After Children and we want to have somewhere public to show their work. Such as an empty shop. I expected to have to persuade and cajole. But there was an immediate response: “Yes, I think we can do that.”

And then there was the final music session for service users with dementia, at Minerva Street Day Centre in Bridgend. The unit is led by the wonderfully enthusiastic Paula. “It’s been amazing,” she said of the six sessions run by Live Music Now’s Triptych. One lady had not engaged at all at the beginning and on the final day she joined in and said with a smile, “we haven’t had anything like this for a long time.”

Feels like roses are being planted all over the Valleys. Despite the never-ending rain.

Not your usual Residential Home…

Christmas is definitely here. Just been to a wonderful Christmas carol concert in Porth, Rhondda, at Dan y Mynydd Residential Home for people with dementia. Felt privileged to be coordinating this project.

Please erase all preconceptions of homes for the elderly from your mind. This place is homely, fun and lively. Evidence of an unconventional approach can be seen in my photo of the table in the corner!

The concert followed several weeks of Karl Daymond setting up a choir with the residents and staff. It’s part of the ‘Being Creatively Active’ programme of work, run by ArtsConnect, the cultural service for Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taff and Vale of Glamorgan local authorities.

Increasing research shows the value of music projects for people with Alzheimers and other dementia conditions. One theory is that musical memories are connected to the amygdala, the part of the brain which has a primary role in processing memory and emotions. So we remember music and song when other functions have begun to fade.

Re-thinking the Miners’ Institute – a case-study

Llanhilleth Institute was built by miners in the Ebbw valley in 1906.  A century later it had fallen into dereliction so a complete renovation was undertaken, led by Communities First.

Following its successful relaunch, the Board decided to pause before recruiting new staff and to consider how to make the Institute into a viable, independent social enterprise with a role for its community in the twenty first century.

I was interim manager for six months. The first task was to review the Business Plan in the light of the new facilities. At the same time, I looked at the organisational structure and made proposals to the Board on new roles to make the Institute more effective. I also looked at existing contracts and made changes so that they were all consistent.

As the Institute was in effect a new organisation, there were few HR procedures in place.  I re-wrote the staff handbook in consultation with existing staff and brought in new policies.  The Institute had rapidly expanded and financial systems needed to become more robust.  I worked with the finance officer to put these systems in place and ensure clear financial control.

With the change from being a local authority building to an independent community resource, I supported the Board in improving their own capacity and made changes to the Memorandum and Articles of Association.  I completed the process of the Institute becoming a registered charity. This also entailed setting up robust child protection systems and criminal record bureau checks.

Crucial to the future of the Institute is increased income generation. I concluded negotiations with Flying Start to rent space for a high quality nursery. I also looked at how the events and cafe could bring in more income. I wrote a Marketing Plan from scratch and included appendices on how to write press releases etc. for future staff to use.

Finally, I led the recruitment process by drafting job descriptions, placing adverts, sifting applications, assessing applications with the Board, sitting on the interview panel, informing candidates of the outcome and contracting the successful new staff. I devised an induction plan for the team to follow once I had left.

I greatly enjoyed my time at the Institute.  The Board and staff were all dedicated to its success and open to new opportunities. The place is always buzzing with fun and activity.  Under the new core staff, the Institute has gone from strength to strength.