Following on from the previous blog in this series where I shared various insights on how to get the basics of an innovation challenge right, this blog post is about how we communicated the initiative to our target audience and what sort of feedback we received during the process. Specifically, I will provide details on the communications principles we held and the methods and tools we used.
So, why dedicate a blog post to ‘how to communicate an innovation challenge’? There are at least two good reasons for doing so. First, as someone who has no formal background in the field of communications, I find it extremely valuable to read about others’ experiences and insights when it comes to communicating with a large, and more importantly, diverse audience. There is so much to learn from others who have successfully overcome the various challenges involved in managing the exchange of complex information on a subject (e.g. innovation) that is still foreign to a lot of people. Second, there is little specific guidance out there on how to get the communications aspect of a social innovation challenge right the first time round. Here, I emphasize the word ‘social’ simply because it adds an extra layer of complexity to an already complex technical challenge, which necessitates further careful thought and planning. My intention with this blog post is to help those who might be interested in organizing an innovation challenge (for a diverse audience) and need to formulate a communications strategy; I hope they find it useful. It is also an opportunity for me to reflect on the experience and learn.
I will discuss the principles first, followed by the methods and tools we deployed. The poster below is a useful summary, and rather than give you a simple list of ‘do’s and don'ts’, I have decided to include a rationale after each recommendation.
In any challenge, organizers usually focus on their own priorities and the logistics; challenges are a big undertaking, so such an approach is perfectly reasonable. However, over the years I have learned how important it is to get the principles right before progressing with the rest. Doing so not only saves you time down the line but also makes the entire programme coherent and robust, which increases the likelihood of overall success.
In our case, we did our best to design the communications aspects of the initiative in a way that put people first; this is evident in all the materials (e.g. the website, the call document, social media posts, etc.) and various exchanges we had during the call process (e.g. webinars, emails, etc.). People who are relatively new to the social innovation space might find it intimidating to take part in challenges—being uncomfortable with the unfamiliar is part of the human condition after all, so it is good practice to make information accessible.
Some of the principles listed on the above poster may sound basic, but they are often overlooked during programme design which can create frustration for both participants and the organizing team. So, by following the above principles and actions, did we manage to prevent ALL potential problems? Of course not. For instance, we cannot claim to have reached absolutely everyone in the country or produced a masterpiece of a website. However, by using clear language, highlighting key information such as deadlines, and generally prioritizing the audience’s needs at all times, we certainly reduced the likelihood of confusion among challenge participants and subsequently the number of questions we received from them. During a busy and stressful period that is invaluable!
In terms of the methods, we pretty much followed sectoral norms and created a dedicated website and a detailed challenge guide (both in Turkish) for prospective participants. Rather than opt for a fancy website design which would have taken us a few weeks to arrange and also come at a cost, we went down the frugal route and used a free service (with built-in templates) which turned out to be perfectly sufficient for our needs. And we could do it ourselves in record time! We kept both designs simple and relied on tried-and-tested guidelines most of which are already in the public domain. Once the written and visual information were ready, we tested everything several times and with different people before they went live.
The information on the website and in the challenge guide were further supported by the information shared verbally during the webinars we organized while the call was still open. This was deemed necessary to help some applicants who perhaps needed extra support to absorb the key information presented in written format. The webinars also gave us an opportunity to interact with prospective applicants and enabled them to listen to each other’s ideas and questions which, to our surprise, acted as a small-scale community building exercise. Overall, we received lots of positive feedback upon delivering those sessions–and that gave us confidence that we were on the right path–so I would absolutely recommend adding them to the mix when communicating an open call to a diverse audience with different needs and communication styles.
The aforementioned principles and methods could only be effective if we also chose the right tools to implement them with. For the challenge, we decided not to advertise a phone number or an email address for contact. Instead, we encouraged people to carefully read the challenge guide and follow all the available information and updates on the website, especially the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page which we kept adding to every time we received a question that was not already covered. Some people consider it an outdated and unattractive form of communication, but I cannot emphasize the importance of a well-thought-out FAQ section; it literally saved us from receiving dozens, if not hundreds, of individual inquiries. I believe it was a real timesaver for the applicants as well. Frequently Asked Questions are also known to prevent or minimize negative evaluations, so one should not underestimate their importance.
We held two identical webinars on different dates and later shared one of the recordings on UNDP Turkey’s Youtube channel for those who could not attend either session. From the number of views, we can see how important it was to make a recording available. We also used our and our programme partners’ social media channels (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, etc.) to spread the message as widely as possible. Google Analytics was another tool we used to gauge incoming traffic to the website; every time we communicated something on social media, we could monitor its effects on engagement.
Finally, we relied on a commercial e-form builder for all the application forms that participants needed to complete throughout the process. We could have used a free tool but most of our forms had conditional logic in them and free tools could not provide the level of sophistication, robustness and security that we needed. To ease the application process, we made editable copies of the forms available on the website so that people could work on drafts (saved on their devices) in their own time before they were ready to submit their application online—a small detail perhaps, but this simple act was much appreciated by many especially those who worked in geographically dispersed teams and/or could not complete the application form in one sitting.
All in all, I think we handled the communications aspect of the challenge pretty well. I want to reiterate an important point: translating your vision and intent into something that is easily understandable by everyone is not an easy task, but these days we have so many tried-and-tested methods and tools as well as good practices available to us that not utilizing them would be a missed opportunity. Careful planning and effective execution are also key, and for that the whole team needs to be on the same page.
Here, I would like to give credit to a few people who helped me realize my vision in this programme. Sinem and Berivan from IstasyonTEDU (one of our two implementing partners) were incredibly helpful in getting the language right, among other things. Considering most innovation terms do not yet have established terms and/or meanings in Turkish, they did a fantastic job! I also would like to thank Merve Peker (our then-intern, now Communications Assistant) for her patience and dedication to this project. She was a tremendous support to me and the rest of the team. I have also benefited from some of her insights as I wrote this piece.
In the next blog in this series (Part III), I will be sharing details on how we prepared the challenge materials–mainly the guide but also the various application forms–and other key decisions we made which ultimately shaped the pool of ideas we received and the types of people we attracted. Watch this space!
 I particularly like the UK Government’s design principles and guidelines, check them out if you wish to learn more: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/government-design-principles