Any good dissemination starts with good communication. Having received funding for a research and innovation project is a big deal, and we want to make sure that what we do in our project is heard by the right people.
Our journey, however, starts a lot sooner.
The moment we see an open call that suits our scope, our brains immediately start building connections, partnerships, listing actions and milestones, and we frantically fill sheets, documents, and napkins - you don’t know when inspiration may strike! - with notes and poorly drawn icons and arrows.
Objectives and results start taking shape, the fog is parting away, and the road to more structured and refined concepts is clearer and clearer. This is it. We see where we are going, and we know what we aim to achieve. Now it is the time to think of communication, dissemination and exploitation. Imagine there is a path right next to that main project road. A path that starts together with that road but doesn’t end when the project road ends. This is the path I want you to walk with me through this blogpost.
Strategy: pause, take a step back and think.
How can you identify the right measures to maximise the impact of your project?
Within the Impact section of your proposal template, you will find 2.2 Measures to Maximise Impact – Dissemination, Exploitation and Communication[i]. As stated in the template, you need to provide a ‘plan for the dissemination and exploitation including communication activities´ which, if possible, should not be longer than five pages, including Section 2.3 Summary, a section that is completely new to this research and innovation funding programme.
Bear in mind the space you should dedicate to this specific part is a lot less than what we had in the previous programme, Horizon 2020. Nonetheless, the evaluators need to be able to see your strategy and how you plan to support the project implementation while keeping in mind the long-term outcomes. There is no need for you to be incredibly specific at this stage, but you need to cover the following points: the target groups, the communication measures you will use to promote the project throughout the full lifespan and mention why these are the most suitable, list clear objectives, include main messages, and finally the tools and channels you will use to reach the target groups. And, very important, include a follow-up plan with measures that can be implemented even after the end of the project.
But let’s go one by one.
Step 1: Communication and Dissemination Objectives
Decide what you want to achieve.
Without a lack of clarity in terms of objectives, we cannot think of the communication, dissemination activities – let alone exploitation. Once you know what impact your projects intends to make, outline the D&C objectives. These may be linked to building awareness, providing information about a specific topic, creating a need in the target groups. But you can also aim to influence the attitude of decision makers, receive feedback [ii]or engage in a dialogue that can lead to results your audience needs and wants
Step 2: The target audiences
Analyse who should be aware of the project outcomes.
Map your audience out. Draw a stakeholder map and do this together with your consortium, you want partners to be involved in this exercise to be able to list very specific target groups in terms of fields, and geographical areas. Go deep since clarifying who your project results are for, is something evaluators will be able to identify and assess. Start with asking yourself who might be interested in your research, who could contribute to your work and final results, who could be affected by the outcomes of your research, and who – individuals, organisations, CSOs, NGOs, etc. – can help you reach the right people. You need to think big and go beyond local borders. Go regional, national, pan-European.
The quadruple helix
Including the right groups and being specific about them can be extremely tricky. You need to consider stakeholders from academia, policy, industry, and society: these four groups represent the core components of an innovation system, and you need to target them in your proposal – their dynamic interaction is a paradigm for achieving impactful research results.
But let’s go a step further. Not only should these groups be informed about the project outcomes, but also be involved in the development of these results. This interaction will guarantee a successful match between expectations and results.
Regarding citizens specifically, the Horizon Europe work programme digs deeper into the targeting and involvement of society at the proposal stage. You need to embed the principles of citizen engagement and citizen science across your proposal, and think strategically in terms of co-design, co-creation and co-assessment activities. This whole process leads to the opening up of R&I processes to society to develop better, more innovative and more relevant outcomes, and to increase societal trust in the processes and outcomes of R&I. [iii]
Step 3: The tools – Tools and Channels
All roads lead to Rome. Or not?
Once the specific audiences have been defined, you can now consider the tools and channels you may need to reach them. You may want to consider anything from social media channels to brochures and leaflets, to scientific articles to running a panel talk at an event. However, since in this day and age even the most reliable information can risk falling in the pit of noise and clutter, be aware of the time it takes to deliver effective, attractive and digestible messages tailored for each of the tools you list.
Effective social media management is more than tweeting once a week. It requires building connections, lists, creating visuals that call the viewer’s eye and writing compelling messages that can trigger action from the reader. The time involved for the implementation of the D&C actions, needs to be taken into account also at the proposal stage and should be linked to budget allocations and tasks distribution.
Nonetheless, do some research, check out previous projects in similar fields to yours, which channels did they use? Did they work? Look at similar ‘competitors’, do some market research as it may lead to new ideas and approaches.
Step 4: KPIs and targets
We need numbers to track the progress.
Here we often get confused. We like to say KPIs when what we really refer to are targets. KPIs (i.e. Key Performance Indicators) are the metric we choose to track certain objectives. The targets, on the other hand, are the numbers we use that tell us if we’re reaching our objectives or not. Without them we would be lost. We would be walking our imaginary path without knowing if we’re lost or not. More often than not, people do not really know which numbers to use as targets. And, what usually happens is that the chosen metric does not match the target, or the numbers chosen are unrealistic, or the metric is simply not a proof of your project’s success.
Select numbers that have a voice and speak to the evaluator. Unique clicks on a website on their own, don’t mean much. But if you match them with the time the user stays on a specific webpage then it will be proof that the website visitor has read the information on that webpage and not ended up there by accident.
For instance, if one of your goals is to raise awareness, you may want to choose the following KPIs:
- Track number of followers, reach (i.e. how many people saw your post), mentions or shares on social media or
- attend events where the project results are being promoted, and use attendance sheets or questionnaires to track how many attendees heard your project results and provide proof
Step 5: Timeline
From communication to dissemination and exploitation
Be mindful of when during project implementation these actions should take place, and what they mean. Communication runs through the lifespan of the project, dissemination appears when the first results come and it will pave the way towards exploitation and the uptake of the project results. Each phase will target different audiences and different activities.
Step 6: Monitoring
How effective is your plan?
Mention you will implement some continuous monitoring. Every so often you need to check to see if you’re reaching your targets, and if not, why. Analyse and see what the issues may be and change and update the D&C plan if needed. The European Commission knows the D&C plan is a living document that will require modifications from your side as time passes, it’s natural. Trends change, new players and connections you make during the project lifespan may open possibilities for more effective communication measures thus increasing the possibilities to reaching exploitation.
And more than anything, listen to your audience. We often forget that is the best way to make sure we deliver something valuable for them.
As you can see, a lot of thought can go into section 2.2. Measures to Maximise Impact. Let’s not forget that the final goal is to make Europe a better, greener and more resilient society. And we can only do this by taking into account the users’ needs and wishes.