What makes impactful communications and dissemination?

Authors: Nicole McNeilly and Dennis ter Borg

As part of the Mingei project, we researched this important question by using a Teams-Based Inquiry (TBI) methodology. By looking at the available literature and collecting thoughts from our peers and partners on what works and what does not, we wanted to pull together recommendations on how we can create the most impact through communication and dissemination and, importantly, strengthen the final months of the Mingei project and its legacy.

In this post, we set out the problems we found, followed by some solutions with key tips on how and what to improve. Though we focus mostly on EU-funded culture, heritage and society-related projects, much (if not all) of what we learn can be taken on board by projects of any size and focus. In a second post, we share how you can best plan and measure the impact of your communication, dissemination and exploitation (CDE) activities – after all, this is a requirement for most European-funded projects!

Short explainer 
Communication – the promotion of your project outputs and awareness-raising activities. 
Dissemination – the sharing of your project results with potential users. 
Exploitation – where, how and by whom project results are used to create change. 

Eight problems with the current state of play

I worked in 20+ projects but I wasn’t impressed by any of them in terms of communication or dissemination. Survey respondent.

  1. Three or four year funding cycles are sometimes a risk for knowledge retention and knowledge sharing, limiting the project impact. 
  2. Funding and capacity are not (always) available after the end of the project to promote the project outputs and project partners see the activities as finished once the planned activities stop. 
  3. There is little reflection or evaluation of CDE, which means that improvements are not implemented and good practice is rarely shared.
  4. Communication and dissemination are sometimes considered to be add-ons to the project. Public communication and wider dissemination were noted as some of seven key challenges in the interim evaluation of Horizon 2020 (European Commission, 2017). 
  5. Responsibility for CDE might be left to the communications coordinator, who, being a communications professional, might have little insight into the research underway. 
  6. On the other hand, responsibility might be left to a researcher with little to no experience of identifying and communicating to target audiences and who is unlikely to have time or the opportunity to stay up-to-date with trends and good practice in CDE, or have a network upon which they can draw. 
  7. Projects often don’t identify target audiences at an early project stage. As a result, they don’t know how and when to create impact by sharing project updates and outputs with their audiences. How can you talk to your audience in the language that resonates with them if you don’t know who they are? 
  8. Project outputs are often not designed for their audience. They might use internal language (‘why would any audience care about this?’) and be ‘inward-looking’. Materials may be badly designed and too complex, the language might be too ‘clinical’ or ‘corporate’ and the text too long. The media chosen might not be suitable for the audience they are trying to reach. 

Solution 1. Know your target audience: talk to and with them

All project partners should get involved in communication and dissemination activities. Each of them should identify a list of contacts from the target group of the project that they could engage from the beginning of the project. Survey respondent

From the very start, you should be leading a project that addresses a ‘real need’. When this is the case, CDE is very simple. In some cases, it might be that the need is technical innovation which is harder to pinpoint to one specific stakeholder beyond the scientific or tech sector. 

In either case, you need to think far beyond a social media plan. A comprehensive and successful CDE strategy is much more than Twitter! 

Tips for planning and strategy (before or at the beginning of the project)

  • Ensure that you have wide project buy-in for your CDE strategy: get everyone involved right at the beginning to co-create the strategy and list of target stakeholders.
  • Clearly set out the responsibilities and expectations regarding CDE for all partners.
  • Ensure that your CDE strategy or plan is clear and easily understood.
  • Brainstorm and plan moments and ways in which you can reach your target audiences during the project. 
  • Invest in your branding and visual identity, including your project logo. 

Solution 2. Tell open, impactful, people-centred stories with substance 

Be down-to-earth when it comes to project description, precise with language and format, and include palpable results, not just perceived benefit to the final, end-customers. Survey respondent

Storytelling and narrative-building is key to communicating and disseminating your project outputs. This helps make what you share memorable. How you frame these stories is also important. We need to show ‘the human side of a project, organisation, brand’. Outputs should be open and reflective (sharing, for example, ‘learnings and little failures’). Don’t go ‘grandiose’ – keep your language simple and humble. 

Try to connect emotionally with your audience. You can start with telling the stories of those involved in the project and those benefiting from your work, for example. When talking about impact, ensure that you are really talking about impact. Share the data but also draw on testimonials and real-life experiences. What matters is that you share content with ‘substance’. We learned from our survey that there have been cases where projects got the visuals right but lacked the depth of content behind them. 

Tips for engaging with your stakeholders during the project

  • Don’t expect good relationships with your audiences at the end of the project if they are not nurtured throughout. You need to plan regular communication throughout the project lifespan. 
  • Take your project to your audiences. 
    • Plan demonstrations of your work and design these for the specific audiences. Think about how these could be delivered by ‘users who had their problems solved thanks to these results’. 
    • Plan get-togethers, online or onsite, where you can demonstrate and discuss project outputs. 
    • Consider how to safely bring people together in a room, where possible.
  • Don’t only project your content to your audiences: get their perspectives and make it meaningful and a genuine conversation.
  • Collect and share other relevant content, not just that related to your project. 
  • Consider how you can avoid the ‘deliverables format and publish in documents that people like to read and share’.
  • Encourage partners to act as ‘ambassadors’ and ensure that they remain active in communications through the project. 
  • Invest in paid social media opportunities. 
  • Connect with local stakeholders at a local level. 

Solution 3. Plan long-term project legacy in a practical way

There is a virtual graveyard of thousands of these websites of finished projects, not used because no one is taking care of them as project periods have ended. Survey respondent. 

All partners should be involved in discussions and planning for your project impact at the start of your project. You should already know for whom and how you’ll create impact but now you need to focus on practical ways to create impact as your project is finishing and then after the project finishes. The recommendations below cover these four stages. 

Create momentum at the close of a project

  • Think personal. Send personal emails to those for whom the project is likely to have a big impact, e.g. specific contacts in cultural communities or policy-makers. They’re also more likely to take notice if the content is ‘transferable’.  
  • Share your results in ways that make them scalable or adaptable. Publish your outputs using open licences (e.g. Creative Commons) so that they can be exploited and used by others. Being open alone isn’t enough – you must also think about how others will find the content (Campos and Codina, 2021). 
  • Revamp your project website as the project archive. Bring the most important content to the fore and make it easy for the main outputs and ‘success stories’ to be found. 
  • Think about your audience when designing your outputs, e.g. keep it short and concise for policy-makers. 
  • Actively promote the project outputs via partner dissemination channels and not just through the project website and social media. 
  • Consider if you’ll need an external mediator between you and policy makers – they could help ‘interpret’ your results and then make sure they are ‘appealing to the recipient’ (Rodari et al, 2012). 
  • Consider how you can connect or include your final event (if one is planned) to an existing conference, where you might reach an even bigger audience and save time and money in terms of event planning. 
  • Peer and sector dissemination channels can act as multipliers: harness your relationships and share your project outputs with them. 

If it is difficult to have partners commit to communication and dissemination during the project lifecycle, it is even more difficult after. Survey respondent. 

Create legacy and impact after the project finishes

  • Actively target policy-makers on a longer-term basis if your recommendations include policy-change. Don’t just expect change to happen without some effort on your side.
  • Make your outputs available on open repositories (e.g. Zenodo) and in particular, in those related to your field, if these exist. 
  • Keep the website and social media alive. Consider sharing responsibility for managing these between partners in short chunks of time (e.g. three or six months). 
  • Openly share your future project ideas or recommendations so that others can take these forward, even if you won’t be involved. 
  • Consider drawing the good practice from related projects into one resource or add your results or resources into another project. One example of this is the Waag Co-Creation Navigator, which draws together content from multiple projects.

Communication, dissemination and exploitation channels and methods

Go beyond the standard ‘European project’ and be creative in the communication and dissemination methods and channels at your disposal. You’ll have to invest in this and plan right from the beginning of the project. Based on the inputs to our survey and supplemented by our own experience and rapid review of online resources (see the bibliography), you have many options. Thanks to everyone who shared their ideas of channels and methods to increase your impact!

Static places to share knowledge
Knowledge banks (e.g. confluence) 
Open access and/or data repositories (field related or general)
Project website
Publication of scientific articles

Knowledge-sharing at events or campaigns
Online or in-person conferences
Get-togethers, workshops, roundtables, webinars, seminars, networking, other types of events
Twitter or other time-limited communication campaigns
Crowdsourcing or crowdfunding initiatives

Ways to share complex information to wide audiences
Toolkits, manuals, ‘how-to’
Print materials (brochure, poster)
Online documents (e.g. print materials in PDF or specially-designed online materials)
Press releases
Fact sheets
Creating teacher and other education materials 
Creative methods to engage children, e.g. stickers
Short engaging videos (helpful for citizen-focussed engagement)
Professional videos
Images and image-based communication

Channels to share project outputs
Personal dissemination through your network
Personal emails to key stakeholders
Media coverage
Social media
Connect with influencers (paid)