Monday 3 October 2011

The importance of creative constraints

A couple of weeks ago we were faced with an interesting challenge, what one might call a 'creative constraint'. We discovered that we did not have enough publicity booklets for prospective Post 16 students. The booklet would cost several thousand pounds to both redesign and print. It would also cause the deaths of hundreds of innocent trees. We have a much reduced budget for publicity and marketing this year, a situation faced by many schools across the country. We also had a looming deadline by which we needed to have a new set of marketing materials ready. The final challenge was perhaps the most significant. We need to recruit approximately 200 new members to our Post 16 Centre over the next couple of years in order to make the books balance in our new BSF school Opening on 1st November).

We met to discuss these constraints:
  • a tight deadline
  • a small budget
  • a recruitment challenge
  • ecological issues
After some time batting ideas around I made the suggestion that we ought to rethink our whole strategy. Why did we need an expensive printed booklet? How many people actually read it (all of it anyway)? Given that most of our Year 11 students transfer to our Post 16 Centre, where were these extra 200 bodies going to come from? How could we create what we needed on a tight budget and in time?

The solution I suggested was taking almost the entire marketing strategy online with a new mobile friendly website, lots of social networking integration (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr) and harnessing the talents and energies of our fantastic students, parents and friends to help out. I suggested that the most successful marketing strategy, especially with students outside our school, is word of mouth. The majority of those who choose to study in our centre have friends at Tallis who tell great stories about their time here. How could we support this 'word of mouth' effect and build a community of learners communicating about the benefits of studying at Thomas Tallis School?

Given the budget and time constraints (and my limited knowledge of web design) we chose Weebly as our platform for the website. Weebly is a brilliant, free, online web design tool. It offers plenty of decent looking templates for the novice designer (we use it with our students to create ePortfolios) and the ability to tweak the design behind the scenes. Its drag and drop interface is pretty intuitive and published sites are automatically mobile device friendly. It has taken me a couple of weeks to create the site from scratch. I bought a custom domain, a good looking Tumblr template for the blog news feed and a Weebly Pro account. The total cost of the new site is just over £100.

We have already seen some interesting benefits with this new approach:
  • We have discussed the Post 16 marketing strategy with colleagues and got them actively involved in promoting their curriculum areas by using the blog and Facebook page
  • We have recruited a few parents and friends with experience of working in the fields of journalism, radio, PR and design to help support students in managing the new social media strategy
  • We have beaten the deadline and gained an audience for the site well beyond school via Twitter (@creativetallis) and the blog
  • We have the ability to constantly update the website with the latest news and information about the centre (this would have involved lots of writing letters to prospective students in previous years) thus saving hours of admin time
Time will tell whether this strategy achieves the ultimate goal of recruiting new students to our Post 16 Centre. We haven't abandoned the notion of printed material, but the savings we have made on the booklet, by creating a website, mean that we can now establish a creative partnership with an artist in residence to create a Post 16 fanzine with a group of students.

Would we have arrived at this strategy and its solutions without the original constraints being imposed upon us? I doubt it.

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