Leeds University Business School MBA students Hiromi Inoue and Nikhil Hedge with Academy of Northern Ballet Students Rebecca Stead and Rhys Thomas. Northern Ballet HQ, Leeds, 3/7 2014. Photo © Mark Pinder 07768 211174 mark@markpinderphotography.co.uk
First steps: MBA students Nikhil Hegde (front right) and Hiromi Inoue with Rhys Thomas (left) and Rebecca Stead, students from the Academy of Northern Ballet © FT

Northern Ballet is a brave dance company based in Leeds in the north of England. It is brave not only because, like many other arts organisations, it is having to tackle financial problems many of which have their origins in the recession. It also stands out for having had the confidence, earlier this year, to invite a group of six MBA students to consult on its digital marketing and communications strategy.

As it turned out, not one of the students from Leeds University Business School was from the UK and none had worked with an arts organisation before. “We all had come from corporate backgrounds so there was a period of learning for us about how an arts organisation in the UK operates,” says Nikhil Hegde, who is from India and was one of the group of MBA students.

He says he and his fellow group members had to pitch for the consultancy job in a business school competition, but Northern Ballet shared so much information with them and took their advice so seriously that it felt like real consultancy work.

The consultation

The initial brief the students were given was to increase ticket sales and revenue through digital marketing.

Laraine Penson, head of communications at Northern Ballet, says the fact that the students were all international was particularly attractive to the dance company because they knew the students would deliver a fresh perspective.

The consultation period started at the end of March and lasted two months. Northern Ballet gave the students access to statistics, Google analytics data about their website and sales data.

She says the students looked at how Northern Ballet uses its website and proposed an optimised tree structure which would help search engines find information there. They also looked at how Northern Ballet was using big data such as the information from cookies. For example, she says, the students noticed that people who spend time on Northern Ballet’s website also spend time on gardening websites so the students suggested targeted advertising on those sites.

The students looked at brand engagement and suggested putting adverts on YouTube videos. They had meetings and discussed how one of Northern Ballet’s most intractable problems derives from the fact that they spend so much time touring. Ms Penson says the company performs in more than 30 theatres from Scotland, to Wales and the south of England. This means that it is hard to maintain contact with audiences in these locations.

The MBA students came up with two ideas to counter this difficulty. They suggested setting up a loyalty scheme and creating a Northern Ballet app which would include daily fitness tips and a link through to ticket sales.

“The team’s best idea, I think, was the app,” says Ms Penson. “I don’t think we will have a Northern Ballet app by the end of this year, but by the end of next year – maybe.”

It helped that Mr Hegde is an IT entrepreneur who owns a company in India that makes apps. This meant he was able to get some simple app screens made up so that Northern Ballet could see what it might look like.

The students

Collectively, the students were able to offer a broad skill set including financial and consultancy experience – one had actually worked in digital marketing for over six years.

The students were all Asian in origin. Srinita Mitra, like Mr Hegde, is from India. Evita Wu is from China, Joey Kong is from Hong Kong, Hiromi Inoue is from Japan and Rintr Mamueng is from Thailand.

They were all on a one-year full time MBA course at Leeds which they finished this month [July].

The collaboration between the school and Northern Ballet

The alliance was the brainchild of Leah Bennett, executive careers consultant at Leeds. She said she had been attending a networking event when she heard the chief executive of Northern Ballet outlining the dance’s company’s business challenges and approached him to see if he would like MBA students to try to help.

She says the association seemed to be positive for all participants. The students, she says, are talking about starting a consultancy practice and Northern Ballet also reported a positive experience.

“I’m hoping for a long-term partnership with them,” Ms Bennett says.

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