Effective use of meaningful research may be the most challenging task you face. Yet it’s the factor most likely to drive your communications campaign.
That’s why many communication planning models begin with research. My go-to is the RPIE approach — research, planning, implementation and evaluation.
The best planning and brilliant creative ideas always have their foundation in solid research. Get that first step right — thoroughly knowing what your audience thinks, feels and believes — and your campaign has a better chance of delivering exceptional results.
Ways of Knowing
Research is all about what we know and how we know it. This is known as epistemology.
We may know things based on many years of experience, extensive education, informal conversations with our audience or that gut feeling called intuition.
These ways of knowing are a great place to start but must be verified. After all, what’s the cost if we’re wrong, even a little bit? Quantitative research, such as audience surveys, give us an effective way to challenge our strongly held beliefs about those we’re trying to engage.
Now that we understand how we know things, let’s discuss three attributes of successful research. That’s not to say there are only three — after all, success depends on a professional approach to the problem or question that prompted you to do audience research in the first place.
What is a professional research approach? Principles from the Market Research Core Body of KnowledgeTM (MRCBOK) outline a solid approach to understanding your audience — including those from which you don’t usually hear. You don’t have to be an expert in MRCBOK; however, awareness and understanding of these principles will serve you well.
Let’s assume you got those market research steps right — and now — sitting across from your consultant, you’re going through their final report. As you flip past the last page, it’s time to ask yourself three questions:
1. Did It Tell Me Something I Didn’t Know?
This is hard to achieve, but new information can be gold. Nearly every research project I’ve worked on in the last 30 years has been for clients who are experts in their business, whether health care, consumer goods or retirement plans. Surprising them with something completely new about those they serve is unusual.
Very often, we won’t uncover dramatically new information. Rather, we’ll discover a subtle but important nuance. Perhaps we’ll find the barrier that has stagnated progress, or a unique new ingredient to enhance effectiveness.
Consider this example of financial well-being research I worked on for a large retirement system. At a high level, we learned something that confirmed our intuition — participants aged 50 and up generally are more financially stable than those 20 years younger with children at home.
However, the research identified a significant exception — single parents aged 50 plus struggled to make ends meet while caring for children and grandchildren.
This information encouraged the plan to better tailor financial well-being communication with topics unique to that at-risk group of single parents age 50 plus.
The research helped the retirement plan consider the diversity of its audience by understanding a previously overlooked and underserved group.
2. Did It Confirm Something I Already Believed?
A complaint I’ve heard about audience research is that it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. In other words, it confirmed something you already suspected to be true.
Confirmation of facts is every bit as important as learning new ones. In my experience, market research contradicts — or at least modifies — closely held beliefs as often as half the time. If the consequences of being wrong are significant, it’s worth every penny to confirm something we suspect to be true.
If your doctor found a suspicious lump or mole, you would expect a thorough diagnosis. What is it? Are the cells benign or cancerous? You wouldn’t want your physician’s intuition to be the sole factor in creating a treatment plan.
Let’s view communication research as a biopsy of audience perceptions. It may confirm what you already suspected but will still help you make smarter decisions.
3. Did It Challenge Me?
New information is nice, but translating that data into actionable insights is difficult and essential.
Endless pages of data tables and pie charts may be nearly impossible to translate into communication campaign planning. That’s why countless reports summarizing interesting information sit forgotten on office shelves worldwide.
Research that gives you actionable insights doesn’t get a chance to gather dust. These reports have moved beyond basic data summaries to include relevant statistical analysis. They provide powerful insights at your fingertips, guiding decision-making today and tomorrow.
Insights Drive Action
At the end of the day, being certain your research is successful requires a two-part commitment. First, your research must provide you with actionable, statistically-driven insights — not just pie charts and customer quotes. Then, you must commit to using those insights in your daily decision-making — and that is perhaps the most challenging job communicators face.
Jeff Hutson, ABC, IPC, CRC®
For more than three decades, Jeff Hutson has helped organizations make a meaningful and measurable difference in the lives of those they serve. As the principal consultant at Indiana-based Relational Gravity, he focuses on retirement and financial education powered by his firm’s expertise in employee research. He is an Accredited Business Communicator, holds an Insights Professional Certification and is a Certified Retirement Counselor®. Hutson earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a focus on economics from Butler University’s Lacy School of Business, a master’s degree in public relations from Ball State University and a certificate in market research from the University of Georgia.