Research is one of the most critical components of a well-planned communications strategy. After all, how can we craft impactful key messages and identify the most effective tactics for a communications campaign if we don’t have a full assessment of the issue or situation, or have some idea of how target audiences perceive the issue?
Conducting research is considered so important to the success of a plan, that the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) includes it as one of four components, along with planning, execution and evaluation, that must be addressed by applicants for the organization’s Accreditation in Public Relations (APR), and in nominations for its prestigious and iconic Silver Anvil national awards program.
Despite its importance, research is usually the element that gets the least amount of attention when developing comprehensive, strategic communications plans. There are several reasons for this oversight. Our “on-the-go” society greatly values immediate gratification, so we often work with surface-level knowledge during the planning and execution phases of campaigns in hopes of generating fast results.
A lack of adequate resources is another reason more emphasis is not placed on research. Many internal communications teams simply don’t have enough staff available to dedicate someone to information gathering. Cost also plays a role since paying an outside resource to conduct research, especially when it involves focus groups or surveys, can become expensive.
While it’s understandable that lacking time and money can be deterrents to the research process, the most successful communicators know finding ways to overcome these limitations will make or break your campaign. They know knowledge is power and look for creative ways to get the information they need to plan, execute and evaluate to ensure the most successful outcomes.
When resources are stretched thin, below are a few ideas for securing information that can better inform key message and strategy development:
- Monitor Daily Media – Keeping up with current events and trends affecting your industry, target audiences and communities by frequently monitoring local and trade media sources will put you ahead of the game when called on to develop a related campaign. Spending time reading through relevant articles is a proactive way to conduct qualitative research – gathering information through observations and narratives. Remember to review the reader comments to get a basic idea of how people may be responding, including comments made to stories reposted to Facebook or Twitter.
- Monitor Social Media – Another way to get some basic qualitative research is to keep an eye on comments posted to social media pages that are frequently used by target audiences. For instance, municipal communications teams benefit from monitoring hyper-local neighborhood pages on Nextdoor, a private social networking service for neighborhoods. Here, residents can post and comment on messages about events and issues impacting specific communities. Industry trade professionals may keep an eye on related Facebook or LinkedIn groups.
- Conduct an Informal Focus Group – Another way to gather qualitative research is to conduct an informal focus group. Depending on the campaign issue and goal, this can be as simple as gathering random team members from various departments to participate in an informal discussion about an internal issue, or gathering a group of local stakeholders to get their take on a new policy proposal. One-on-one conversations with stakeholders can also be an effective way to collect qualitative feedback.
- Conduct an Informal Online Survey – There are a number of online survey tools that can be used to collect quantitative research – information based on numbers and calculations. SurveyMonkey is one of the more well-known options, and PC Magazine rated SurveyGizmo as its favorite for 2018. For a typical monthly subscription fee of less than $50 a month, many of these tools allow customization of the format and background of the survey, along with reporting features ranging from basic to advanced. As well, Facebook recently added a basic survey feature enabling posters to ask a simple question with two specific response options. Before sending the survey, keep in mind how many will need to be completed to generate enough responses to represent an adequate sample size of the target audience. Too few responses may skew the actual representation of the stakeholders to one side or the other.
While it may be time-consuming, dedicating resources to thorough research is essential. With just a few simple, inexpensive research strategies, it’s possible to get all the information necessary to create a successful communications campaign.