- Understand the business context for the research. Know what business decision will be affected by the research and how.
One of the strengths of research is the thought that goes into it. Done right, it can link your communications programs to the business goals of your organization and help you on your way into the top management group.
An Imaginary Case History
Since most of my readers and I are in communications and marketing, let's suppose we work at a not-for profit organization that fights a disease. Our management comes to us saying we need to do a communications campaign to raise the organization's visibility.
Management's immediate reaction is that the organization must need more visibility. Or at least more visibility can't hurt, while they try to figure out what the real problems might be.
However, as communicators, we know that if there are issues with the organization itself, (e.g. donors are losing faith in it, or for some reason do not trust the organization's management) raising visibility could make matters worse, if the trust issue is not addressed first.
Now we understand where the request is coming from. We also know, we need to research the business situation before we can do an effective visibility campaign or argue that we should not. We know, too, that the research needs to focus on funding. But what information do we need to help our organization and to communicate effectively about it?
It seems clear the real questions are:
- What can we do to reverse the downward funding trend?
- Why has our funding dropped?
- Funding has dropped because there has been a drop in the number of funders.
- Funding has dropped because funders are donating less on average than they used to.
- Funding has dropped because we used to have a regular influx of new funders and that has dropped off in either number or average amount.
Testing these hypotheses probably is a matter of reviewing internal records on donation sources. And once we know which of the above hypotheses is true, we know who we should target for our external research.
Whichever group the initial research suggests, we need to ask these people why they are no longer donating in the way they were. We might start with one-on-one interviews and follow with a survey to quantify our findings.
Communications and Business Insights
This information should lead us to understand the root cause of the drop in funding and suggest a messaging strategy. More important, though, it likely will suggest business strategies to better align the organization with its key funding stakeholders. For example, if the problem has to do with something about the organization or its behavior, management likely will need to address that to reverse the funding situation. And making those changes is what the communication should be about.
A Real Case History
For example, I did work with a not for profit organization that was suffering falling donations. We did interviews with four stakeholder groups and learned that every one had the same complaint: They felt the organization listened to them but never did any of the things they asked.
As it turned out, the organization actually did do some of the things its stakeholders asked of it, but didn't communicate to stakeholders that it had. This could be easily fixed through increased communications.
In addition, management decided the organization should be more responsive to its stakeholders. It increased the amount it communicated about the actions it took. It also took the time and effort to explain to stakeholders why it did not take some of the actions stakeholders requested.
This turned around the fortunes of the organization as donations picked up significantly.
So, by using the research to understand the business issues as well as the communications issues, the communications people who initiated the project made a significant contribution to the management of the organization. And this was recognized by senior management.
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If you'd like help working through issues like this with your organization, please contact me.