Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How To Streamline Your Research

I saw a comment in a Linkedin discussion about what in PR wastes time.  Jennel McDonald noted "Though researching is very important, I think we can go overboard in reading and gathering."

As many of you know, I am a communications research and strategy consultant.  So, in large part, research is my business.  But I agree with Jennel.  We do frequently go overboard.

I would argue the biggest research time waster is doing research without a specific purpose. That is,  before you begin any PR research ask yourself what it is you need to know to create a successful communications program. Turn what you need to know into questions and then ignore information that does not answer the questions.

The questions I use to guide research begin with "what action do we want the target audience to take as a result of our communication and other activities?" The answer to this generally comes from management and might be "buy a product or service," "continue to work for our company," "join our company," "contribute funds to our charity," "purchase our stock," "support us as we build a factory in the community," etc.

The questions to guide your research might be:
  • Who is the target audience? What are they interested in? What do they think of my organization? What is likely to provoke them to the action my organization seeks?
  • What media reach this target audience, and which are most appropriate for this message?
  • What external issues are important to our target audience and the best media for reaching them?
  • How can my organization take advantage of those issues to communicate with the target?
  • How will we know whether we have succeeded?
  • What method can we use to demonstrate we have succeeded?
My mentor, Roger Sennott, who was my boss when I worked in the research group at Burson-Marsteller, called this querying the data. He called the approach that takes way too much time "swimming in the data," by which he meant diving in with no specific information goal in mind.

So, don't gather or read material that does not answer your questions, and once you've got the questions answered to your satisfaction, stop. Where this satisfaction level should be will depend on the importance of the program, because the more you can corroborate your information, the surer you can be it is correct.  More information means less risk.

There is another research situation that can be very frustrating.  Sometimes you know what you need to know, but you just can't find it.  You keep looking and burning up hours not finding it.  Those of us who have worked in secondary research have all been through this.  And when you've gone through it enough times, you begin to get a gut feel for the kinds of projects that might take an inordinate amount of time and yield few, if any, results.

The need for very specific competitive information frequently is one example.  If the information you or your client want is the perfect description of your target audience or your competitor's customers, you can bet that if anyone has it, it is your competitor, that he or she got it through primary research and that he or she will not be sharing it with you.  Sometimes you can find good industry reports for a price.  And even when these prices run into the thousands of dollars, purchasing the report may be a good value, when you consider the time you or your staff will have to spend to gather the secondary information, if it is available, or the cost of commissioning primary research, if it is not.  

This leads us to the value of the information.  And that depends on the value of the decisions you need to make. If you are looking at decisions that can make or break a company, then the value of the information might be as high as the value of the company.  However, usually this is not the case.

There are ways to calculate the value of information, but these can be rather complex, so I won't go into them here.  But if you are ever in a situation where you think knowing the value of the information would be useful to determine whether to do research or not, give me a call.


Anonymous said...

As always, great information. Thanks for sharing the great knowledge you have with us all.

Forrest W. Anderson said...

Thanks, Dawn. Glad you find it useful.

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