Getting research to really work for you
My views on research have been formed by a number of very specific career experiences, ranging from developing and implementing research programmes as part of a marketing plan; undertaking research to gain views and perspectives of an internal audience; carrying out a communications programme and campaigns based around research; and simply doing some relatively reactive PR work to promote some aspect of research findings.
Over the years, I’ve sometimes been surprised by the way businesses miss the opportunities offered by a particular piece of research. It has occurred to me that simply adding one or two questions would have offered significant communications potential, turned a very niche piece of work into something of broader interest and added to the benefits of the project to the business.
I’ve also found myself thinking: “You’ve asked question A, so surely it would have made sense to ask question B? I can just imagine people reading about the research and thinking this.” This leads to gaps, which would not have been costly to fill, but which you can’t correct in hindsight and may weaken the findings.
Of course, research may have a very narrow focus and have a restricted audience, possibly just a few people within your own organisation. And it’s great to have a very clear and specific goal. But I’ve often been in situations where businesses have wanted research to really work for them but haven’t carefully thought through all the possibilities before proceeding. If you’re using a lot of resources to produce a study – be this fees paid to an external consultancy or your own people’s time – you want to feel that that you’ve maximised the potential.
One of the major pitfalls is that organisations don’t involve everyone who could brainstorm what would make this a really informative, useful and interesting piece of work to all relevant groups. A piece of research may ostensibly be particularly relevant to your technical team and they want it to answer some questions for them, but you also want it to play a role in spreading the word about the important work your organisation is doing and your role as an authoritative voice in the sector. It’s important, for example, for the communications team to be involved from an early stage to help tease out all the possibilities.
Here are a few more thoughts on how to make research work for you
- Be very clear on objectives. Does it have a single or multiple goals? Is it for internal consumption only or could it help with your external communications programme?
- Whether marketing, comms or internal-comms based, be sure you are prepared to act on the findings - there’s no point taking up valuable resources with something that isn’t going to be acted upon. This can cause disillusionment within the workplace, particularly in relation to employee engagement surveys.
- Whatever the recommendations you may have received, consider carefully who would be the most appropriate suppliers. People can sometimes be swept away by the reputation or credentials of a particular research organisation. Academic researchers may be perfect for certain kind of studies, but not for all. What’s the best fit in terms of the subject matter, the type of research, the objectives and working with your organisation?
- If using an external consultancy, avoid ambiguity and be clear about how you want findings to be supplied to you. If working through an intermediary, for example a PR consultancy, it’s still important to have a good understanding of and input to what you are ultimately going to be presented with.
- Be realistic about what it’s possible to achieve. If you’re doing some research in-house, consider how long it will take to gain responses from the desired sample. If you’re planning to interview 50 HR Directors, for example, making contact, gaining agreement and then actually conducting the interviews will take quite some time. It’s easy for projects to overrun this way and everything could start to unravel. People also sometimes imagine that responses are going to flood in and this can lead to disappointment – think carefully about the methodology and what this can realistically achieve. Ensure you have a plan for maximising responses.
- That old chestnut, sample size! I often hear people saying too few people were interviewed to come to any reliable conclusions (beauty care product surveys seem to cause particular ire!), sometimes without having any specialist knowledge about what is an acceptable sample size. It’s important to bear this in mind when planning research. A particular approach might offer useful pointers for future marketing activities, but be viewed with a degree of scepticism if something you wished to release to the outside world. If it’s not practical to do a robust quantitative survey, a smaller number of detailed, qualitative interviews might be a better way to go.
- Interpret data correctly. This may sound obvious but on more than one occasion I’ve seen PR people put completely the wrong interpretation on findings in developing their launch press releases, including simple arithmetical failures. I have had to point this out myself so presumably the people who commissioned the research hadn’t spotted this either! This can damage credibility and annoy other organisations in your sector if they think you are distorting facts in order to gain publicity, which could even reflect badly on them or the groups they work with.
Of course, every piece of research is completely different in terms of its objectives, possibilities and challenges. But putting in a bit of extra time to draw out its full potential and perhaps inviting the opinions of others in the organisation who are not immediately so close to it could pay major dividends.