I have had the good fortune to learn from some of the best market research minds in the business, helping me to effectively leverage these tools to improve strategies and tactics throughout my career. And if you are looking for a deep dive into the ways in which research and the data it produces can be of use to a communication professional, you can find that in my discussion of strategic planning.
On a tactical level, I have led focus groups and conducted surveys to gain a better understanding of the target audience, including providing analysis and recommendations to the rest of the organization. This requires special skills and experience to ensure that you are asking the right questions, wording them properly, not leading the answers, and accurately analyzing the data. As I said, I have learned the craft from some of the best in the business, so I am quite comfortable conducting this sort of research and analysis myself. In fact, I saved the nonprofit Asphalt Green thousands of dollars each year by bringing the customer research in-house when I joined as the Marketing Director, and we were also able to provide more accurate analysis than what the research company had been producing.
The most frequent way I employ research is in the writing process. As I mentioned, you need to develop a deep understanding of the company and its target market, which I discuss in detail under strategic planning. But you often have to research new technologies, complex issues, specific customers, and other organizations when creating a specific communications piece. Over the years I have developed an expertise in conducting this sort of research, from quickly developing a functional understanding of even the most complex topics to interviewing recognized experts in the field.
One of the more unconventional ways I have used research is to generate earned media coverage. A well-crafted study (or even a simple survey) can help position a company as a leader in a particular field, especially if they are already providing a solution that happens to reflect the results. I have used this often enough over the years that we actually came up with a name for it: Research for Ink.
In the digital age, it is much easier to gather and analyze data. Not only does this help improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your communications, but it also makes it easier to measure them. For example, I have often created custom contact information for each ad, mailing, and promotion in order to track leads and thereby test messages and methods. I have also monitored and measured web traffic with Google Analytics. And I have worked closely with sales, IT, customer service, and other departments as well, to better understand where customers come from – and why.
When it comes to determining the overall effectiveness of a communications plan, there are several different metrics you can track, depending on the nature of the project or program. I like to agree upon specific KPIs – key performance indicators – beforehand, in the planning process. In most cases, there are simply too many variables (budgets, resources, products, services, support, location, distribution, etc.) to rely on comparisons with other companies or even industry averages. But if you set your own benchmarks, you can use the first year as a baseline and then gauge your success based on that.
But even the most rudimentary forms of measurement can help you gain an understanding of what is working and what is not. For example, as a freelancer, I have found that it is not always affordable – or even practical – to test and measure every initiative. But even if we employ these tools judiciously, the data we do gather can be tremendously useful in gauging the general effectiveness of our marketing efforts.