Research is critical to persuasive communication. Rather than seeing it as an impediment, organizations should see it as invaluable.
Communication is always better when it’s based on research. Yet many campaigns and organizations balk at the idea.
“We don’t want to do research for research’s sake.”
“We don’t have time.”
“We already know what people think.”
It’s not uncommon for clients to find reasons not to do research rather than reasons to do it. It’s seen as an embuggerance. Often there’s no budget set aside for it but thousands of dollars set aside for advertising and firm “deliverables”. This is counter-productive.
Rather than viewing research as an impediment to communication it should be seen as a critical part of it.
Three reasons why research is invaluable for communicators:
- It adds clarity
- It provides evidence
- It adds value
Three reasons to do research
1. Research adds clarity
If you’re fishing you need to know where the fish are, if they are biting, what bait works best.
It’s easy to think you know all you need to know and what will work best for your audience. That thinking does a disservice to your organization and your audience. Understanding your audience and the context is a critical component of great communication. You can only uncover that through research.
What are the values of your audience? What do they think about you, your issue, your product? Why do they think that? Where are they getting their information? Who’s persuadable?
These are just a handful of questions research can answer. Those answers will help you make better decisions. The words you use, your tone, the stories you tell, who to focus on, and how you reach them.
I worked on a major political campaign a few years ago. We did extensive research — mostly focus groups — and it was invaluable. We understood the mood of the electorate — something you can’t get from journalists and pundits who are focused on poll numbers and political consequences, not social consequences.
Through that research we understood what messages and stories were getting through to voters and why. We got there by asking open-ended questions, engaging voters in a conversation, probing, and pushing back.
The communications strategy and messaging that came of that research was sharp and crystal clear.
Whether it’s a political campaign, product launch, or branding exercise, you must do research. You can’t just drop your line in the water and expect to catch a fish without knowing something about the fish.
2. Research provides evidence
Last year I was engaged by a client to develop a communications strategy, narrative, and messaging for a campaign. The project had no research budget so I used research I had done on previous projects to help guide the comms.
When it came to presenting the strategy to the wider campaign team a few members were skeptical about some of the messaging. The objection boiled down to, “how do we know that’s a better term than [the one we already use]?”
Because that particular project had no research of its own to claim it was difficult for some people in the team to accept the language I had developed and it was difficult for me to defend it. I got there in the end by referencing previous research, narrative theory, and similar campaigns. It would have been easier for everyone if the project had a research budget.
3. Research adds value
No organization has limitless resources. Even multi-million dollar budgets have constraints. Staff time is a key constraint.
Clarity provided by research helps teams make better decisions. It helps them create communications that persuade people — the right frame, the right narrative, the right messages. It helps teams make the right media buys — how much airtime, which newspaper to place an ad, which ad to run.
Research helps you develop, test, and improve material before it goes live. If something doesn’t work research helps you fix it. If you’re spending thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of staff time you want to know that it works. Better, you want to know that it is not going to damage your brand or campaign.
You have more time than you think
Organizations and campaigns often have a false sense of urgency. They skip research because they think they don’t have time. This is a false economy. Communication that rolls out a few weeks later and is on point is better than communication that misses the mark.
Work with a researcher
Research is a skill. Finding and screening participants, asking the right questions without leading, and analyzing the research are skills that take many years to develop. If you can afford it, find a researcher to work with. They’ll improve your communication and save you time. If that’s not possible, do it yourself.
Know the fish.