Research is a critical part of persuasive communication. This research method is a great way to develop comms relevant to your audience.
We know that research makes communication better. But how do you approach it? There are many methods, but one method is common among the communications and branding researchers I’ve worked with. It has three phases:
- Phase one: qualitative
- Phase two: quantitive
- Phase three: qualitative
Phase one: qualitative research
The purpose of the first phase is exploratory. You want to discover what your participants think about your product, issue, or organization in a structured way. Often qualitative research is moderated and conducted via focus groups or interviews. The moderator will have a discussion guide that forms the basis for the interviews and groups — your questions are in the discussion guide.
In this phase you can focus on open questions with scope for the moderator to probe and clarify. With focus groups you will often be able to observe behind a one-way mirror or via video link. Make sure your moderator checks in with you part of the way through the session to see if there’s anything that you want to clarify or probe further.
Aim for a minimum of six participants. Twelve is better. Above that you will probably see diminishing returns. If you have twelve participants for focus groups split them into two groups of six. Focus groups should last 90-120 minutes. After that people start to tire and lose focus.
The moderator should write the findings of this phase up in a report.
Phase two: quantitive research
quantitive research is a poll or a survey. Think of qualitative research as a conversation and quantitive research as a rapid Q&A.
The findings from the qualitative research will help you design the survey. In turn the quantitive research helps you validate or question findings from the focus groups and/or interviews. Most questions, if not all, will be closed questions.
Your sample size is much larger in quantitive research — usually 1,000-2,000 participants.
Polling can be done via phone, online, or in person. In person surveys often have a smaller sample size. Exit polls on election day are a good example of in-person polling.
The findings from this research should also be written up in a report with recommendations for the next phase of research.
Phase three: qualitative research
The first two phases, qualitative and quantitive, helped you learn more about your audience and test those findings. Often that’s enough information to begin creating your communications or brand strategy, narrative, messaging, and materials. There are a many reasons you may want to conduct another phase of qualitative research.
The results of your survey may have questioned some of your findings from phase one. If that’s the case you may want to conduct more focus groups and/or interviews to understand where the disconnect is. You may find you had a rogue focus group, or the moderator didn’t go deep enough on some questions and made incorrect assumptions, or the findings were off the mark.
Another reason to do a second round of interviews or focus groups to test communications products. If the first round of research has been validated and given you the insight to create your materials, you will want to test them. They may be key messages, email newsletters, photos, advertising copy, billboards, TVCs — anything that you intend to communicate publicly. The findings of this research will help you make refinements before it’s finalized. You may want to test it again.
In each phase you will want a solid recruitment process. It’s critical that you have participants that are representative of the audience you are trying to reach. You find your participants through a screening process asking demographic and attitudinal questions like age, gender, and education. In politics you will want to understand if they are registered to vote, political affiliation, and voting intention. If you’re selling a product you’ll want to know if they use your product, or that of a competitor, and how often.
If you can afford it — hire a recruitment company to do this screening for you. They have “research panels” with thousands, sometimes millions, of names that they can tap for you.
I love conducting and using research to develop comms. This research method has helped on campaigns, branding projects, and create communications strategies for organizations. If you’re looking to try research for the first time, or want to try a different methodology — give this a go. I think you’ll be pleased with the results.