Recommit yourself to research

female engineer taking notes

We all know research and planning are important parts of a successful communications campaign, but the thought of conducting research can be daunting, especially in a pandemic. I hear my colleagues say they don’t have time, money or the skills to do research. Fortunately, there are simple, cheap methods for gathering information you need to execute a great campaign.

Why research?

Research makes public relations activities strategic by ensuring that communication is specifically targeted to the people who want, need or care about the information. Research allows us to show results, to measure impact and to refocus our efforts.

Simply stated, research helps you strategize. It gives you informed advice. It helps you choose your next move. Research allows you to make data-driven decisions.

What is research?

Research is –

  • Gathering information (listening, observing, monitoring);
  • Testing hypotheses, strategies, messages;
  • Judging results.

It helps you narrow your target audiences, determine how they like to receive information and discover how they feel about a topic.

There are four common terms we use when talking about research. Primary research is conducted by you or on your behalf for example, a survey or focus group. Secondary research is anything conducted by a third party. It includes things like government data and industry articles.

Quantitative research is about numbers. If you’ve ever filled out a survey with multiple choice questions that’s quantitative research. Qualitative research is about what’s behind the numbers. It helps you understand how someone perceives something or what their attitude about something is. Focus groups are an example of qualitative research. 

What research do you need?

The type of research you need depends on what your campaign is about. For example, if you are trying to get people to support a new program, it is good to know your audience’s:

  • Demographics – age, occupation, educational level, etc.
  • Locations – county, city, neighborhood, etc.
  • Psychographics – attitudes, opinions, likes and dislikes.

It’s also helpful to know what strategies and tactics have worked with this audience in the past, or what communication channels they regularly use.

Get started with secondary research

Fortunately, there are a ton of free sources of secondary research.

You can find a lot of information about your audience, their attitudes and beliefs with a few internet searches. What information can you glean from the U.S. Census,, industry organizations and other data portals? Visit the social media sites your audience uses. What words do they use to describe a topic? What are their opinions about your topic? 

My local librarian is a great help when I’m conducting secondary research, she recommends sources that I didn’t even know about.

The PRSA website is one of my favorite research tools. As a member you can search the PRsay blog for articles on your topic and review Silver Anvil case studies. Someone has probably conducted an award-winning campaign on a topic similar to yours. What can you learn from their research?

Invest some time in primary research

Harness the power of your email lists. Do some random sampling and conduct message testing or opinion gathering using a low cost or free survey tool. Keep your questions simple and objective. People get bombarded with surveys so consider asking just one or two questions. 

Never underestimate the power of a phone call. Interviewing a few members of your target audience over the phone is simple and free. You can ask for opinions, run ideas by them and gain valuable insight. Keep your questions neutral and simple for best results. According to experts, it only takes three to five interviews to spot trends.

Analyze your findings

Once you’ve completed your research, review your findings. What conclusions can you draw about your audience? What insight did you gain on messaging? Use the data to inform decisions and develop strategy. Use it to set baselines for evaluating your campaign. 

“It’s much easier to sell your management team or client on your campaign plan when you’ve based it research,” said David Robins, founder of Binfire Communications. “Ninety-five percent of CEOs feel more confident about a decision if data backs it up.”

There are many free sources of research that are easy to use. With just a little bit of effort you can gather research that will ensure your campaign is targeted to the people who want, need or care about the information.

As part of the PRSA Oregon Communicators Conference, I’m leading “Recommit Yourself to Research,” a session on research and the free tools that can help make your campaign more strategic. I’ll look at a current case study from Oregon Department of Transportation where my team used existing tools and resources to conduct research on audiences, attitudes and communication channels for an important agency campaign. At the end of the presentation you will recognize how research, even research on a dime, can help you create SMART objectives, develop better strategies and employ compelling and engaging tactics.

I hope to see you at the Sept. 29 PRSA Oregon Communicators Conference session. Together we will look at case studies and that incorporate cheap and easy research.  

About the Author
About the Author

Sally Ridenour is an accredited government communicator with a specialty in web-based communications. She is a William Marsh Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and PRSA Silver Anvil award winner. She currently works for the Oregon Department of Transportation as the chief content strategist. She has over 20 years of experience in public and media relations. Sally has double bachelor degrees from the University of Idaho in political science and organizational communication.  In her spare time, she enjoys entering recipe contests and going on adventures with her friends and family.

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