Why is Research Important?

Research is the most overlooked, unappreciated aspect of communication. I’ve heard people complain about the cost or how difficult it is to gather the data and make sense of the information. All of this is flawed. I’ve been responsible for research on various projects for almost 20 years, and can tell you that research doesn’t have to be difficult and can provide you with a plethora of details to ensure your strategies and tactics align and earn the great return on investment (ROI).

What is Research?
First, let’s talk about how to define research first. According to Wikipedia, research is defined as human activity based on intellectual application in the investigation of matter. What?! Let’s go a little more basic. My definition of research is asking questions of a particular audience group.This might be a bit narrow, but my frame of reference is marketing and communication. I want to know how a particular audience thinks. Research allows me to understand those thought processes so I can more effectively plan my marketing or communications program.

There are two main types of research — formal and informal. Formal research is scientific and can be easily replicated. Informal research is everything else. The key with informal research requires thoroughness, good notes and a method for gathering the material so it is usable for later reports.

Within formal and informal, there are primary and secondary research methods. Primary methods examine evident collected firsthand, whether that is through new interviews, surveys or observations. Secondary methods are just what it says, secondhand evidence which is previously reported or published. Typically secondary research is an Internet search or something similar.

The final aspect of research is qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative is that research which attempts to gather in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons why and how we make decisions. Typically, you’ll find much smaller, yet focused samples rather than large, random samples. On the other end of the spectrum is quantitative research, which develops and employs scientific or mathematical theories to analyze the connection between science and human relationships.

Why Conduct Research?
As I said earlier, research doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. It can be as simple as searching online articles or case studies that might help you establish a benchmark for how your organization should conduct business. Or it can be a complicated as hiring a consulting firm to develop and gather data on your behalf. Either way, many PR and marketing practitioners overlook the critical nature of research. From my experience, jumping into a project or campaign without a cursory look at the target audience and its’ thought process will only lead to failure and frustration.

In today’s recession environment, marketing and PR find themselves on the receiving end of budget cut after budget cut as a means to simply eliminate expenses for the business. But as we all know, this is not the time to disappear from the public’s eye. Organizations that have taken the time to conduct basic research know far more about where those marketing dollars will succeed as well as where they won’t and are able to build a far more effective business case for why marketing and PR should remain part of the company’s overall expense landscape.

So what do you think? Are you able to justify your marketing and PR efforts effectively or are you becoming quite proficient at using the expense scissors?

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Social Media Tidbits

social mediaRecently I was asked how a local PR agency should use social media, specifically Twitter, to help promote clients and their products and services. Now, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about this topic, reading other blog posts about the subject, and generally evaluating the best manner for a business to leverage social media in its’ daily activities. I was a bit surprised that this agency hadn’t already given it more thought. But that’s beside the point. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I would call myself a student, one who hungers to learn how to user various tools and figures out the most strategic, efficient manner in which to bring new tools into the PR fold.

In my short time learning about social media, I’ve made a few observations.
1) The importance of social media is the ability to create communities, listen to customer needs and build solutions to accommodate those needs. There are good and bad examples of how businesses use social media everywhere, but I’ve found that the best organizations choose to use these tools as a mechanism for two way communication. Sharing information is only one part of the equation. It’s just as important for the business to listen to what others are saying. But if you’re going to listen, you also have to be willing to act.

2) Action is an often overlooked part of the business world. We all hate to hear complaints or criticisms about our organization. But that is when we can learn the most, if you ask me. Being willing or able to make changes based on the feedback received from customers is a sign of an agile, successful business. And these are the businesses I believe will survive the recession and come out stronger and better than they were before. In today’s social media environment, not listening and taking the appropriate action can and will lead to failure.

3) My final observation for this post is not to hard sell. I’ve been in marketing long enough to realize that selling is the lifeblood of an organization. However, if all you do is sell through the social media channels, you’re only going to succeed in making people angry, which in turn will backfire. It’s happened numerous times. Taking a softer approach works much better. When you have a community of people who listen and trust what you have to say, you’re going to be far more likely to have people who come to you when they are ready to buy.

As a business leader, I’m forced to think in terms of return on investment (ROI) when it comes to strategic planning and tactical execution. In the social media world, the investment mainly comes in the form of time. Your time is extremely valuable, and most organizations want to know that they time you put into the social media efforts will bring immediate payback. The challenge for marketing and PR professionals is to build the business case for taking the time to build communities and listen to what customers say.

Before you jump on the social media bandwagon, think about why you’re there. What is your organization trying to accomplish?

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with these observations or am I off base?

Photo by Matt Hamm (via Flickr.com)

The Inverted Pyramid

Journalism was my major in college. However, I knew from the beginning that I did not want to be a reporter. I can say that by 2994513811_26b8af01f4choosing this as my education path, I learned a lot about writing … of all kinds … feature, editorial, news writing. Each requires different approaches to accomplish the end result of a published article.

Writing has been a huge part of my career in public relations. I am often asked by new PR grads what the number one skill needed to be successful in our field is; my answer is an unequivocal “writing”. For those of you not familiar with writing styles, here’s a quick primer. News writing focuses on the five W’s and the H … who, what, when, where, why and how. Just the facts, ma’am … nothing more. This is also known as the inverted pyramid. The most important information is found at the top and readers can leave the article at any point … yet still completely understand the message.

In contrast, feature writing is a different animal. Feature stories differ from straight news in several ways. Most importantly is the absence of a straight-news lead. Instead of offering the essence of a story up front, feature writers choose to lure readers in gradually. A feature’s first paragraphs often relate an intriguing moment or event. From the particulars of a person or episode, the story’s view quickly broadens to generalities about the subject.

As I write this, I’ve been thinking back to my college days when I attempted (unsuccessfully for the most part) to be a full-time freelance writer. I wasn’t shooting for the Glamours and New York Times of the world. Rather, I focused on local publications such as such as the Minneapolis / St. Paul Magazine. I had been told that the key is to have a hook, and I had just the hook – A Texas native leaving the warmth and sun to move 1,000 miles away in the cold, snow-bound state of Minnesota. What could be more entertaining than to read about my exploits experiencing 80 below zero temperatures for the first time, my roommate choosing to thaw her car windows with a bucket of warm water, or the first time I saw someone plug their car into an outlet to ensure it started. My article was humorous and more than a little self-deprecating as I made complete fun of myself. Now, remember that space is a premium in most publications. While the editor liked my article … at least that’s what he told me … his critique included a bunch of red marks.96776343_4efe3075ff

Oh how I learned to hate that red ink pen.

I got over it.

Editing is part of the writing process and critically important for any good PR professional to understand and appreciate.

I’m curious though what other people think is the most important skill for PR professionals to have in their toolkit. There are many but what is that one trait that everyone should have?

Images from Flickr.com (Dabaweyna, Esther_G)