Take a closer look at research types and reporting

In my last blog post, I explained why it’s important for marketing and communication departments to include research in their annual planning process. Now I’d like to take a deeper dive into the different types of research, advantages, and disadvantages of research methods, and reporting survey results.

Before we get too far into the weeds, I was reminded of a quote from a study manual I reviewed a few years ago. About research and public relations professionals, it said: “We are not scientists.” Agreed, however, it is important for marketing and communication professionals to be able to identify research methods and explain them and their terms.

Formal or informal?

At its core, you can divide research into two buckets: formal and informal. Formal research is just as the name implies, it’s conducted using scientific investigation to replicate measurable results. If done correctly – with a truly random sample – the formal research findings can be applied to a larger group or universe. An example of formal research is phone surveys – an often-unpopular form conducted during election cycles – but nonetheless an effective means of gauging a candidate’s popularity.

Informal research is just the opposite – its findings cannot and should not be applied to a wider group. You probably do informal research regularly, and it’s common to do it when you’re gathering feedback before doing formal research. An example includes hosting a focus group with customers or individuals who may purchase competitive products. Another example is if you’ve been to a trade show and had a conversation with someone in your booth. It can be helpful but don’t forget it may not be representative of a wider audience.

Qualitative or quantitative?

Research can be further broken down into qualitative – open-ended responses – that are considered informal. An example of qualitative research is a focus group. You may gather detailed responses from participants, however, it’s not measurable nor can it be used to represent a wider audience.

Quantitative research is measurable, can be represented numerically and is projectable. You might use quantitative research with a survey that asks respondents a series of close-ended questions. You can tabulate these responses and, if the sample size is large enough, apply your findings to a larger group.

Examples of research:

  • Focus groups: Primary and informal research that is not scientifically valid.
  • In-depth interviews: Primary and informal research that provides valuable information, though not scientifically valid.
  • Intercept interviews: Primary and informal – usually done in a public space to quickly gather feedback.
  • Surveys: Primary and formal research that can be done effectively and cost-efficiently online. These can also be done via telephone or mail, but require more time and effort to tabulate the results.

In addition to these common research examples, consider doing a content analysis of materials produced by your company as well as the media. This is an informal, primary research method. Review internal materials such as literature, presentations and intranet content to determine if the materials meet objectives for targeted internal publics. The same can be done to compare content that appears in the media, such as magazines versus online. You can study trends in content and tailor your future content to better align with internal and external audiences.

Tabulating results

Depending on the type of research your company does, whether done internally or by a third party, tabulating and communicating the results is a significant step in the process. Thankfully, online surveys done through a third party make this part much simpler. You can easily collect the information and the website may even produce reports or graphs to visually communicate the information. Research results, such as survey responses, can be logged in a spreadsheet and easily shared among colleagues. Generate charts or graphs to make your findings more visual and easily shareable in presentations.

For informal research, it can be more time-consuming. For in-person interviews or focus groups, audio files can be transcribed by a third party. If possible, get permission from your focus group to record the session. As you watch the video, pay attention to not only the words spoken by the attendees but their physical appearance and gestures. You can tabulate responses from attendees – just remember that the information is not a scientifically valid representation of a broader audience.

Research in planning

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) places a significant value on research in any planning process. According to PRSA, these are some questions to ask yourself or your organization as you’re incorporating research in your annual planning.

  • Is there a problem or an opportunity? What is it?
  • How do we know? Do we have any facts? Are we guessing?
  • Do we need to collect more facts?
  • What will take us in the right direction?
  • What do we want from our audiences?

Throughout these questions, remember awareness, attitude, and action.