Friday, December 10, 2010

The Importance of and the Way to Research

Now that the turkey and gravy have been consumed, and annoyingly happy noels stalk us on every wintry street corner, it's time to "plan" for 2011. If you work in public relations or marketing, however, there's one important step prior to planning...something not everyone considers, but one which is critical to the success of communications programming: research.

If you support a professional services firm, the type of research you conduct can be one of two types. With internal research, you decide to identify organizational processes and procedures through interviews, surveys or focus groups with leaders of your firm and consider strategies for creating efficiencies and improvements in business development activities.

Or, you might conduct external research across your client markets using similar methods to determine how decision-making occurs, what problems and challenges are faced in the industry (or in today's withering economic environment) and what kinds of professional services clients and prospects find attractive to meet their needs.

One occasional challenge that can beset researchers, though, is the concern that organizational leaders perceive that nothing seems to be happening. Perceptions of public relations and marketing people include ideas that they should be meeting people, building relationships, advertising, zapping out direct mail, sponsoring events, basically whatever demonstrates an effort to gain visibility. The problem, of course, is that while such frenetic activity often may "look" good or valuable, without proper planning and appropriate decision-making ahead of time about who to build relationships with and who to target with your advertising campaigns, nothing positive will likely happen within your organization.

One must feel comfortable conducting research and acquiring knowledge to help make effective planning decisions. Ensuring you can do that starts, first of all, with articulating to management what kind of research you intend to conduct and what you intend to accomplish by doing it. While you may wonder whether management will be supportive, you may be pleasantly surprised by a number of possible reactions--"We've never done research before," "I like the idea of making better decisions" and "It'll be good to know why we're doing something".

I'll save the details of what kind of research you might conduct for another post (i.e. the details of surveys or interviews), but I will say it's good to conduct research before planning occurs. Yet, even given the fortuitous circumstance of management support, research in an organizational setting must be applied (as compared to academic research, which responds primarily to philosophical questions than business ones). Applied research is research intended to serve an organization's goals and objectives.

The trick with overly scientific research--this is when you get into things like random sampling, standards of deviation, etc.--is that it can become all too easy and tempting to get caught up in the details of your research and lose sight of the bigger picture. If too much time passes, if your methodology and indeed your results seem too abstruse or removed from the organization's goals, you become vulnerable to a loss of management support.

If, on the other hand, you the researcher set a research timeline for yourself ahead of time--and every task, from a project management point of view, should have a timeline--then it will be easy to determine when you've conducted sufficient research and determine that it's time to move on with what information you've gathered and enter into the next, planning stage.

It may be difficult to do this. As a researcher, you may find that as you acquire information, you will be inclined to probe further with deeper questions and seek new and more sophisticated answers. But again, this path can stray from the organization's path and lose management support in the process. What you must concede as you conduct research is that you cannot answer every question about your clients due to time constraints but you will get further along than you were beforehand and begin to understand the demographics of potential customers (whether it's your firm's leaders or external clients).

Ultimately, you must execute. You must make plans and, again, you must execute. Research informs planning activities and as you explain to management the basis of your planning decisions, you can proudly point to the research you conducted. That is much better than planning based on hunches, impressions or "just because", which is, sadly, what a lot of public relations and marketing individuals do. It is good to have a foundation for your decisions and for the direction of your communications program.

Even if your first round of research doesn't uncover everything you wanted to--and it likely won't--you have at least established a good direction. So while you're developing goals and objectives during the subsequent planning stage and selecting tactics to achieve them, you can also begin thinking in the back of your mind: what research must I conduct next? Likely, if you've made good planning decisions as a result of your first round of research, you will have the opportunity to conduct more in-depth research in the future, and while the communications program is underway, because management will already decide that you're heading in the right direction. You will often be given the license to continue mining information (which leads to the sophisticated Q&A that is the result) so that, in the long term, even while you're executing, you'll become even more aware of the business environment in which you operate, and will become a valued member of the organization's team.

No comments: