For this first e-Letter of the year, I thought I’d offer some ways you might productively use research in the coming year.
As you may have gathered, I am a huge proponent of using research to plan and lay out strategies. So here are some ways to use research, or simply good information, for planning.
1. Research Those You Wish to Influence
Virtually every business objective is based on evoking or provoking the behavior of some person or group of people. They might be your boss, your board of directors, employees, customers, partners, shareholders, community members, activists or some other group.
Questions to research include:
- What do these people want and need in general?
- What, specifically, do they want, need and expect of you or your company?
- How do they process information? (What are the best ways for you to communicate with them?)
- What actions can you or your organization take to encourage them to act the way you would like them to act?
If you think you know the answers to these questions, ask yourself if you really do. Or are you instead making assumptions?
Once you decide what and how you want to communicate be sure to test the message and channel with your target.
How to do this research depends on who you intend to research. If your target is people inside your organization, and includes a relatively small number of individuals, you might do one-on-one interviews or focus groups. These same techniques work on external groups, such as customers, as well. But sometimes this research has already been done and you can purchase reports or your organization may already have done research. If you are gathering information about a large number of people, you might start with the interviews and follow those with a survey to quantify the data.
2. Research the World Around the People You Hope to Influence
The business or general environment around those you hope to influence has a definite effect on your ability to influence them. For example, if you were a good performer, asking your boss for a raise or a budget increase might have met with success in 2007. In today’s economy, in most organizations such a request would be tantamount to suicide.
A very useful way to think of the environment as something that might affect your stakeholders is to break it into these sub-environments:
- The green or physical environment
- The technological environment
- The social and cultural environment
- The regulatory and legislative environment
- The economic environment of both the world and your industry
The question you want to research on each of these is, for example:
- What is going on in the green or physical environment and how is that likely to affect my customer in the coming year, especially with regards to the behavior my organization would like to encourage from that individual?
To answer the question, you would review news coverage, read articles by experts in the field, and so forth to identify trends. In some cases the news articles will tell you how stakeholders feel about the trends. In other cases, you may wish to interview some stakeholders to get their opinions and points of view.
Almost always, what’s happening in one of the environments above will influence others. For example, the US population seems now to be concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprints. If you work for an energy utility, your organization probably has a policy to encourage some kind of behavior among customers. But regardless of that policy, energy consumers are likely to look for ways to reduce their use of carbon-emitting energy sources by relying on other sources. So this will affect the economic environment of your firm. In this case, questions you might research include:
- What effect will this have on the sales of the utility?
- What plans does the utility have to respond to these changes?
- How will your department be affected by these changes?
- What can you and your department do to help your organization respond?
The research I recommended above on the world around those you hope to influence could be a one-time exercise. But it shouldn’t. For communications people to offer the most value to their employers and clients, they need to be on top of emerging issues. This means knowing what’s going on in the world in general and paying particular attention to those issues you think might have an impact on your key target audiences. These days you may read a daily newspaper or get your news online, but regardless, you should get your news. I recommend the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and whatever publications are of most importance in your particular industry. I also suggest that when you read these publications, read them broadly. At the least, it takes employees, investors (or donors), management and customers to create a thriving organization. So, you should be aware of trends that might affect any of these groups of people. So read articles about HR, finance, management and marketing. Try to connect the dots that are news stories to create a model of the world of your stakeholder group.
In addition to monitoring issues and trends, these days it is critical for communications people to monitor media. The ways people communicate on the Internet change daily creating new opportunities and threats. We must follow them, if we wish to remain effective communicators and counselors. To do this kind of monitoring, I find it necessary to make an appointment in my calendar once a week or once a month to review changes in media practices. Otherwise, monitoring gets pushed aside by other activities.
The last way to use research that I will mention today is evaluation. This almost goes without saying, but the only way we can become better communicators is by evaluating the effect our communications programs have on their intended target audiences.
How to do this is a subject for another e-Letter.
Tough Year Coming
It’s likely to be a tough year for our profession as well as many others. Above, I’ve tried to offer a number of ways you can not only communicate more effectively, but also demonstrate your effectiveness and value to management.
If you have any questions, please let me know. If you have comments, please leave them on my blog. And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass this e-Letter along.
Forrest W. Anderson
Institute for Public Relations
Commission on PR Measurement and Evaluation