Evaluation is important, but it is not the research you should do first.
What is the first research you should do to create a successful communications program? First, I define a successful communications program as one that drives behavior of some kind — product purchase, buying or holding a stock, voting for a candidate, etc.
1. Client Research
Unless you already know these, the first research you should do is to determine your client’s business objectives and strategies. The objectives tend to define who the target audience is and what your client would like those people to do. Without these, it is virtually impossible to have a successful communications program. If your client comes to you saying “We want a press conference (or media tour or anything else),” ask why until you get to those business objectives.
It also is useful to know as much as possible about the client’s strengths and weaknesses, as these will help you determine what to build on and what to prepare for.
2. Target Audience Research
The second kind of research you need to do is to determine the wants, needs and media habits of your target audience. What do they care about and why? What are they interested in? How do they live their lives? Do they spend time online reading blogs? Do they watch network TV? Cable TV? Which shows?
I remember long before advent of the internet I was working with an agency pitching a client that wanted to sell a product to young, upwardly mobile professionals. Our competition was renowned for “media tours,” which meant placing a spokesperson on day-time television talk shows. We pointed out that the target audience was not at home watching these shows, they were at work. We had research data that showed the target was more likely to spend time in health clubs before and after work than watching TV. So we recommended a program centered around health clubs and won the business.
When you are doing your research on the target audience, part of that research should be to develop and test messages that actually resonate with your target. This will help ensure the messages actually encourage the behavior your client seeks to provoke.
3. External Environment Research
A third kind of research you should do to ensure your program is effective is an analysis of the communications environment in which your program will take place. Who are your client’s competitors? What are they doing? Whom are they targeting? Are they succeeding? Why? Are there technological, social, political, economic or green issues that matter to the target audience, are in play and can be used to create news campaigns? Will some of these issues cause challenges to your client because of the client’s position or record?
With the information I’ve outlined here, you should be able to put together a communications plan that has a good chance of actually driving behavior. Once you’ve developed and begun executing the plan, it is time to evaluate.
4. Evaluation Research
Now evaluation should be much easier, because you know what the business objective is. Hopefully you’ve deduced an aligned communications objective from that business objective and both objectives are measurable and have time frames. You also have a reasonable intellectual framework for evaluation. For example, if you determine your program is not succeeding as well as you had hoped, you can:
- Revisit your message research to determine whether the message still resonates with your target audience.
- If so, do media analysis to determine whether the message is actually appearing as you intended in the media your target audience follows
- If that is happening, then you can do focus groups with members of the target audience to examine the effectiveness of every aspect of your program to determine what’s going wrong. There may be issues outside your control, (e.g. in sales, product quality or distribution issues) obstructing the action you and your managers are trying to drive.
You should evaluate. But if you want your evaluation to show your program to be a success, you need first to do the planning research that makes that success possible.