All Articles

Using insights to set sights: the power of preliminary research

Author: perkinsk

“Research before strategy; strategy before action.” It’s a Flynn Wright agency philosophy and mantra, the idea that it’s crucial to map out exactly what needs to be done and how to accomplish objectives before embarking on a campaign. With patience and discipline, gathering proper insights on the front end of communication planning can dramatically increase the potential for campaign success.

Unfortunately, some organizations simply don’t take time and put forth initial investment for upfront insights. I kind of get why they’d want to jump right into an initiative or advertising program without doing research first: The faster they can get to market, the faster they can make things happen. But, the market is an increasingly complex place, with sophisticated communication technique options, emerging channels and now multiple generations of prospective audiences. Although gut instinct can be tempting to follow particularly when recent business has been good, the ever-changing market warrants us to take a step back and assess things carefully, because, in today’s volatile environment, having the wrong plan can quickly sink your own campaign.

On the other hand, having a sound, research-based strategy can sink your competition.

Thinking in big terms such as brand development, most would agree gathering early insights through informal and formal research is key to building and fully leveraging a successful brand. Every well-known brand you can think of has loads of research behind it, laying foundation for positioning and messaging, identity elements, communication techniques and channels, and even the selection of spokespeople. This can require initial in-depth interviews or focus groups, as well as quantitative market studies. Research of this scope can take weeks or months, but compared to what’s spent on eventual brand implementation, the investment is low and certainly worth it.

But, the “research before strategy” approach is not just applied to large-scale branding or advertising initiatives. Every campaign, every project, and even the smallest outreach initiatives should have some elements of research to ensure everyone fully understands the need, outcome, audience and best techniques to accomplish objectives. In an increasingly complex culture of communication methods and channels, and with the need to reach new generations of audiences all the time, the only way to keep up with and get ahead of innovation is to be innovative in addressing it. Upfront research gives us the ability to do that.

I realize some would not agree research is necessary for every communication effort – they know their audience, they have an idea or product to sell, and they just need to influence opinion or make sales. Pretty simple. Or, is it?

Putting purpose first

Consider the term “objective.” We use it every day to describe what we’re trying to achieve, but few define their objective with details only determined utilizing research.

Here’s an example: The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) says an objective requires four ingredients, all requiring insights:
+ Target audience
+ Desired outcome
+ Level of change
+ Timeframe

If what you’re trying to accomplish lacks one or more of these ingredients, PRSA would say it’s technically not a complete objective at all. And they make a good point.

Over the last several years, I’ve helped teach a PRSA accreditation (APR) class to professionals in the Des Moines area as they study for the exam. Learning about how PRSA defines an objective and then works it into the four-part PR process is often an “aha” moment for the group. It was for me, too, when I took the exam more than 20 years ago. There is a good reason why. The PRSA four-part process is:
+ Identify the issue or opportunity
+ Plan (strategy and tactics)
+ Implement the plan
+ Evaluate

What we learn is that before we do anything – before we can develop a plan – we must know what problem we are trying to solve or what opportunity we can leverage. So, step one (identify the issue or opportunity) requires some type of research. It can be secondary research, but there must be some benchmark to work from. Having those insights makes it relatively easy to articulate a real objective, with the target audience, outcome, level of change and timeframe, which are all key factors for evaluation and measurement, and for planning strategies and tactics.

Then, evaluating success requires some element of research as well, whether it’s re-surveying a segment of your audience or simply analyzing data collected during the initiative.

I love the structure and discipline PRSA applies to all of this, but what’s most rewarding is seeing how it can be utilized outside of PR, for advertising or sales campaigns as well.

Applying insights throughout the process

Take, for instance, planning a digital media campaign to sell a product or service, or to generate prospect traffic or sales leads. Those planning and leading the effort typically get questions from the implementation team at every turn:
+ Until the target audience is identified, the creative team won’t be able to determine look, tone and language of creative. Who are they marketing to?
+ The media team will need to know the target audience as well, so they can identify the right communication channels and methods to employ – geo-targeting, behavioral targeting, search terms that may be effective, etc. More channels emerge every day, and different audiences each have their own.
+ The creative team will need to understand what response or action they’re trying to motivate and what messaging should be utilized. What’s the desired outcome and level of change? This question itself could warrant a research effort.
+ The media team will need to understand key performance indicators as well. Are we generating awareness? Are we generating conversions like website traffic or online form completions, or sales leads? Awareness increases require one set of techniques, while conversions require another.
+ And, of course, timeframe. The media team will need to know how long the campaign is running, so they can negotiate time and space, but the creative team needs that perspective as well, especially if creative theming references timely topics.

Upfront research can answer all of this, and if a campaign fails, it’s usually because something wasn’t clearly defined within one or more of these steps. Or, worse, there have been organizations who simply don’t determine what they were trying to accomplish in the first place. There was no clear objective. There were no benchmarks. So, success is impossible to define, and in the end, communication budgets have been wasted.

So, before embarking on any campaign or initiative, regardless of size and scope, consider how upfront research can help:
+ Identify the target audience segment
+ Establish purpose by identifying the primary need and establishing benchmarks – determining what needle needs moved and by how much
+ Identify the best ways to reach the target audience, through methods and channels
+ Create primary motivators – positioning, messaging, creative theming, language, imagery, etc.

You can hear from others who have similar philosophies on leveraging upfront insights for communications planning at the Greenlee Summit, hosted by the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, April 6, at the ISU Alumni Center in Ames, Iowa. More than 200 professionals and educators will attend the daylong conference focusing on evolving trends in journalism, advertising and public relations. Many of the complexities I mentioned will be addressed by journalists, advertising professionals, PR practitioners and educators. Register here:

We hope to see you at the Greenlee Summit!

Jeff White is vice president of business development and strategy at Flynn Wright, a Des Moines-based advertising agency. He is a Greenlee graduate and member of the Greenlee Alumni Advisory Council.