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The excellent reasons for undertaking market research, and including it in any public relations strategic process, include that it generates information to create the best possible comms strategy, it helps determine appropriate benchmarks against which communication activity can be measured and it uncovers a range of issues that can be leveraged in PR programs.

I have written before on the utility of market research, but want to discuss the above elements in a little more detail.

Best possible PR strategy

It is a no-brainer that to produce material of the highest quality the ‘producer’ needs to have information that will educate him or her as to what direction that material should go in and/or what shape it should take. This certainly applies to producing a business communication strategy.

There are three categories of information that are of great utility. They include organisational stakeholders’:

  • knowledge
  • perceptions
  • behaviour.

This can be knowledge, perceptions and behaviour in regard to an organisation or its products or services. The principles remain the same regardless of whether the communication strategy is an holistic organisational one or a strategy for a product or service.

Complementary areas that the research should delve into includes:

  1. who or what are the influencers on stakeholder knowledge/views/behaviour?
  2. what are the issues which influence views/behaviour of stakeholder knowledge/views/behaviour?

Identifying stakeholder influencers might prompt you to develop stronger relationships and/or forming strategic alliances with them.

Identifying salient issues might influence the way your organisation operates and cause it to modify its approach to certain non-communication related, business processes.

In the area of communication conduits or mechanisms, the research should uncover what communication mechanisms stakeholders rely most on to get information that influences their  knowledge/views/behaviour  (e.g. media, industry associations, websites, conferences, social media – note that the more specific, rather than generic, the information is the greater its utility).

Setting communication strategy benchmarks

The question (or issue) of what constitutes meaningful, business-relevant benchmarks for public relations strategies is a profoundly vexed one. I have seen some discussions on this issue but, in general, I think it is an area that has been toyed with rather than addressed in a thorough, useful manner. And this goes for the academic environment as much as the business one.

Having said that, as I have identified knowledge, perceptions and behaviour as the three core areas of information that are needed to form the best possible communication strategy, it is these areas which will often, similarly, form the substance of strategy benchmarks (or objectives).

The trick is figuring out what relates most effectively to the needs and wants of your organisation (i.e. its vision, its business strategy and its marketing strategy).

The core area of greatest relevance, clearly, is behaviour. Whether that behaviour involves buying a product, voting a certain way, catching a bus rather than driving, not taking drugs or many more behavioural manifestations, it is this area where your organisation wants to see traction more than any other.

A singular beauty of setting benchmarks is that they can be measured over extended periods of time. This allows you to gauge the impact of your communication and stakeholder engagement. Information you collate over time should influence the nature of your communication strategy to allow it to achieve these benchmarks.

One of the biggest mistakes that organisations make is constantly changing key benchmarks. Adding new ones is fine over time, but removing fundamental ones simply does not allow a rigourous, scientific approach to be taken to communication measurement.

I am a big fan of integrating the dimension of advocacy into communication strategy benchmarking:

  • Measuring advocacy of an organisation/product etc is a useful means to determine its positioning
  • It provides an insight into the behaviour of a stakeholder, not just opinions or perceptions, so it is evidence of a stakeholder’s tangible action (one analogous to actually buying a product, for instance)
  • This is particularly important when researching the behaviour of ‘influencers’, as opposed to those who purchase a product, for instance. This is because of the ripple effect, or impact, than an influencer can have on target audiences
  • Research around this notion should explore the context/rationale for recommending or advocating an organisation or product etc.

Advocacy is very relevant for organisations that rely on stakeholder support, but don’t actually have any product or service to sell to certain stakeholder groups. Examples of these types of organisations are government departments or NGOs.

The value-add to market research

Sometimes the ability of the market research to uncover information and to deliver statistics that can be used in proactive stakeholder communication is ignored.

It’s pretty simple, really. There are two dimensions I can think of where market research can help you come up with one of professional communication’s holy grails – producing content for your communication activity:

  • Identifying salient issues that can be integrated into thought leadership platforms
  • Producing statistics.

Thought leadership platforms and the use of statistics to highlight certain issues can be used across a diversity of communication mechanisms (e.g. speaking engagements, website, direct mail and more) but they are very much a media relations 101 approach.

Media LOVES this sort of material. It provides POD (if done well!) and for some reason (maybe it’s human nature) they love numbers and their comparative nature. Maybe it’s the ranking aspect of statistics, or their inherently competitive (us vs. them etc) quality. Whatever, it achieves cut-through again and again and again.

So if your sample is big enough and your questions interesting and topical enough, you can create additional value and impact for your market research by integrating a few questions that will give you some statistical oomph.

Do you always integrate market research into your communication planning and activity? How do you go about formulating objectives/benchmarks? Do you get support from those that run your organisation when setting objectives/benchmarks? What other uses can market research provide a professional communicator? Do you think PR folk generally do market research well…or not?

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