Use Opinion Research to Build Strong Communication

Article excerpt

The brand manager was a hunter, sportsman, and self-described "man's man." His company's alcoholic beverage sales were booming. He loved the agency's macho new pitch for the product, with ads poking non-too-subtle fun at "sissies" who drank competing beverages. Everyone from the CEO on down believed this promotional campaign was the start of something big.

So everyone was shocked when sales declined. Finally doing their opinion research homework, the firm's marketing staff discovered a startling explanation for the failed campaign. More than 35 percent of the product's existing market was comprised of two audiences: gay men and feminist women. These customers found the macho theme personally offensive to their lifestyles and have simply stopped buying the product.

We open the door to failure whenever we don't know our audiences. In addition to understanding basic demographic information, business communicators also need to better understand audience opinions, attitudes and beliefs to communicate successfully.

Why do research?

Public opinion research is one of the most effective tools available for understanding audiences. It's a vital element in strategic planning because it helps identify messages, target audiences and communication vehicles. Once these are identified, more effective budget planning also becomes possible because inappropriate media can be rejected and non-targeted audiences de-emphasized.

Opinion research saves money in the long run by taking part of the guesswork out of strategizing. It's cost effective to spend a portion of every public relations or advertising budget on opinion research before formulating a strategy for reaching audiences rather than spending money later to find out what went wrong.

Well-targeted communication designed with the benefit of research is also more cost effective than shotgun approaches. With what the New York Times calls "the splintering of mass markets into hundreds of smaller markets," practitioners are discovering that opinion research is a valuable tool for market segmentation.

Types of research

Surveys are the best-known type of attitudinal research. They yield quantitative data that can be scientifically projected to populations as large as an entire nation. Qualitative techniques such as focus groups provide candid feedback and insights on audience motivation and decision-making.

Focus groups provide in-depth understanding of attitudes beyond the numbers provided by polling; they also can be used to identify issues and messages for later testing in a survey. A trained moderator guides a targeted group of eight to 12 people in a roundtable discussion of issues, with marketing or communication managers typically observing the dialogue behind a one-way mirror.

Modern usages have expanded far beyond product marketing. Health-care organizations, for example, now use focus groups to help design legislative strategies. Trade publications increasingly are using groups to plan new features or improve graphic design. And public service organizations use the technique to recruit members and set long-range goals.

The candid comments generated by focus groups can result in surprising insights. For example, focus groups conducted for Tandem Computers unexpectedly found that poorly synchronized traffic lights - a problem that computers can resolve - were considered a serious community problem by many Silicon Valley residents. Subsequent survey results confirmed that traffic congestion was indeed the community's greatest concern more important than jobs, education or crime.

A methodology called conjoint analysis combines qualitative and quantitative assessments of the persuasive value of potential concessions, features or amenities. Through a series of forced choices, participants make realistic public policy or marketing decisions.

Conjoint analysis recently was used to interview metropolitan residents for a public transit agency. …