September 18, 2018

Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Qualitative Research: Gaining Intelligence to Measure Smarter Communications Campaigns

The guillotine was, for its time and in its own largely metaphorical way, a crude but effective measurement tool.  At the macro scale, its utilization told you something about the society and its evolving (or devolving) views on proper justice administration. Moreover, much like social media likes and shares, its engagement metrics were certainly measurable. Outcome agnostic, the platform did not care one way or the other who the “user” was.

But if one wishes to perform more than a headcount and delve deeply into the “why?” behind communications campaign measurement, then one must consider the value of formative primary research, particularly qualitative studies.

Qualitative Research – Probing to Obtain Deep Insights

Having worked in partnership with a number of PR agencies as well as corporate clients over the years, there are several best practices involving qualitative approaches that communications researchers and PR practitioners should keep in mind when devising measurement programs.

Pre-Launch Exploration

First, while establishing specific campaign benchmarks up front will help provide insights into progress and overall ROI, one must not forget the importance of assessing content prior to launch. This is where one can explore, and find answers to, key questions including, but not necessarily limited to:

  • Are your potential messages connecting effectively?
  • Are they credible coming from Client X? Compelling?
  • What misconceptions/information gaps exist?
  • What are the ideal information exchange vehicles?
  • Are the potential brand validators/champions trusted or appropriate for the client/campaign?
  • Which brand attributes resonate most (and least)?
  • What larger trends may impact the perceptions and behaviors of key stakeholders?
  • What are the hopes, dreams, wants, needs, expectations, and fears of your target audience(s)?
  • Which information sources are trusted and why?

These are all vital communications questions that should be examined, in detail, before the commencement of PR initiatives.

Moreover, given the exploratory nature of these questions, the optimal study design is one that permits a rich and detailed exchange of ideas between the interviewer and respondent. To that end, qualitative approaches that place the interviewee at the proverbial “center of the universe” (maximizing their interest in sharing their opinions openly and honestly) are extremely helpful.

This is why we strongly recommend Opinion Leader Audits in the form of one-on-one In-Depth Interviews. Having a skilled and knowledgeable interviewer conduct the interview at a time and place of the respondent’s choosing helps ensure that each discussion, framed by a well-crafted guide, will yield as much useful information as possible over the course of a 30, 45, 60, or even 90-minute conversation.

Qualitative-Driven Campaign Refinement

Second, while most communications professionals focus on quantitative monitor tracking studies as a default element of the post-Benchmark study measurement program, qualitative research can, and should, be utilized for mid-campaign course correction.

Having (hopefully) permeated the target audience’s consciousness, their awareness levels, attitudes, and potentially behaviors may have been impacted. Primary research in the form of qualitative studies can help clients explore why and how these critical elements may have changed over time. Focus groups or the aforementioned Opinion Leader Audits, within this context, can ascertain which words and phrases are working, and which are not. They can also assess evolving stakeholder needs.

For example, for one PR campaign, we scrutinized the potential for various client-stakeholder partnerships. By understanding, in-depth, how key stakeholder attitudes towards the client had changed since the launch of the campaign a few months prior, we were able to design programming that reflected the new “on the ground” reality and thus structured partnership concepts around ideas that the stakeholders found to be relevant to their needs as well as timely solutions to pressing challenges.

So, the Campaign is ending.  What have we really learned?

Third, post-campaign or “end game” research can be a tougher sell. That said, to obtain a holistic look at the successes (or, heaven forbid, failures) of the communications campaign, a “lessons learned” qualitative research program at or near the end of the initiative will not only allow the client to understand what worked and what did not over the course of the entire effort, but also inform and enhance their worldview going into the next campaign.

Again, qualitative research can complement quantitative studies, or stand on its own. For example, one client wanted to use In-Depth Interviews near the end of one initiative to explore not only utilization patterns for a particular opinion elite information exchange platform, but also to gather ideas for future conference topics, assess the value of engaging with influential stakeholders in formal partnerships, and ascertain what changes should be made to the platform to ensure that it remained a gathering point for experts on a particular subject of importance. The findings helped the client reinforce their thought leadership positioning long after the first wave of the communications campaign ended.

Sharp Intelligence

By employing classic qualitative methods and tools, albeit in a smart and “cutting-edge” manner (thus returning to the original metaphor), communications practitioners can increase the likelihood that their narratives and supporting messages and program concepts, informed through original primary research with key stakeholders, will enable them to accomplish salient goals and objectives and meet critical measurement milestones over the course of their PR campaigns.

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