Use Opinion Research To Build Strong Communication

Frank Noto


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 none-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 had 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 in order 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 communications 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 communications designed with the benefit of research are 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 motivations and decision-making.

Focus groups provide in-depth understanding of attitudes beyond the numbers provided by polling; they can also be used to identify issues and messages for later testing in a survey. A trained moderator guides a targeted group of 8 to 12 people in a round-table discussion of issues, with marketing or communications managers typically observing the dialogue behind a one-way mirror.

Modern usages have expanded far beyond product marketing. Healthcare 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 utilize 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 was recently used to interview metropolitan residents for a public transit agency. Trade-offs between features including ticket prices, service intervals, and travel time were explored. Researchers discovered that most passengers were willing to pay more for faster, direct service with fewer stops, while train frequency had little effect on transit choices. Using this data, the transit agency was able to restructure service, and successfully promote the changes despite ticket prices increases.

Random-sample opinion surveys are a systematic, scientific means of collecting data from a sample of people whose opinions can be projected to characterize the entire population. The potency of telephone survey research has been greatly multiplied recently through the use of computer-assisted analytical techniques, including cluster analysis and causal modeling.

Cluster analysis was developed in response to demands for greater market segmentation in an era of cable television and special interest magazines. A method for grouping or clustering people together based on shared values and attributes, cluster analysis facilitates "narrow casting" to mini-publics with customized communications.

Republican campaigns, for example, have used cluster analysis to overcome the gender gap in recent years. Different clusters of women, each with separate socio-economic profiles and conservative or anti-feminist attitudes, were identified by campaign researchers and given cute names (e.g., "Bertha" representing middle-aged suburban fundamentalist housewives). Each sub-group was then targeted with tailored messages using appropriate media vehicles ranging from women's magazines to religious broadcast programs.

Another powerful analytical tool used to design persuasive communications is causal analysis. Rather than just settle for "popular" arguments garnered from routine cross-tabular survey analysis, causal modeling identifies the messages which have the power to actually change attitudes and influence behavior.

"Causal modeling identifies the silver bullets, the seemingly magical themes and credible supporting messages that move people to action," says Rebecca Quarles, Ph.D., president of QS Research and Strategy of Fairfax, VA.

In the example shown in the figure above summarizing the results of an opinion survey for a proposed California resort, causal analysis indicated that the most persuasive messages would emphasize: 1) the resort's generation of new tax revenues for local government; 2) traffic improvements paid for by the project; and, 3) the project's consistency with the community's local character. A fourth argument -- that the project will serve local residents as well as tourists -- provides a credible supporting message that influences attitudes toward rural character and traffic improvements.

Overcoming Barriers To Research
The perceived cost of research may be a barrier to use. However, communicators can usually bring their managers and clients to understand that the cost of good research is inexpensive when compared to the cost of failure. Initial client skepticism can be overcome by emphasizing research's role in improving the cost-effectiveness of advertising and public relations.

Research can also be sold to managers as an accountability measure to track the effectiveness of communications. Tracking surveys are ideally suited for measuring on-going changes in corporate image, investor satisfaction or policy attitudes. Research can even be used to measure its own effectiveness in this way.

Finally, research can give businesses and non-profit organizations an edge on competitors. "In competitive environments, clients are turning to more sophisticated analysis because they need to understand what motivates their customers, prospects and stakeholders," adds Dr. Quarles.

The cost of conducting public opinion studies ranges from more than $100,000 to as little as $3,000 depending on program size and scope. With a minimum of training, economical research can sometimes be done in-house. For example, after watching dozens of focus groups, many communications practitioners are capable of moderating an employee focus group with some professional assistance.

But many organizations find it cheaper and more outsource opinion research rather than use in-house staff. Even the Democratic and Republican national congressional committees, with million dollar research budgets, hire out most of their research. Few businesses can keep up with cutting-edge analytical tools like causal modeling without outside consulting assistance.

Tips For Choosing A Research Consultant
When choosing a public opinion research consultant, follow these user-friendly tips:

  • Retain a researcher with relevant expertise. Hiring a healthcare market researcher to survey public policy attitudes would be imprudent.
  • Examine educational qualifications. A social science doctorate helps when using higher-level analytical techniques.
  • Ask for references. Talk to previous clients about their results using various techniques.
  • Ask researchers for examples of their work. If a firm demurs because of confidentiality concerns, ask them to omit confidential material or references to specific clients.

A century ago, a major retailer quipped "I know half my advertising budget is wasted. The trouble is, I don't know which half." Today's opinion research can help communicators spend their budgets effectively by knowing their audiences. In a nutshell, good public opinion research can give corporations a vital edge in communications by providing insights on what to say, whom to say it to, and how, when and where to say it best.