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Getting your money’s worth out of market research

By Mike Wiese, PhD, associate

Do you need to do market research to make an important decision? Before you do, read this paper.

Market research studies are often done

1) to assess constituents’ perceptions of how the organization is fulfilling its mission.

2) to guide improvement efforts.

3) to inform a specific decision that needs to be made (i.e. the viability of a new program, capital campaign, strategy, etc.).

4) to explore new opportunities for programs or services.

Ideally, the process of accessing the voice of your constituencies will illuminate your view of what should be done. A study should “pay off” for the organization because it guides decision makers toward actions that enhance the viability of the organization and its ability to achieve its purpose.

Here is a too common and unfortunate outcome of market research . . . nothing is done. This is true even when there is consensus that the study provides important and helpful insights, and findings that are clearly actionable. How can this happen?

Having been involved in many research projects over the years, I know both the joy of seeing the results put to work and the frustration of seeing an opportunity squandered. At times, I wonder what we as consultants could and should have done to reduce the probability of a study wasted.

A more important question is how can organizational leaders improve the probability of good research being used for good results? The temptation is clear. It is easy to just ignore findings because they are likely to call for change, time and money. As a leader, here are some steps you should take both before committing to market research and throughout the process.

1. Start with a clear sense of what you want to find out and what you are going to do with the information.

Before you start anything, sit down with a consultant/facilitator and have him/her help you get a clear picture of what you need to find out and why it is important. What are your research objectives? What questions do you want to answer as a result of the project? How will this information be used? What if the findings are undesirable and/or don’t meet your expectations? Assess your courage for action before you spend the money.

2. Name the hidden agenda items.

Let’s be honest: sometimes there are agendas that need to be named. Who is championing the study? What is driving it? Who is funding it? What are the expectations? These are the types of things that cause a study to be buried after it is done. Worse yet these agendas, once they become known, can result in action for the wrong reasons.

3. Get internal buy-in/involvement in the study objectives.

The best way to improve both the probability of implementing findings and the ease of implementation is to get key stakeholders in those findings around the table when designing the study. As you envision the findings, who are the key people in the organization who may be necessary to implementation? Get them to invest in the process. This can take time, but it is better to involve them on the front end than to have them be barriers to implementation later.

4. Set-up paths for accountability.

If the study really is important, let people know about it. Put your reputation on the line. Publicizing your intent with key stakeholders and others may help the study be successful and bolster public relations. When the study is done, there will be a strong temptation to read the findings and go right back to the status quo. Name the persons who are going to make sure you do not do that.

5. Work the plan.

Soon after getting results, your organization should develop a specific action plan. A consultant can help you think through what will be done, by whom and when. Make implementing the plan a high priority. Report progress to your constituencies and ask them to hold you accountable.

Most studies identify “easy wins”—things that can be implemented fairly fast, often with little money. By implementing some of the more doable recommendations, you communicate to your constituency that the study matters and that you have listened.

6. Remember to celebrate.

Call attention to any changes your organization makes as a result of your study. Also celebrate any successes that come as a result of your findings.

A short case story: A religious mission organization serving a particular denomination was experiencing a sizable drop in membership. This put the viability of the organization in jeopardy. Leadership recognized that the program had become irrelevant to a significant number of constituents. At the same time, other very loyal constituents had a vested interest in maintaining things the way they are. An obvious challenge!

A research process to discern the needs of the various constituencies and to cast a new vision, consistent with core values and mission, was initiated. The steps above were taken, with the help of a consultant. As a result of the study, the organization blazed a new course that included a name change, programming initiatives, and more. It was a major rework of the organization, managing many challenges.

Today the organization has recreated itself, while retaining most of the support of the traditional audience. There is new excitement for the mission and buy-in from multiple constituencies. What was becoming old and ineffective has become new and outreach-oriented. There has been true “advancement.”

This case illustrates that these steps can help an organization use market research to inform change, in the most challenging of circumstances. Most situations do not call for this level of implementation. Regardless, a research project should represent opportunity. To seize that opportunity, do your work on implementation before you commit your resources.



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Two kinds of research

Advancement Associates, Inc. (AAI) believes in the helpfulness of research and relies on research results to shape its counsel. Associate Michael Wiese, professor of marketing at Anderson (IN) University and widely known for his expertise in research, typically leads AAI’s research projects.

AAI carries out two kinds of research, each of them useful in particular circumstances. One type is called qualitative research, the other quantitative (or scientific) research.

Qualitative research comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Qualitative methods to answer research questions include interviews, open-ended response analysis, focus groups and observation research.

Many clients ask questions such as: Does our constituency still believe in us? Do we maintain good relationships with them? Do our constituents approve the plans that we have made? Will they support the plans with interest, prayers, and funds?

Such questions are typically answered through the use of feasibility studies, some of which are qualitative in design, other are scientific. In the qualitative studies, AAI consultants prepare a questionnaire schedule, then conduct one-hour in-depth interviews with crucial stakeholders. Skills in asking questions, following up replies with more questions, giving engaged listening, and then compiling results can be invaluable for organizational planning.

AAI has done qualitative feasibility studies having to do with capital campaigns, marketing audits, program designs, communication effectiveness and organizational image.

Scientific research calls for a rigor that permits analysis to a designated degree of reliability and validity. The design of questions, the selection of a random sample that is large enough to represent the whole, the control of questionnaire completion, the ability to make statistical inferences all contribute to the authority of scientific research. In many cases, scientific research costs more.

The problem calling for research may need a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to most fully answer questions.

Good counsel may, at times, arise from the years of experience of consultants. Sometimes it comes from “a gut feeling.” But in many circumstances, the right word of counsel is based upon careful qualitative or quantitative investigation.

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Mennonite Manor case study

Over the last few years a number of our clients have engaged in market research. Among them are schools working to improve their image and/or increase their enrollment; retirement centers considering a new approach to long-term care; and a church conference wanting to better support its pastors. In each case, these organizations were motivated by a genuine desire to provide their clients with service that was more accessible, more comprehensive and more relevant. All concluded that conducting market research would be an important step to this end.

In 2008 AAI had the opportunity to conduct substantial qualitative market research for Mennonite Manor, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in South Hutchinson, KS. (As opposed to quantitative research, which deals with random samples, percentages, figures and probabilities, qualitative research uses such tools as interviews, open-ended response analysis, focus groups and observation research; for more information, see “Two kinds of research.”)

After a difficult period in its history Mennonite Manor was looking to regain the positive reputation it had enjoyed for years in the greater Hutchinson community. The Manor was also considering an innovative approach to long-term care. Competition in the local service area is intense and a comprehensive marketing strategy was needed.

Mennonite Manor CEO Lowell Peachey explains it this way: “My experience is that most organizations promote their superior customer service as a distinguishing feature. Obviously not everyone can be superior – if all are superior all are average.”

AAI conducted 40 in-depth interviews to unearth the deep sentiments related to life transitions that lead older persons and their families to consider a continuing care living arrangement. Associate Michael Wiese prepared the interview instrument, designing it around five specific objectives:

1. To define a clear strategic vision, consistent with its mission and values, which would differentiate Mennonite Manor from other retirement communities in its service area.

2. To understand the living experience that makes a retirement community preferable and desirable.

3. To gain insights that would further align the Mennonite Manor experience with the organization’s strategic vision.

4. To determine the messages for creating a unique integrated marketing communication approach that would effectively brand Mennonite Manor.

5. To discover how constituency members view Mennonite Manor relative to other senior living centers in the area.

The three-person research group, which also included Principal Becky Drumm and Associate Dan Hess, met for a day of training. It became clear during this process that the nature of the interviews would require a high level of adaptability and together, the three revised the instrument accordingly.

Becky and Dan each conducted 20 interviews with a cross-section of participants representing five constituency groups. These conversations allowed the researchers to independently draw conclusions about what they heard. The nature of the interviews often evoked heart-felt conversations through which respondents discovered and expressed inner emotions related to their childhood homes, describing their current homes and anticipating their future homes. The conversations also allowed people to share their perceptions of the various senior living facilities available in the area, including Mennonite Manor.

Sessions were recorded, allowing Mike to replay the conversations and record notes for each interview. After completing an analysis of each interview, Becky and Dan also independently provided Mike with an analysis of overall findings, reflecting the interviews each conducted. Mike then read the summaries for each conversation and conducted a “compare and contrast” review of the two interviewers’ reports.

These findings have led to important insights that can effectively guide strategy for Mennonite Manor. “What we’re trying to do in this process,” says Peachey, “is determine the core differences between the Manor and competitor organizations and actually build our programs and services around these distinguishing hallmarks. We are also developing internal standards that can be measured in terms of behaviors and using these standards to create a unique experience that will attract both residents and staff to our community.”

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Cost-effective market research

Market research. These two words might evoke a variety of responses within an organization. Some might be intimidated by the mere thought (“I don’t know how.”) Others might question the need (“Ya, right?”) or financial wisdom (“I can’t afford it.”) To these folks, the suggestion may sound like one of those consultants trying to drum up some more business. Still others might see the benefits of market research but it gets perpetually lost in the shuffle of other tasks that are more pressing and take priority.

At AAI, when we suggest that every organization regularly conducts market research, we don’t necessarily imply a major scientific study where you hire a consultant, spend six months gathering data and then you get a report and a bill. Although there are times when this is exactly what is needed, many critical insights that will help your organization more effectively and efficiently achieve its mission can be gleaned with NO RESEARCH BUDGET.

The most profitable patrons and most generous constituency members that you will ever have are likely to be the ones that you already have, the ones that are in front of you all the time. Can you afford to lose them? If not, what are you doing to ensure that this doesn’t happen? The simplest, cheapest form of market research is to listen to your customers.

  • Have you talked to your customers and/or primary constituency members lately about how you are doing as an organization?
  • Do you invite their honest feedback or do you have a “don’t complain to me” mentality?
  • When you hear concerns, do you take them seriously and, whenever possible, resolve them?
  • If you cannot fix the problem, do you empathize with the person and give good explanations for why things are the way they are?

This is why ongoing communication with these people is important. Research of customers lost by 14 major companies found that only 15% switched because they found a better product/service and another 15% because they found a better price. What happened to the rest? This 70% did not continue to buy from the company because of poor or little attention.

Another study found that only 4% of dissatisfied customers even complain. Between 54% and 70% of unhappy customers that do not complain continue doing business with the firm. But, of the 4% that actually complain, 95% of them are retained, when the organization appropriately responds to the issue.

Listening and responding is excellent market research. Here is a simple plan for listening to your customers/constituency that will not cost you anything.

  1. Find out who your best customers/constituency members are. Generally, a mere 20% of these people produce approximately 80% of your revenues/gifts. You probably know who they are immediately. If not, track your records and find out who they are.
  2. Find a way to talk with them (or a sample of them). The conversation may happen naturally the next time you see them. Maybe you need to cut out a little part of the day to make one phone call a day to chat. Or, get a small group of them together for a lunch just to talk about how you are doing and what you can do to better serve them. Maybe email will work for you instead of the phone. Some on-line software programs allow you to create a simple questionnaire and email it to your contact list. For example, at you can conduct your own little research project for just a small monthly fee.
  3. Have a clear idea of what you want to know. Don’t just call to say hi and talk about the weather. Write down, before you call, the specific questions that you want to ask. Some examples may be, 1) Why do you send your kids to this school and not one of the others in the area, 2) What is it that we do right, 3) What have we done that dissatisfied you, and 4) What actions can we take to improve how we serve you?
  4. Do something with the input. Make an improvement. Share what you are learning and how the information is being used to make operations/ministry more effective. Let others know that their opinions matter and that you are all working as a team to make the organization better. This will encourage further dialogue and begin the cycle of improvement that will help your organization better achieve its mission.

Someone once said, “We should all listen twice as much as we talk; why else do you think God gave us two ears and one mouth?” Listening to your best customers/constituency members is a wise move that doesn’t have to cost you anything. On the other hand, not doing it may cost you a lot.

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Ingredients of a successful strategic visioning retreat

What follows is an interview Associate Dan Hess (JDH) conducted with former AAI Principal Jerry Kennell following a visioning retreat held at Philadelphia Mennonite High School (PMHS).

JDH: Let’s begin at the beginning. What is strategic visioning, Jerry?

Kennell: Farmers don’t plow anymore, but when they did, they made straight furrows by picking a fence post or some other fixed mark on the horizon and locking their sight directly on this mark. Strategic visioning is a process to name the fence posts on the horizon for an organization, the key landmarks that will focus all organizational efforts to accomplish mission over a substantial stretch of time. Good planning is rooted firmly in the right strategic vision. Continue reading Ingredients of a successful strategic visioning retreat