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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.