Maximizing Your Campaign Resources with Digital Audience Research

As social marketing professionals, everything we do is based on research. We do formative research to define the public health problem and understand audience needs and preferences. Then we do more research to test concepts and messages. During all of this research, we are concurrently developing plans for process, outcome, and impact evaluation, which are vital to demonstrating a return on investment and continuously refining our campaigns and programs.

While all of this research is essential for our work, it also takes valuable resources away from the actual communications we use to affect behaviors. With almost 80% of the U.S. population online and 116 million Americans with regular access to smart phones, digital media channels provide unprecedented opportunities to minimize our research spending while capturing rich qualitative and quantitative data to guide our decisions.

Social Networks: Congratulations. You have 46,710 fans and got 12,034 “Likes” and 1,230 comments last month. You are no doubt building loyalty and getting out important information. But what have you learned from your network lately? During formative research, develop a series of open-ended questions to ask over a period of time to capture feedback from your audiences. Go back to your fans and ask for original concepts based on your findings and/or choose the best comments using “Likes” and polls.

Online Communities: Find where your target audiences connect online and join the discussion. Become a part of the community (following applicable community guidelines) or connect with the community managers to engage members through sponsored discussions or advertisements. This method is best for topics that already have vibrant communities, such as parenting.

Online Focus Groups: Online focus groups can be a great way to collect qualitative information if you want to engage audiences from multiple locations but don’t have the travel budget; if you are working with a small, disbursed audience; or if your audience is based in rural areas. You can use a full-service research company like iTracks or potentially cut costs by using a recruiting service like Nationwide Research Recruiters or selecting respondents from your own opt-in lists to engage through Adobe Connect.

Online Bulletin Boards: Virtual meeting places also provide a unique opportunity for asynchronous research (not occurring at the same time). Online bulletin boards typically engage 15-30 respondents and the discussion is extended over several days to enable respondents to reflect on the content and participate at their convenience. Online bulletin boards are good for topics that require more in-depth analysis or interaction over a period of time. Russell Research is a full service firm that offers online bulletin boards.

Online Surveys: While this option has been around for a while, I would be remiss not to include online surveys in this list. You can use a free tool like SurveyMonkey to engage existing audiences or listservs, or you can secure services from an online research company like Knowledge Networks that has an existing audience panel.

Federal Health Considerations: Digital market research can be especially beneficial for Federal health organizations that are required to get Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) clearance to collect information from the public—which can take 6-9 months. The executive memorandum on “Social Media, Web-Based Interactive Technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act,” lists uses of social media and web-based interactive technologies that are excluded from the information collections subject to the PRA:

  • A series of specific, open-ended questions designed to elicit relevant public feedback
  • General comments on discussion topics
  • General or unstructured feedback about a program
  • Requests for comments on a report or proposed initiative
  • Requests for ideas, comments, suggestions, or anything that might improve a program
  • Public meetings (including but not limited to public conference calls, webinars, blogs, discussion boards, forums, message boards, chat sessions, social networks, and online communities)
  • Wikis or collaborative drafting platforms

Generally, these exceptions do not include any surveys, questions that can be aggregated for surveys, public meetings where identical questions are asked of 10 or more attendees (i.e., focus groups), or any collection of demographic information (e.g., age, sex, race/ethnicity, employment, or citizenship status).

Limitations: While digital marketing research provides an exciting opportunity to collect information, it’s important to consider key limitations. From a quantitative perspective, online-only surveys cannot truly capture a representative sample, nor do they collect sufficient information on low-income and elderly populations. From a qualitative perspective, in addition to limitations with hard-to-reach populations, you cannot capture the subtle physical cues (or side conversations) through comments and web cams.

What’s Next: While social marketing professionals have not yet realized the potential of web-based research, mobile technologies are opening up previously unimaginable opportunities to gain insight into audience needs and behaviors. With the addition of photo, video, GPS, and time-based technologies, we have the opportunity to be within arm’s reach of our respondents 24-7. How will we capitalize on this potential? What can we learn from this new dimension? I didn’t know about the upcoming Market Research in a Mobile World Conference when I started this post, but I will be very interested to see how it goes.