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Getting Single Minded: Why Research Matters


Guest Post: Kate Emanuel, The Ad Council

Climate change, education reform, obesity prevention, cancer … name your issue. As communication professionals, we’re all tackling very complex social problems that call for very complex solutions.

I don’t have to tell you–grabbing the attention of target audiences you need to engage, regardless of your issue, is an uphill climb. You have to overcome a fragmented media landscape and substantial message clutter.

That’s why, no matter to whom you are talking—consumers, donors, volunteers or policymakers—you need to be clear and single minded.

That’s where research can make the difference.

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At the Ad Council, we do plenty of research to narrow down our communications so that they are clear, relevant and, of course, single-minded. Here’s how you can apply the lessons we’ve learned.

Tip 1: Listen to your audience before you talk to them

Whether you’re rewriting your grant guidelines, drafting an annual report, creating PSAs, communicating to policymakers—you need to understand the values and behaviors of the people you’re talking to. Doing this should always involve a little research. At the Ad Council, we use all sorts of qualitative and quantitative methodologies—expert interviews, focus groups, ethnographies and social media—listening to help inform our communication campaigns. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. It can be an online survey, interviewing someone who’s impacted by your issue, doing some online research, monitoring your Facebook page, or just talking to your neighbor/friend/crazy uncle. Just do some kind of research.

Tip 2: Don’t fear what you’ll hear

Most people go into research with preconceived notions—maybe we think we already know the issue or our gut instinct renders any research unnecessary. Instead, go into research with an open mind—even with an eye to getting a contrary view—so that you walk away with a sense of how your audience understands, feels and acts on your issue. For our campaign on foster adoption, we thought prospective parents might be motivated by messages around “Make a difference in a child’s life and your own” or “Change a child’s life.” Nope. They were afraid of failing a child who has already been failed before. So what was the single-minded idea? “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” That’s the consistent and sole message of the campaign—these kids just need love and stability.

Tip 3: Now that you have listened to your audience, identify your challenge

Next, you need to identify the barriers to communicating about your issue. Is your issue part of the clutter—have people tuned out? Is it an unusually complicated or confusing such as common core standards or climate change? Is it a daunting prospect, say, asking someone to adopt from foster care? Or is it considered unimportant or off the radar—like the “value” of transportation infrastructure? Identifying your particular communications challenge through research is good to do early on. That way you can face and focus the internal battle with your wonky colleagues (or grantees) who get bogged down (or are in love) with the depth and complexity of the issue. When you are accused of “dumbing down your issue,” you can remind them of the communications challenge.

Tip 4: Create a communications strategy brief that is based on your audience insights

After you’ve done your research and created a brief, let the research guide your one core idea. Our most recent campaign with the Department of Transportation is anchored by one core idea: “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving.” We’re trying to get young men to understand that buzzed driving and drunk driving may look, sound and feel different, but the financial consequences are the same. We’re not trying to appeal to their personal safety or the impact on other drivers—that would dilute the more motivating message of financial consequences.

So, to sum it up in a single-minded way: Do your research and then stick with that single-minded idea!


Kate Emanuel is Senior Vice President, Nonprofit and Government Relations at the Ad Council.

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