PR TECHNIQUE: MESSAGE TESTING - Before you launch, test, test, test your message. Too many PR pros - and their clients - don’t even think of testing messages before they kick off a PR campaign. But taking the time and paying the expense to do so c

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s why first testing your message before you launch a PR campaign can help secure a strategy with its target audience. Message-testing research is complicated, expensive and worth every penny because the wrong message to the right people goes nowhere.

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s why first testing your message before you launch a PR campaign can help secure a strategy with its target audience. Message-testing research is complicated, expensive and worth every penny because the wrong message to the right people goes nowhere.

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s

why first testing your message before you launch a PR campaign can help

secure a strategy with its target audience. Message-testing research is

complicated, expensive and worth every penny because the wrong message

to the right people goes nowhere.



’Spending a little money up front to find out if you’re doing the right

things can save you a lot of money once the program goes,’ says Geri

Mazur, SVP and director of research for Porter Novelli in New York.



Asking people face-to-face to help edit information has been the

standard approach to message-testing research, says Graham Hueber,

director of research and measurement for Ketchum. ’You say, here’s the

information I’m trying to convey - is it credible, do you get the

meaning, are there words that would cause you trouble?’



But choosing your testing sample wisely is key. For example, when Hueber

needed to test a message about a CEO’s increased compensation before the

announcement was made to employees, he couldn’t very well test it on

those same people. So he developed a company profile for research

recruiters to mirror. Participants from other companies role-played as

employees of the ’fictitious’ company. After reviewing a company

backgrounder, group members read a message about the CEO’s raise and

reacted. Additional messages were added in sequence until the group

agreed ’this is credible and enough for acceptance.’



Because some people may take issue with a message, Hueber suggests

testing hostile audiences ’to know how they will phrase responses.’



’The challenge is figuring out, by listening to customers, what messages

will resonate with them,’ says Vivian Deuschl, corporate VP for PR at

the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company in Atlanta. When travel agents complained

that the company’s brochures weren’t what they needed to sell clients,

the hotel’s marketing team listened to their suggestions and revised its

materials to be more family friendly. Deuschl says her company has an

advisory board of travel agents and it relies on them heavily whenever

it changes its messages. The Ritz’ current positioning - ’relevant

luxury’ - evolved from focus groups answering the question, ’What are

you doing for us?’



New executives who want to know how well past messages played before

they begin crafting their own strategies are driving the need for

content analysis, says Katharine Paine, president of Delahaye Medialink

in Portsmouth, NH. She prefers quantitative research because ’the more

charts, graphs and numbers you use, the higher up the corporate ladder

your materials go.’



Research methods may begin with a few focus groups, triads or individual

interviews to frame issues and develop concepts, then move on to surveys

or more focus groups. Searching initially for the ’emotional foundation

(of the product or service) helps identify what customer needs it

meets,’ says John Meunier, founding partner of Axiom Research Company in

Cambridge, MA. For concept development, Meunier, who often tests early

adopters, sometimes asks people to keep diaries about relevant habits or

experiences for focus group discussion.



And it can get even more creative. ’They may make a collage expressing

their feelings about an issue,’ says Meunier. ’Then we ask them to tell

how they see themselves moving through the collage, which allows us to

hear the subtle differences in how they build mental concepts and

metaphors.’ Meunier uses a proprietary Internet tool with visual and

auditory stimuli to conduct cost-effective surveys on a web site that

respondents can access only once with a pin number.



But the Internet should be used with caution. ’You have to be careful to

realize it’s not representative of the general population’ because the

Internet’s demographic is different from the general population, warns

Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge officer for Burson-Marsteller.



Although PN’s Mazur says she plans to use the Internet for research in

the future, she does have reservations about it. ’My concern always is,

do you have the right people on the other end?’ She says she uses

surveys to validate focus group responses from several rounds of message

testing.



To gauge degrees of message acceptance, Mazur says she ’puts words

around 5-point Likert scales (which grade answers in increments) -

otherwise everybody’s mid-point is somewhere else.’



While surveys may validate focus groups, focus groups can give direction

to questionnaire construction and provide a final check of emotions and

feelings you can’t get from a questionnaire, says Dennis Bowman, group

VP of communications and public relations for the Arthritis

Foundation.



Noting that different parts of his organization were saying different

things to different audiences, in January 1998 Bowman embarked on a

two-year project to develop and test messages.



’We needed consistency and clarity,’ he says. Following an internal

materials review, focus groups in three markets discussed what they

liked and didn’t like about several positioning descriptions of the

group. Next, they mixed and matched concepts like advocacy, research and

helping people on a Velcro board to show the ideal organization. ’We

were looking for trends, tone and direction rather than exact comments,’

says Bowman. Using the core messages that evolved from this research,

next year the foundation will test PSAs and collateral messages.



But Bowman stresses that while it’s important to ask people what they

want rather than make assumptions about what you think they want, there

is a danger of letting the testing go on for too long. ’You can research

something to death and never implement,’ he says. ’The real test is when

people react or don’t react in the marketplace.’





DOS AND DON’TS



DO



1 Define your target audiences and understand what motivates them.



2 Know the differences between qualitative and quantitative research

methods and what each can accomplish.



3 Consider testing messages on hostile audiences.



4 Work with legal counsel, clients, your account team and other

professionals on message development.





DON’T



1 Assume you know what an audience wants to hear.



2 Expect quantitative data from qualitative research.



3 Use Internet surveys unless you’re sure your target audience is

there.



4 Depend on legal counsel, clients, your account team and other

professionals as final arbiters. Listen to your audience(s).



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