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
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
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
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.
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
4 Depend on legal counsel, clients, your account team and other
professionals as final arbiters. Listen to your audience(s).