The right message can be hard to identify. But unless an effort is made to pinpoint it, there is a risk that a campaign will fall flat.
When the Dallas Zoo hired Weber Shandwick and KRC Research last August, it was facing an array of challenges. Following a 2004 incident in which a gorilla escaped, attendance was down nearly 15%. Adding to the problem was competition from the Fort Worth Zoo and attractions like the Dallas World Aquarium.
"They just lost their unique positioning in the community," says Victoria Sneed, EVP at KRC.
"We weren't projecting a consistent brand," adds Michael Meadows, Dallas Zoological Society president. It needed a totally new marketing effort to win over both consumers and potential donors.
Using phone interviews, focus groups with consumers, and one-on-one interviews with business and community leaders, KRC was able to determine what the most compelling messages would be.
One thing the research showed, Sneed says, is that the animals were not the biggest draw for potential customers; they were more concerned with finding a family-friendly, affordable, comprehensive activity. And so the marketing team incorporated that messaging into the campaign and developed the tagline "The Largest Zoological Experience in Texas."
"It tells people that while we focus on the animals, it is a broader experience," says Meadows.
The impact: attendance is up 18% year on year, and a fundraising effort launched last year has brought in $600,000.
"This was one of the most important investments we ever made," Meadows says. "[The research] confirmed a lot of things that we thought and also gave us a lot of new information we didn't have."
Helping launch products
Messaging research can also play a role in the launch of a new or retooled product. When professional services company RWD launched an updated version of InfoPak, a product which helps in documentation and training for enterprise software support, it worked with Brodeur Worldwide to conduct research to determine what type of messaging would be most effective.
The team conducted a series of interviews with senior executives at RWD to determine the value of the product's current positioning and messaging. They then compared that with information gathered from interviews with analysts at companies like Forrester, Gardener, and IDC. In addition, the team conducted phone surveys of nearly 1,000 RWD customers.
Says Nancy Williams, marketing team leader at RWD, "We learned that [customers] think of us as a training/documentation-type company," which was not in line with the performance support the product offered. This helped in the crafting of a name for the product, uPerform, which conveyed the idea.
"We dramatically changed the messaging of the product from a documentation and training and learning package to a performance-support package that emphasized certain features," adds Jerry Johnson, EVP and head of strategic planning at Brodeur.
Message research and testing can be especially crucial when dealing with a long-term campaign. Earlier this year, Porter Novelli finished a multi-year effort with the National Cancer Institute for its "5 A Day for Better Health" program, which promotes healthy eating as a way to prevent cancer. The push targeted men in the general market as well as African Americans, which required extensive messaging research.
"We had to make sure the message would not just reach men, but resonate with the subset of men that was hardest to reach," says Michael Ramah, partner and director of strategic planning and research at PN.
In conducting research, which included focus groups and Web TV testing of creative materials, the team discovered the message resonating with the general market was not about the long-term effect their health habits could have on their risk for cancer, but about how improving health habits could help improve their energy. For the African-American market, a long-term message was getting through, although it was not related to cancer.
"It was more than just prevent-ing their risk of cancer," says Stephanie Fu, SVP of healthcare and social marketing at PN. "It was that they wanted to prevent their risk of cancer so they could be there for their families."
Using the research, the team was able to adjust messaging in all of the campaign's components - from spokespeople to RMTs to op-eds - to take these different attitudes into account.
Mark Penn, Burson-Marsteller CEO and founder/president of Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, shares his views on messaging research.
PRWeek: Is there enough research behind messaging in the PR industry?
Penn: I think a lot of research is done on positioning, what the marketplace looks like,and what people think of the issues, but not enough people test the messages they're going to use.
PRWeek: Why is research necessary to messaging?
Penn: People must understand the best way to frame a case, what are the best facts they can marshal on behalf of their case, and what facts opponents have. What we've done for a long time, coming out of our work for the White House, is develop a form of messaging research that is very detail-oriented. We can test up to 60 or 100 messages that someone might have around important issues or products.
PRWeek: What are the best ways to test those messages?
Penn: You have to do a thorough brainstorming to understand the messages and then craft them. We test and score all the individual messages to find the pattern of the ones that work the best.
PRWeek: Are there methods that work better than others?
Penn: Focus groups are overused. Quantitative testing is underused. Quantitative message testing helps you to really identify what the net impact of a message can be, not just on some small group, but on your base and target groups as well.
PRWeek: Why is the industry so quick to turn to focus groups?
Penn: They find it easy. They don't realize that focus groups are a way to explore how people talk about things, [but] they are not a way to test the most effective message. Testing really needs to be done quantitatively.
PRWeek: Is there a rule on how much research should be done prior to getting started on a campaign?
Penn: You have to do it in proportion to the stakes involved. Generally, we put aside about 5% of the budget for research - 5% to help direct the other 95% most effectively.