This past summer’s controversial headlines covering several marketing and promotional initiatives funded with taxpayer dollars leave much to be desired from just about every stakeholder’s point of view.
Government agencies find themselves under criticism for their communications campaigns’ effectiveness on topics ranging from drunk driver prevention to prison safety to branding consistency for state marketing materials.
Marketing agencies involved with formulating and executing recent campaigns continually face attacks of their work.
Legislators are up in arms, fueled by constituency concerns about how taxpayer dollars were responsibly spent on these campaigns, and what, if anything, was accomplished.
Of lesser concern to the general public, but tantamount to anyone working in the marketing communications sector, is that the legitimacy of what we do for a living remains under fire, with limited context within the whole conversation of what methodologies and attributes constitute quality and effective work in this field.
Our commentary here isn’t intended to argue for or against any of the campaigns that sparked recent and ongoing headlines. Instead, we have an argument to make that’s twofold: 1) dispelling the myth that strategic communication is not impactful or measurable, and 2) calling for higher standards in the methodologies used in publicly funded communications campaigns — namely, utilizing market research.
Fact: Decades of Tennessee case studies document effective marketing communications campaigns underpinned with valid research and the power to change public awareness levels, attitudes, opinions, and behaviors, all in service to an informed public and with a measurable return on investment. Last year’s “Red, White and Food” campaign quickly comes to mind.
Note the caveat, “underpinned with valid research.”
With so many options in today’s marketing communications toolbox, selecting those that fit clients’ budgets and are best poised to achieve success with clearly identified audiences is no easy task — hence the obligation of professional communication firms to navigate the best approach.
The first step in that navigation is to tap into market research, which actually saves time and money to ensure entire campaigns aren’t based on half-informed guesses, can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees mindsets, or shiny distractions, but rather on a coherent strategy.
Market research benefits both client and agency by:
- Validating — or invalidating — assumptions and perceptions about a product, service, need or issue
- Drilling down to specifics about target audiences, such as awareness levels, mindsets, and decision-making factors that inherently impact what a campaign needs to say and how it needs to be presented for public consumption before anything is ever printed, produced, or posted
Some communications firms frown on market research as a low profit margin for them, or it’s discouraged because of an outdated mantra that being “street smart” is more important than being data-driven. In defense of agencies, many firms that urge market research get shot down by clients who refuse to grasp the “penny-wise, pound foolish” reality here or hope that throwing money at the issue will somehow make it go away.
- Gathering pre-campaign/post-campaign data for measurement benchmarks on a campaign’s success or failure, ensuring backup to the agency and the client if the expenditure is later questioned by others outside the process such as voters, lawmakers, or the media
Bottom line: Clients and agencies that take a shoot-from-the-hip approach with marketing roulette also take huge risks not only with budgets but also with high-profile misfires, catapulting all involved to the top of negative search engine results. If some executives think this risky approach is costly, wait until they realize the time and money necessary to try to undo damage to their reputation — online and otherwise.
If still unconvinced about the necessity of market research, think of it this way: Any sound organization that embarks on a new campaign to influence human behavior in support of a goal, cause, product, service, investment, or vote would likely get legal, financial, or operational resources in advance of the initiative. Shouldn’t market research that informs the best decisions be valued on that same level?
Susan Hart, APR, Fellow PRSA has managed Nashville-based Hart Public Relations for nearly 15 years, with a 30-year career including award-winning work for government agencies, publicly traded corporations, the non-profit sector and private concerns.
Mary Beth West, APR, has managed Greater Knoxville-based Mary Beth West Communications, LLC, for 12 years, and serves as an honorary member of the University of Tennessee College of Communication & Information board of visitors.