Report, search or explore? How to tackle difficult research briefs

Posted on 12/11/2012

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Over the past year I’ve become intimately familiar with Radian 6, the social media monitoring tool. You can use it for pretty much anything: finding content, blogger outreach, pitch research, insight generation and, of course, analytics. The real battle is learning how to use it.

After a while I deciphered the tools and the makeup of a topic profile. I came up with a standard approach to doing research (see Quora): it’s not the only way, but it works for me.

Sorted? Your next challenge is making sure you’re properly briefed…

There are three scenarios:
1) you’re asked to do “some research” about a brand / topic online
2) you’re asked to answer a specific question or find an exact number (mentions, impressions etc.)
3) you’re given the chance to present a snapshot of the current environment / sentiment

2 & 3 rarely happen. The reason why most people end up in scenario 1 is they know what they want to see, they just don’t yet know it yet. Only once you’ve presented your findings (either writing your own questions or by collating a snapshot) do they realise what it was they were after. Scenario 1 is a result of mixing up 2 & 3: quantitative and qualitative (links). If this happens, ask for a tighter brief or ensure you always plan for this flip-flop.

Scenario 2 – the search / scientific method
This comes from being given a “proper” research brief. You may not know immediately where to look or how to ask the question but you know the theory you’re testing/ the answer you’re looking to find.

Much like searching online. You know what you’re after and often the only way to answer it is by refining the question or looking in different places. Depending on the brief you can also be tied to a set process or free to find creative ways to answer this question.

This is straightforward and assuming it’s the right question to be asking, you should find your way without any problems.

Scenario 3 – the exploratory method
(Easy to do but difficult to do well)

Let’s go back to why people would ask for this. Sometimes people are happy for you to dip your toe in the water and just present what you found. This usually means putting a market overview together along with several specific insights that you think are relevant. Here’s where it gets tricky…

Almost anyone can put together a market overview – it tends to be a favourite task for interns because it’s easy and time consuming. Some people are more thorough than others and some are particularly good at structuring their presentations. Either way, you get the same thing.

“Insights”, however, are harder to come by and impossible to create out of thin air. How do you review information that hundreds of people have looked at and still find something new? What makes an insight big enough or important enough to report on? And what do you do if you don’t find anything of interest?

Scenario 3 can end up an unholy and unscientific melting pot of quantitative and qualitative research, when it should really only be qualitative.

So how do you tackle this? I’ve found two/ three approaches to that work:

A. Do it the proper way
B. Borrow someone else’s work
C. The big fat caveat

A. Do it the proper way
If there are high stakes riding on it, make sure it’s paid for and done properly. Get in an expert or commission a market research company to run the research and analysis for you.

B. Borrow someone else’s work
Quantitative can tell you who your audience is and roughly what they think, but not why. So if you’re pushed for time, money or both, find some similar research someone else has conducted and base your assumptions loosely on that. For example, if you’re looking at the DIY market gather some free/ cheap statistics and use this to give you a guide.

C. The big fat caveat
Sometimes you need to break away from conventions and find your own way. If you’re looking for a new angle and have a bit of time dive in yourself. Follow your instincts and what you think is interesting. This kind of research is like a journey: present it back like this, and make sure it’s enjoyable, if not enlightening.

You can spend hours combing for ideas and inspiration, but the more you see, the harder it is to summarise. Finding the right balance between summary/detail for your audience is important, as if making sure that you find something (anything) that will make them feel like the effort was worthwhile. At times this can mean doing a lot of research for very little back, but it’s the only way.

Now that you’ve done this, remember to stick a big fat disclaimer at the end. Show that this is your research and propose how any ideas/ or insights could be validated. If someone really wants your ideas, they’ll appreciate this regardless of whether they’re proven or not.

Research is not just about answers; it’s about knowing more. It gives you the ability to make better decisions, but it won’t make them for you.

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