Research: Uncovering Human Behavior
AT DH, WE HAVE A PASSION for research. In fact, we think it’s the best start to any project. We don’t guess how an audience perceives an issue. We define it. We use research for a variety of reasons, including testing assumptions, uncovering target audience perceptions and drivers of behavior, message and creative concept testing, and determining a baseline trend against which to measure progress over time.
Combine research with public relations, advertising, branding, and digital efforts, and you’re guaranteed to have a strong campaign. We sat down with resident research experts, Cher Desautel and Sara Johnston.
DH: How does research differentiate us from other firms?
Sara: We’re different from other marketing firms in our academic rigor and thought. Research is a critical piece of every account. Most people see the visible end product of our work—the ad campaign, earned media, the rebrand—but research has always been that underlining, initial step. And we’re different from pure research firms in that we don’t just conduct research for the sake of research. We take that deep knowledge—the findings and implications—and apply it to build campaigns and communication plans with strategies and tactics that are the right fit for the client and project. In short, research makes for smarter campaigns with greater impact.
Cher: We’re intelligent enough to know that we don’t know what we don’t know. We have the experience and the credentials—we draw from my doctoral work and the master’s work of others at the firm, and both Sara J. and I teach in the Communications and Leadership program at Gonzaga University. At DH, we like to say we take an academic approach to business, and we’ve developed our research chops over the years. We blend academic research models with the practical concerns of clients. We learned in the trenches. Jim worked in government. I worked in insurance. Michelle got her start at a nonprofit. We’ve learned that what is most effective to developing strong campaigns is good data—to make sure you’re really in tune with your audience. The most creative campaign won’t be effective if it’s ill-targeted and based on faulty inputs.
DH: What kind of research projects have you conducted?
Sara: The whole spectrum. We’ve done quantitative phone surveys on topics like medication adherence, changing attitudes, how the home environment leads to new behavior changes. We’ve done qualitative research—conducting insight interviews with community thought leaders, intercept interviews with motorcyclists for a safety campaign. I personally have facilitated focus groups with a number of audiences for different campaigns, from 12-year-olds in Sequim about abstinence to retired individuals at unique venues around the country (including some buffets!) for a Medicare Advantage plan.
Cher: With research, no one size fits all. For Apple Health for Kids a few years ago, we had only a few weeks to conduct research. We needed to figure out how people were getting information about health and what would affect their behavior. We were working with a complex audience, factoring different ethnic groups in targeted locations around the state. In that short time frame, we were able to do a mix of secondary research, online surveys, insight interviews and focus groups to reveal the data that we needed to launch a successful campaign.
DH: What do you enjoy about the research process?
Sara: It’s fascinating. In every research project, I learn something new. Research is essentially a study of human behavior. There’s usually some information or feedback that is unexpected. People always surprise me. It’s interesting to witness the power of perceptions, to learn what issues people care about, what’s on their radar. When we learn where people are coming from, we can figure out an authentic strategy and mix of tools that will make the biggest impact.
DH: Is it ever difficult to share findings with clients?
Cher: Uncovering unfavorable findings is one of the most important parts of research. Sometimes there’s a barrier or a negative perception that the client needs to be aware of. Because of our academic rigor, we can provide that objectivity. It’s not always what clients want to hear. But then we work with them as a team to develop recommendations to help solve the problem and create a strategy to move forward.
DH: How is research changing (and how is DH changing with it)?
Sara: We are always studying new mediums and methodologies. So many of the tools are online now. That doesn’t change the foundation of good research. It just opens up a new world. There’s a wealth of data we can gather, new tools, ways to track and measure. For example, we can learn about perceptions on social media and can monitor the conversation our audiences are having on Twitter.
Cher: There’s still no substitute for being experienced researchers. We’ve seen a lot of campaigns and initiatives play out. We understand the kind of insight that we need. Even if the methodologies change, our approach doesn’t.