January 21, 2010

The truth doesn't have to hurt

An Onion headline caught my eye because it jokes about something close to home: the self-interest at the heart of many institutions’ audience research efforts.

I do empathize with the joke at the core of the article, from back in September, “University Of Illinois Researchers Find Link Between Attending University Of Illinois, Receiving Solid Education At Great Price.” Isn’t that the dream that everyone has for the audience research projects they fund or lead? How could an organization go into audience research not hoping that it emerges with a report validating its worth and proving its indispensability in stark black and white (or better yet, colorful graphs and charts)? 

(On a related note, check out a post that my colleague Cheryl wrote on advocacy vs. empiricism. She could have used the same Onion headline.)

For the people within institutions who are responsible for research, hesitation and nervous anticipation about what the study will uncover are natural. What if the report highlights the areas in which we’re most vulnerable as an organization? Areas where we fall short? Or initiatives that have cost a lot of money but haven’t yet had a measurable impact on my audience or mission? Am I supposed to feel proud to share findings like those? How will I get funders and board members to trust my decisions and open up their wallets to me after research findings like that?

As a researcher, I’ve worked with clients on all points of the bravery spectrum: those who only want to hear positive news (in most cases, because their sights are set on sharing that validation with those funders and board members) and those who go in not bracing themselves for the worst but actively hoping for critical findings so they can finally understand why single-ticket sales are down or why so many people are coming to one performance but not returning.

Not surprisingly, our most successful projects are the ones where the good, the bad, and the ugly findings are greeted with equal excitement and curiosity.

Not that I expect all organizations to treat “bad news” the way Domino’s Pizza has. The company crafted a national ad campaign (watch short version or longer cut) in which they proudly share consumers’ negative feedback about the quality of their food and tell how it spurred them to make improvements. For instance, they’ll be using “100% real cheese” from now on. (I really don’t want to know what was used before.)

While that’s certainly a bold way to go, it’s not the only way to “own” your shortfalls and address negative perceptions that may exist about your organization. Nor does it mean you have to act on all the insights you gather or fix every flaw that your audiences complain about. After all, it‘s up to you and your colleagues to decide what to do with the research findings you receive — which findings to respond to immediately, which to mull over or investigate further later on, and which to dismiss outright because they don’t support your mission.

I’m not advocating discounting results as “irrelevant” if they’re not what you wanted to hear. But I’ve found that a fear of what research may uncover has held people back from even asking the tough questions, and part of that fear is the misperception that once you know about a problem, you somehow have to solve it overnight.

For nonprofit organizations whose success hinges on connecting to people in deep and meaningful ways (and that’s most of our clients), ignorance about the negatives isn’t bliss. It’s what stands between you and making those connections. In fact, while it may be frustrating to hear negative perceptions about your organization or suggestions about what you should do differently (especially when those perceptions and suggestions are based on misinformation about your organization), isn’t it better to know what you’re up against?

Of course, this is easy for me to say because I’m the outside researcher. I also realize that I’m leaving out the important role that positive indicators (especially ones that reflect an improvement over time) can play in identifying an organization’s core strengths and assets. But that’s another post.

I’m curious: How have you dealt with these questions? Have you received any disappointing or negative research findings that spurred you to make changes — ones that you wouldn’t have made if you hadn’t been open to “owning” that bad news? On the flip side, have you missed any opportunities because you’ve been focusing too much what your organization has been doing well?

Janis — January 25, 2010

Audiences tend to be a bit different for different such firms, and you can exploit this. It's the same in any market research type of situation. There's firms that will deliver happy/bouncy reports swearing that pink unicorns will shower everyone with free chocolate in five years thanks to Company XYZ's product, and the officers in XYZ will go buy those reports to show to VCs to get them to cough up money.

Then, there's the market research firms that the VCs will go to to get their own reports -- they tend to be a bit more flinty. :-)

It's often a matter of who you think will find your reports worthwhile. Some research firms carve out a niche as the go-to firm for people looking for funding, and others function as the go-to firm for people who are expected to sign the checks.

How often are you asked to create a report by something other than the institution responsible for creating the "product" in question? I'm sensing not often.

Cheryl Slover-Linett — March 02, 2010

Sunday's NY Times took a similar position in this article about the healthcare debate: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/weekin.... Depending on how a poll asked the question, support for the "public option" ranged from 44% to 66%, quite a difference and certainly on a topic with greater public policy impact than most of the studies we do. Glad to see the issue of question wording is getting high-level visibility!

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