Going with More than Your Gut

Following your gut instincts is like flying blind when it comes to strategic communications. Research is what makes communications strategic.

Following your gut instincts is like flying blind when it comes to strategic communications. Research is what makes communications strategic.

Many advise to "go with your gut." But when you are preparing to spend millions of dollars on a communications campaign, you want to base your decisions on more than a gut instinct.

Strategic communications isn't strategic unless it is based on solid research. Test those gut instincts and see how they play with the audience you are trying to reach. You may be right. But if you aren't, you have avoided wasting a lot of money, effort and even goodwill.

Research involves a lot more than "testing the winds." That notion trivializes the careful research steps on which successful marketing campaigns are based. What message is most persuasive? Is that message believable? Where will your target audience listen to your message? Who is the best spokesperson for your message?

These aren't the kinds of questions your gut is trained to answer.

Qualitative research can help to refine messages once you have determined the best ones to use. Testing images and phrases can reveal whether what you mean to say comes across to those you want to reach. Often, research suggests different phrasing or use of other images that resonate better with your target audience. The difference can be an ad that works versus one that flops.

Men and women who dream up creative ads often chafe at research that shows their work products miss the mark with the intended audience. Sometimes the people who pay for the ads fall in love with an idea that doesn't connect. They are thinking with their guts, not their heads.

Research is not antithetical to creativity. It just ensures what is creative to the creator is meaningful to the person on the other end of the ad.

When it comes to assessing return on investment, spending  little bit on research can earn dividends by making sure that a bright idea is actually an effective idea. The difference can be measured at the cash register.

If You Didn't Live Here, You Might Not Retire Here

Oregon has spectacular mountains and a beautiful coastline, but a new study says it also has a high cost-of-living, high taxes and a lot of rain that may deter retirees from settling here.

Oregon has spectacular mountains and a beautiful coastline, but a new study says it also has a high cost-of-living, high taxes and a lot of rain that may deter retirees from settling here.

Data shows Oregon may not be the greatest place to retire. Florida ranks higher because it offers a lot of sun. South Dakota ranks higher because it has a relatively modest cost of living, a low tax rate, safe streets and an above-average health care system.

The "Best and Worst Places to Retire in 2015," compiled by Bankrate, lists Oregon as the 10th worst roost for retirees. Here is what the report says:

"Oregon is one of the happier states in the country, and it's easy to see why. Residents of this Pacific Northwest state have the ocean, forest and craft beer at their fingertips. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which tracks community well-being around the country, gave Oregon an above-average rating for people who were retirement age.

"Unfortunately, Oregon can be tough on a lot of people who live on a fixed income. The state has the seventh-highest cost of living in the nation, according to retail statistics from the Council for Community and Economic Research. In Portland, for example, apartments charge more than double the national average rent at $2,196 per month, according to Council for Community and Economic Research's 2014 report. A trip to the doctor was 27.7 percent higher than average, and gasoline was 11.7 percent above the national average.

"Oregon also has high taxes. The Tax Foundation estimates its state and local tax burden at 10.1 percent, which is above the national average of 9.8 percent.

"And, the state received poor scores for its weather. Sunny days are rare in Portland, for example."

The bottom 10 places to retire includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, New Jersey and Alaska. It also includes Hawaii and New York. It may not be the kind of company Oregonians want to keep.

Bankrate says it based its ranking on publicly available data and gave more weight to some factors based on survey research to find out what mattered most to people considering a move in retirement. It notes that 60 percent of senior citizens express a desire to move when they retire.

"Consider our list a starting point in a conversation about where to find the perfect place," Bankrate says. "It'll show you the relevant statistics you ought to consider before making a decision."

It also cautions that the study doesn't take into account personal factors such as remaining close to family and friends, "even if that means moving to a low-ranking state."

Don’t Play Bond Measure Roulette

Don't Play Bond Measure Roulette

Know where voters stand before sending a bond measure to the poll.

More local governments are thinking about running bond measures to pay for improvements to roads and buildings or for new construction now that the economy has improved, new jobs created are up and unemployment rates have declined.

However, just because people are going back to work and are a little more optimistic doesn’t mean voters will approve funding measures proposed by school districts, cities, counties and transportation departments.

Taxing districts should consider using surveys to find answers to four basic questions before approving a bond proposal for voter consideration.

What is the reputation of the district or local government?

Districts and local governments that have good reputations for getting results and managing tax dollars are more likely to gain voter support for funding measures. Don’t send a funding measure to the polls if voters don’t trust the district. It is a recipe for failure.

What is the level of support for the measure?

The elephant in the room is, will voters support the funding measure or not. But that information is easy to find out, ask them. Design a question that is similar to wording voters will see on the ballot. Include the dollar amount. Don’t make arguments for or against the measure in the question. A bond measure has a good chance of winning if support in the survey is 10 points higher than the majority needed to pass the measure.

How will the new projects or facilities benefit the community?

Voters want to know how projects will solve problems and benefit the community. More precisely, voters want to know, “What is in it for me?” Test eight to 10 benefits that will result from funding approval and choose the two or three that are most likely to increase and maintain support for use in communication about the measure.

Who supports the measure?

All measures need a base of support to pass. It is parents for school districts, riders for pubic transportation and commuters for road improvements. A measure won’t pass if there is no strong support for it among one or two key demographic groups.

Knowing the lay of the political landscape is critical to the success of funding measures. Surveys help decision-makers create a road map for success or determine if it is better to wait and ask for funding at a later date.

Baby Boomers: An Underserved Market

One study found Boomers spend more money per week on food than any other group and are willing to skip dessert for a glass of wine.

One study found Boomers spend more money per week on food than any other group and are willing to skip dessert for a glass of wine.

The media made a lot noise last year when Millennials (people born from 1981 to 1997) surpassed Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964) as the largest living generation in the United States. Advertisers were rejoicing because Millennials are the coveted 18 to 45 year old age group – and now the biggest target.

But size doesn’t matter when it comes to marketing. It is money. Baby Boomers may be older, but as a group they have more disposable income and are practiced consumers.

According to a recent Huffington Post article, “Baby Boomers currently account for nearly $230 billion in sales for consumer packaged goods, out-buying age groups in products like coffee, magazines and diet soda. What’s more, they will control 70 percent of the nation’s disposal income and stand to inherit $15 trillion in the next 20 years.” (Based on a study conducted by Nielsen Marketing.)

  • Baby Boomer wants and needs aren’t focused on retirement homes and vitamin supplements.
  • The fastest growth in “gadget” use is among people age 55 and older.
  • Boomers have been the fastest-growing segment of health-club memberships since 1998 (American Sports Data) and 25 percent of health club members are age 55 years and older.
  • Boomers are social. The number of online dating sites for people age 50 and older is growing rapidly. SeniorMatch.com claims nearly 4 million members.
  • Food, health and wine. One study found Boomers spend more money per week on food than any other group and are willing to skip dessert for a glass of wine.

CFM’s research among Baby Boomers has found the group is more interested in quality and exemplary service than price. However, Boomer consumers will switch products and brands if expectations aren’t met.

Consumer companies are struggling to figure out the market, but the rewards are worth the effort. As Jody Holtzman, head of AARP’s Thought Leadership unit stated emphatically, “You’d have to be an idiot to turn your back on this humongous growth market.”

Presidential Approval Follows Similar Trends

A recent article by Pew Research demonstrates changes in presidential approval ratings from Eisenhower through today.

A recent article by Pew Research demonstrates changes in presidential approval ratings from Eisenhower through today.

Pew Research just released an overview of presidential job approval ratings from Eisenhower to Obama based on research conducted by Pew and Gallup from 1952 to 2015.

There were a few things that struck me as interesting in the data included in Pew Research’s article, For Presidents Day, a look at presidential job approval ratings from Ike to Obama.

  1. Approval ratings by party for each president changed in a similar fashion. Regardless of president or party, approval ratings went up and down at about the same rate and time for all 11 presidents.
  2. Approval ratings for nine of 11 presidents declined as their term in office drew to a close. The only exceptions were Carter and Reagan.
  3. Overall high and low approval ratings for Reagan and Obama are similar. Reagan’s high approval was 68 percent and low 35 percent compared to Obama’s high of 64 percent and low of 41 percent.
  4. The largest gap between high and low ratings were for the two Bushes, net 60 for George and net 64 for George W. Conversely, the smallest change from high to low were for Obama, net 23, and Kennedy, net 26.
  5. The fond memories of the Camelot Years of the Kennedy administration may be an illusion. Kennedy’s approval ratings were declining significantly during the months immediately prior to his assassination.

When released, Presidential approval ratings are interesting tidbits for coffee shops and cocktail parties. But a closer look at trends and comparisons yields surprising and unexpected results. You find substantive topics such as war, the economy, domestic strife, international relations and perhaps the favorite topic of all, scandal.

Open-Ended Survey Comments = a Content Treasure Chest

There are many uses for open-ended survey comments. 

There are many uses for open-ended survey comments. 

Open-ended responses in surveys are a treasure trove of information, but usually the marketing team doesn’t review the verbatim. Instead, similar comments are combined into short-worded themes, such as on-time delivery, great customer service or product doesn’t perform.

Combined comments are easy to read and give managers overall concepts. However, combined comments are the Cliff’s Notes of research – short, succinct and to the point, but without depth, nuance or insights.

Marketing and communications managers should read and use verbatim to provide food for thought and action. Here are some suggested ways verbatim from open-ended survey questions can be used to support marketing and operations.

Topics for articles

Open-ended remarks are full of new ideas or angles for articles, tweets, speeches and case studies. Use quotes to highlight themes or emphasize why actions will be taken.


Open-eneded remarks can be converted into quotes for newsletters, press releases and social media. The phrases are genuine and will be recognized as such. Remember to get permission from respondents if you want to attribute the comments to an individual.

Improving the Customer Experience

When customers write: “I love this product but...,“ take note. It is that additional information that identifies where your customer service or operations team are falling short of expectations. Once changes are made, prepare an article about what you heard and what you did.


Nuggets about why people buy or recommend products can be found in open-ended remarks. Encourage the PR and advertising team to incorporate the features and benefits that customers say are important into promotional materials and advertising.

Customer service

Don’t ignore complaints found in surveys. Customers who have bad experiences will complain to 20 people. Ask customer service to follow up with people that had trouble navigating customer service, a website or simply weren’t treated well. The people you call will be surprised you read their feedback and impressed you want to make amends.


Use questions found in open-ended remarks to develop FAQs. The responses provide information about real concerns and problems.

Thought Leadership

Organizations in crisis will conduct research to understand how customers may react to communication about the issue. Encourage senior managers to use quotes from surveys in speeches and articles to highlight that customers are heard and help in providing direction. Don’t forget to include the changes that will be made as a result of the comments. For more information about handling a crisis read CFM Crisis Ebook.

Research can be much more than statistics. It can provide the foundation and content for communicating and engaging with customers, communities and stakeholders.