Cheap, Easy Research Tip 2: Let Someone Else Do It!

This is the second installment in a six-part series about research. Many arts organizations avoid research because they think it’s expensive or complicated, but that’s not a good excuse for staying ignorant. There are plenty of ways to gain useful insight into new audience motives without having to spend a lot of money.

If you can’t afford research of your own, for example, why not use someone else’s?

In grad school I learned the difference between primary research and secondary research. Primary research involves developing original research studies and then collecting and interpreting data, whereas secondary research involves gleaning knowledge from studies that have already been done and published. In academia, primary research is greatly prized whereas secondary research is thought to be somewhat less than…well…original.

Fortunately, in the non-academic world, nobody cares how you gained your knowledge as long as it works. So if you want to know what motivates millennials to buy certain products, you can design a study to measure their dispositions and behaviors, collect enough data to make statistically valid assumptions and then publish your findings in an appropriate peer-reviewed journal. Or you can go online and access mountains of useful research that was paid for by other people.

So for your next marketing meeting, rather than sitting in the conference room guessing about what makes new audiences buy tickets, why not come armed with a file folder crammed full of credible, objective, external market intelligence and a concise executive summary that outlines what you’ve learned?

Suggested Guidelines

As with all research, there are a few guidelines to follow to make sure you gather the most accurate, useful information.

1. Ask clear, concise questions then find materials that provide the best answers, i.e. “How should I structure my marketing messages to appeal to millennial audiences?”

2. Start by searching online and tapping into professional discourse through social media. Information is widely available and there are plenty of pros out there – especially on Twitter – who can’t wait to share it with you.

3. Apply academic rigor. If the web sends you to books, periodicals or reports that can’t be accessed online, go to the library or buy the necessary material if possible. It’s easy to skim across the surface, but reliable research requires breadth and depth.

4. Look for current, relevant, authoritative information from credible sources. Double-check everything you find to make certain it’s legit.

5. Look for agreement across multiple sources. A single study may be interesting but the more agreement you discover, the more conclusive the findings are likely to be.

6. Don’t cherry pick information that confirms what you already think or supports marketing methods you’ve already decided on. Be eager to learn and willing to change.

7. Don’t draw conclusions that aren’t supported by the research.

8. Compare apples to apples. Research that’s designed to reveal the attitudes of urban teens toward new athletic shoe brands may not be applicable to marketers of Shakespearean plays.

9. Compare what you learn in secondary research to what you learn by speaking to your own new audiences. Pay special attention to places where the findings overlap.

10. Organize and record your research for future use.

In nonprofit arts marketing, where insider opinions prevail, there’s a good chance that the research you do will go unheeded and your organization will end up doing what it has always done, but the more credible knowledge you bring to the table, the better chance you’ll have of swaying the process in a more professional direction.


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