How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

How to Nail a Microtargeted Research Campaign

How can you engage exactly the grass-tops people you want talking about your ideas, expertise and new research?

Katy Napotnik of The Urban Institute reveals Urban’s blueprint for doing so in a Medium essay that every CEO, director and comms director at research-driven organizations should marinate in.

The goal: Get their forward-looking, racial-justice and equity-focused Next50 series into the hands of “key influencers, funders and policymakers.”

Sounds like Urban nailed it, according to Napotnik:

”Our Next50 stakeholder engagement campaign was one of the most successful outreach efforts undertaken by Urban’s communications team in recent years. We made dozens of new connections with federal, state, and local government officials, advocacy organizations, and nonprofits.”

How did they do it?

  • The research process was also a fundamental communications asset. Urban tracked all the Next50 research development engagements (roundtables, calls, meetings) between Urban’s research teams and key influencers in a CRM — in Urban’s case, Salesforce. Influencers from these meetings were tagged with specific Next50 content cones. Which made the next step easy…
  • Urban turned its research collaborators into ambassadors for Next50 content. Urban comms sent personalized emails a day or two ahead of the content’s launch, inviting influencers who had participated in the Salesforce-tracked meetings to share the content. These emails contained shareable links and sample social media and email posts. Urban made it dead easy for these influencers to spread the word about Next50.
  • Urban also did research to grow its Next50 audiences. They didn’t just rely on the people tagged in Salesforce and the networking power of social — they got databases of other influencers from resources like Leadership Connect and Climate Mayors, then reached out to targets with personalized emails tailored to their position and organization. Again — this is a targeted campaign. Reaching lots of people doesn’t do Urban much good if they don’t reach the right people.
  • Urban kept tracking responses and closing open loops. Every email response and meeting request in response to each new piece of Next50 content was tracked in Salesforce and followed up on personally. When Urban published the next piece of content of interest to an influencer, that influencer got a new personal heads-up ahead of time.

Key takeaways for me:

  • Urban framed Next50 around questions the influencers needed answered, not findings it wanted to push on them. Every Next50 content cone begins with the question “What would it take…?” Owning the answer to your target audiences’ questions — e.g., “What would it take to reduce inequities in healthy life expectancy?” is the content strategy shift research-driven organizations need to be making. The approach is made even more powerful by Next50’s overall question: how do we reach a better future? Overall, Next50 positions Urban as the research group owning important answers to that question.
  • At heart, Next50 comms was “just” an email campaign, but one rooted in basic principles of engagement such as segmentation and personalization. As Napotnik puts it, “Our strategy was really about applying email outreach 101 in a research setting. But because it’s more time consuming than sending a newsletter or an email from your organization’s account on a mass scale, a lot of nonprofits miss the mark.”
  • This was a campaign, not a series of one-offs — in other words, a strategy instead of series of tactics. The strategy is unified and clear, from the series name to its overarching questions to the unfolding narrative of collaboration, ambassadorship and series content. When you step into a piece of Next50 content, you understand you’re stepping into a stream, not a pond.
  • Go deep and targeted, not broad and shallow. Napotnik writes that Urban “took a deep dive into databases of government officials and organizations’ websites to track down the right two or three people from the groups we identified. For instance, for the Climate Adaptation Catalyst Brief, we pulled the chiefs of staff and mayors from cities that partake in climate initiatives.” (That tactic ultimately was rewarded with requests for meetings from mayors with the lead Urban climate researcher.)
  • Success takes investment, of time and resources. Urban’s team “set aside 40 hours for developing audiences and crafting customer communications for each round of Next50 outreach. And it was worth it.”
  • Email merge and a humble CRM were key to success. I don’t know if the researchers or the comms team hated Salesforce, but they used it. It’s worth finding a CRM your organization will use and live with. (It’s also worth incentivizing its use with stories like this.) And Urban used email merge to personalize a lot of messages quickly and effectively. Napotnik says they organized their data by key message for the second-phase outreach to influencers they didn’t know.

I get excited by this stuff, as you can tell. I think many if not all parts of Urban’s campaign are replicable by most research-driven organizations.