The NFL Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells — unhappy with the mediocre roster of players his team’s general manager had provided him — once famously complained: “If you want me to cook the meal, at least let me shop for the groceries.”
Comms and policy liaison staffers at research-driven organizations often sound like Parcells when you get them in private, away from their researchers.
The papers and reports their research staff generate don’t fit what their audiences are hungry for. The research doesn’t fit the need. It might be full of caveats, low on relevance (or sizzle). Or it’s off-brand for the organization because it was a one-off done at a funder’s request.
It won’t make much of a meal. And yet they have to cook with it, anyway.
The research industry largely regards audience research like Steve Jobs did — beneath it. It keeps putting out products and expecting audiences to catch up, or its marketing and comms staff to create that audience, somehow.
Funders pay for research; but they also, increasingly, demand relevance and impact from that research. As does the rest of the world.
But the age-old way research agendas get drawn up, research questions get chosen, and research gets communicated — with researchers in the driver’s seat, prioritizing research gaps — is a recipe for accidental, not purposeful, impact.
There’s another way.
Position your research before you do it.
Positioning expresses who your audience is, what they need and how the research (and the insights that might flow from it) could uniquely fill that need.
Positioning bakes “theory of change” into the research selection as best as possible, instead of trying to engineer that afterward with a product that the research staff was excited about, but didn’t meet a real-world test of relevance.
Positioning gives you the proper lead time to develop a communication strategy for the research — and even an ideas campaign pegged to the research but transcending it.
And positioning ensures research dovetails not just to your research program, but to your organization’s or institution’s identity — what it overall is trying to provide its audiences.
I’m not arguing for gaming results in advance. I’m arguing for identifying those questions that, if resolved, would have the biggest impact answering an audience’s need and/or moving a policy or practice forward — and then structuring your research intervention to target resolving those questions if possible.
So positioning requires doing a deep analysis of your audience to determine precisely the questions they need answered — even if they don’t know it yet. (That move is the essence of thought leadership.)
That audience analysis usually requires strategic functions such as comms, marketing, or fundraising, to be at the table when the research agenda or proposals are being developed.
That sounds like heresy to a researcher. But I’ve run these meetings, and the payoff can be beautiful. Positioned research is strategic research. It works for the audience, the stakeholders, your organization, your communications plan for it, and you as a researcher.