As the pace of business and life continues to seemingly speed up every year, research, measurement and analytics have to keep up, enabling communicators, chief marketing officers, brand managers and crisis professionals to keep their fingers on the pulse of their stakeholders. At APCO Insight, we are continually evaluating new ways to deliver insights grounded in research that yield ideas and activations that conquer the complexity our clients face. Here are some of the ways research is evolving for 2022.
Growing importance of open-source, mixed-methods research
When organizations are dealing with complex issues or emerging crisis situations, they often need to keep a finger on the pulse of public opinion—or at least on the opinions of the important groups whose perceptions are important to the organization’s reputation. In the long-term, there are thorough ways of measuring opinions—including surveys and focus groups—and the factors that drive them, but in the short-term immediacy of a crisis, the first step is often to better understand the quickly evolving public discourse. This mutating conversation takes place across media, on a multitude of news and social media platforms, and jumps across geographies, languages and cultures, adapting to local contexts all the while.
Organizations are increasingly seeing the shortcomings of both limiting their searches to just one platform or medium (e.g., Twitter, news coverage), and their analyses to just one technique (e.g., chronological, topical, resonant). Instead, there is a growing trend of holistic and interdisciplinary research approaches that blend quantitative and qualitative techniques from different social sciences to assess complex questions brought about during a crisis. At APCO Insight, we now incorporate a range of disciplines and data sources into our analyses: from news narratives to social conversations to online interactions, from network science to digital anthropology to netnography, our ultimate goal is to synthesize insights from everywhere and better understand how communities are organized, how their values shape their perceptions, and how organizations can most effectively communicate with them.
Deploying short-term, agile online research communities
Market research online communities (MROCs)—comprised of a targeted group of people who are recruited into a private online venue to participate in research-related activities over an extended period of time—have been around for several years, but most of these communities have traditionally been set up for the continuous collection of data from hundreds or thousands of people over the course of a year or longer. To meet the need for fast and agile research solutions, researchers have begun to adapt MROCs to enable shorter-term engagements, generally three to seven days, with around 50 participants. These super-charged focus groups that offer a wealth of additional advantages.
The benefits of these short-term MROCs are enormous, especially in terms of issue management, crisis mitigation or communication development. First, you can recruit participants quickly, particularly segments within the general public. Second, you can start quickly, developing a set of two to three questions or activity for day one. Third, they are a boon for agile and iterative research; by actively moderating and monitoring the community and the exercises assigned to them, a researcher can add new questions and exercises, change up the order of topics of future days and truly react in near-real-time to apply what you are learning and thus learn even more. Fourth, the depth of information collected is extraordinary; participants agree to log on for a set period of time, usually for 30 minutes a day, giving them plenty of time to consider and answer the activities posted, yielding rich written and visual responses. Fifth, a well done MROC truly becomes a community, better replicating how people may react upon learning about a crisis or evaluating communication about an issue; not only do people answer questions on their own but once they do so you can let them see others’ responses and react to those posts, much like they would with their friends and neighbors. Finally, the results are immediately applicable to your work, enabling you to move fast in a crisis, if needed, or develop communication materials quicker if preparing to engage on an issue or working on brand or reputation management.
Leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning
Businesses are increasingly recognizing the power of data-driven insights while building artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) applications that accelerate their strategic and competitive intelligence. Data from multiple streams, such as the methods reviewed above, are regularly fed into a data lake where algorithms can process predictive outcomes for decisions around marketing, sales and, increasingly, issue management, crisis detection and mitigation, and brand and advocacy communication.
Data culled from sources like social listening and media monitoring software prove more effective in managing issues that affect brand reputation and stave off a crisis when rigorous predictive analytics is applied. Custom ML algorithms can detect subtle changes in tone, sentiment, volume, and other metrics and alert communications professionals that a crisis is emerging. From there you can predict the mix of media and key audiences that will likely continue to engage over a period of days and can develop appropriate response scenarios.
The key to all of this is that it’s a data-driven response that will optimize reach and potential engagement in proactive communication and messaging that minimizes potential adverse effects to brand reputation from media coverage and influencer conversations. Analysts, data scientists, coders and research professionals are critical to the total effort. It’s a mixture of art and science, with the human component key to ensuring that the ML algorithms are consistently reviewed and revised to recognize the changing business issues that matter to strategic success.
In the end, you are left with better intelligence and deeper insights to enable you to act with conviction.