2016 is almost here: do you know who your target audiences are—and who they are not?

With many no-or low-cost research tools and resources available today, it can be tempting to dive to data gathering before carefully considering some best approaches to exploring these questions, and many more. As a brand builder, I am always grateful for my earlier career roles in the market research field, where I learned firsthand the importance of getting clear on these questions upfront. For nonprofits, research can offer key insights, and provide a critical filter to help ensure that the marketing, communications, and programming resources you spend are closely aligned with your community’s top needs. Research can also be a powerful tool to help inform strategic planning processes, by helping organizations better define audience segments, vet early stage ideas, and identify new impact opportunities ahead.

As you consider strategies for the coming year, below are some simple best practices to help you better understand and engage the communities you serve:

1. Pick Your Path: Quantitative or Qualitative?

There are two key types of research: quantitative and qualitative. Simply put, Quantitative research typically determines the ‘who’ and the ‘what,’ and broad response trends among them, through standardized survey questions. Qualitative research, on the other hand, explores more of the the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ around the behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and motivations, that drive the decisions and actions of your target audience. Common qualitative research tools include interviews, focus groups, custom user panels, web usability testing, and ethnographic studies.

While quantitative research is relatively easy and cost-effective to deploy, never underestimate the power of a direct conversation with a member of your target audience. Even if you plan to deploy a survey to collect quantitative data, I recommend incorporating a brief round of qualitative interviews beforehand to help focus and refine your questions; in addition, conducting follow-up conversations after the survey ends can offer critical context to the trends you uncover, and help you further explore any unexpected responses you receive. And, the personal stories and anecdotes gathered through these conversations can also become powerful storytelling tools for your ongoing communications and marketing efforts.

2. Get Clear on Your Goals

Research goals vary significantly; likewise, the setup of your survey should be tailored accordingly, based on the specific insights you are seeking. Are you looking to test the waters for new concepts and potential offerings? Gain a better understand of how people perceive your brand? Identify a specific gap in your customer service process?

When drafting your approach, be vigilant about asking why each question matters, and what outcome you hope to achieve with the answers. The Prichard team offers some great survey-building basics in 5 Steps to Conduct an Audience Survey, and SurveyMonkey also offers many templates as a starting point. And, think about the specific dynamics of how your respondents will be reading your survey; there are many great options to consider. For example, Survmetrics specializes photo-powered surveys, and LoopSurvey on mobile surveys. For a quick roundup of others to explore, click here.

3. Screen: To Focus, and to Filter

Creating clear screening criteria upfront, for both quantitative and qualitative research, will help ensure that your respondent pool is as targeted as possible; unless you have the resources to analyze and act on data gathered from multiple user segments, consider breaking them into smaller, more discrete projects so you can dig deeper into the questions that matter most to you now. If you are deploying a survey, begin with a series of brief framing questions to filter basic factors such as professional role, geographic location, or length of their relationship with you to help you understand what nuances and trends exist among them. For qualitative research, recruit participants who represent the right mix of perspectives on the topic you are exploring, to ensure that you have a broad spectrum of opinions and experiences to draw from.

4. Messaging Matters: Keep it Simple

Be clear and direct about your intentions for the survey, frame your questions in clear and simple language, and consider using logic and branching to customize the survey experience between users. Also consider the question order; place more complex or potentially sensitive questions towards the middle or end of the survey to avoid deterring participants before they are fully engaged in the process. And, send your survey draft to a few objective individuals to ensure directions are clear, and to confirm that the estimated survey timing is accurate.

5. Seek Honesty & Avoid Bias

Impactful research relies on honest feedback. Often, well-intended studies garner disappointing results if research is not carefully constructed with this in mind. In addition, some respondents are cautious about providing constructive or negative feedback to an organization they genuinely care about, for fear of offending someone. If possible, enlist the support of a neutral, third-party resource to support study development and deployment, and offer the option of anonymous feedback. If budget resources don’t allow for this, consider recruiting a skilled volunteer, past Board member, or trusted industry colleague to play this role to help avoid these potential pitfalls.

6. Read Up

As you finalize your approach, know that you’re not alone! Here are some additional resources to to help inform your research planning and analysis.

Have you used research to uncover a key new insight about the communities you serve? If you have tips or key learnings from the experience, please share them in the comments below.

To impactful insights ahead!