October 17, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Chats with Chip: Jason Booms on how primary research can help communicators

Chats with Chip: Jason Booms on how primary research can help communicators

The newest episode of Chats with Chip welcomes Jason Booms, Managing Director for Market and Influencer Research with CARMA North America. Throughout the episode, Jason provides information about primary research and how it can be used by communicators.

Jason began by describing his background working for Washington, DC-based pollsters, followed by working with a PR agency and at his own research firm for nearly a decade. He notes that in his experience, he noticed the political and public policy spheres tended to be more familiar with opinion research tools and practices compared to the rest of the communications industry. According to Jason, communicators’ lack of personal experience with research can hinder their willingness to adopt it into their strategies.

Chip agreed, stating, “When it comes to the PR side, folks are still relying more on gut feel or perhaps borrowing from their marketing colleagues, but if they’re able to leverage the research directly themselves, I think that would improve a lot of communications programs.”

As the conversation progressed, Chip requested that Jason define some of the common terms used to describe primary research methods. Jason described focus groups as sessions of eight to ten people, facilitated by a moderator, that discussed a specific issue to gather information and opinions.

Dyads and triads mimic this structure, but a dyad is comprised of only two people and a triad is made up of three. These smaller sessions allow moderators to collect more focused information with less of the risk associated with some of the challenges posed by larger focus groups, such as a few personalities dominating the conversation.

He went on to explain influencer research, or in-depth interviews. These interviews focus on high profile people or other opinion leaders who influence policy and business decisions, including corporate executives, academics, policymakers and shapers, and NGO officials. Chip and Jason agree that talking to these senior officials in a one-on-one environment allows them to speak more candidly and provide more meaningful data than they may be able to do in a group with many people.

According to Jason, these interviews can provide quality insight if combined with media analysis. Media analysis permits communicators to identify the most influential professionals discussing and referenced in discussions of specific issues. Subsequently, a research study can be designed based on the information gathered with media analysis. This integrated approach allows communicators to make data-driven decisions to alter their messaging into a more compelling narrative.

Chip went on to ask Jason his opinion of online polls, asking if human involvement is needed to gather valid results. Although Jason recognizes the concern that researchers initially felt about online polls, specifically that they are typically managed by people who may not be experts in the field, he explained that they can offer value by facilitating the collection of sample information from a large group of people, as well as populations of people who may be difficult to reach by other means.

As the conversation wrapped up, Chip and Jason agreed that whether communicators use online polls or work with researchers to conduct more in-depth interviews, primary research has great value. “They’re all different arrows in the quiver,” explained Jason. “Just finding out which one is most appropriate, whether you’re looking for hard numbers you can get from a quantitative approach or whether you’re looking at detailed findings [and] nuance oriented communications research that I get from a qualitative approach, they all have their value and merit.”

Listen to the whole episode to learn more about how primary research can be a beneficial addition to your PR measurement program.

Unverified Transcript

Please review the audio before quoting to confirm accuracy of this unverified transcript.

Chip Griffin: Hi this is Chip Griffin and my guest today is Jason Booms. He’s a colleague of mine at CARMA as the managing director for market and influencer research for North America. Welcome to the show Jason.
Jason Booms: Oh thanks for having me on Chip.
Chip Griffin: It is great to have you and you bring some background in primary and survey research that I think is something that more communicators need to know more about. And so hopefully over the next 20 or 25 minutes we’ll be able to share some of that with the listeners. But why don’t you just share a little bit if you could about your background in research and then we’ll talk about trends and where we go from there.
Jason Booms: Oh it makes sense, yep. Well I started off in research in the early 90’s, started off as a political pollster so it was really more about political communications at the time. What are they Michigan based polling firm and then came down to DC in 1996 where I just missed out on the opportunity to work on Phil Grahm’s presidential campaign. Terrible loss, but so I still …
Chip Griffin: I had some good friends who worked on that campaign. And they tried to get me to join as well but at the time I was not looking for political campaign on my resume so I stayed where I was at the time.
Jason Booms: There you go. And the campaign was flush, so it had that going for it. So I did that for a couple years in DC, I worked for a couple other really great pollsters, Linda Duval and then worked for two and a half years as a research director for a Kelly Anne Fitzpatrick who has since gone on to different things, I understand she works in the Trump administration now.
Chip Griffin: That’s a rumor, yes. I think I’ve heard that one.
Jason Booms: You didn’t hear that much about her these days. But and then, I really wanted to shift over from political communications to something that still enabled me to work on a public affairs reputational campaigns and so I switched over to working for PR agency for several years in Washington DC before founding my own research and communications consultancy prior to, which I did for a decade right before I joined CARMA.
Chip Griffin: That’s great, and you and I share that background in politics and public policy and I think in that sphere people sort of take for granted that you’ll use survey research to enhance your communications but as we look more broadly throughout the communications field, I think that a lot of folks are not leveraging that primary research in the same way as in the political field. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Jason Booms: That’s absolutely right. It’s actually been a really long term challenge because I remember when I started in 1999 working, it was a new entity within Edelman Public Relations at the time called strategy one. And it was very easy to sell research to our communications colleagues in DC, in New York to a certain extent, but when you really started taking it out to other offices Edelman being a global company to Chicago for example or Texas or California, you had less familiarity with the world of research in a sense. It was a much harder sell to sell consumer as opposed to people in DC who get it because they, perhaps they had a political background that work with a pollster to one extent or another, maybe on the hill. But yes, having to sell the value, it really took far more effort to convince folks why they should be doing omnibus survey research or focus groups. And that to this day remains quite frankly a little bit of a challenge just in that lack of perhaps awareness or personal experience. It takes a bit more of an educational focus I think to really sell that kind of research.
Chip Griffin: Yeah I mean I think it’s fair to say that most politicians probably don’t pick out a tie without doing a survey to figure out what people will think of it where as we look to other parts of communications, I mean certainly on the marketing sign of the equation, I think there is more of an embrace of some of the primary research type tools, but when it comes to more of the PR side folks are still relying more on gut feel and things like that or perhaps borrowing from their marketing colleagues, but if they’re able to leverage the research directly themselves. I think that would improve a lot of communications programs.
Jason Booms: Oh definitely, and that’s part of a consistent effort where we try to get people thinking from the start about where could research fit into this. Is it something that should fall naturally at the beginning of before a launch of a campaign which is what we’re always talking about, some people tend to use it in a bit more episodic basis. They just want it to have a tracker to gage, okay what’s our favorability, what’s our awareness, and in that way they’re using it less strategically than they could than if they formulated a strategy from the outside using research and that’s one of the reasons why I really like to stress a language first sort of approach to this. If we’re going to be developing a narrative.

Why not go out there with research to justify a particular approach. Truly understand what your stakeholders are thinking, what they’re saying, where they live fundamentally. Because there’s a variety of different truths that could emerge out of a communications campaign. Whether you call something agile, nimble, spry, all these words fundamentally mean the same thing but they all carry different gradations of meaning. So on that regard if you’re going to have a message that talks about a certain characteristic and why not find the best word or the best phrase or the one that really resonates with their audience, the one that’s credible and using research for that purpose for public relations campaigns.

I think ensures you have something that connects far better from day one than using research on a more casual approach.

Chip Griffin: Sure and in an ideal world you would use the research I imagine before, during, and after a campaign so that you can continually tweak and evaluate. Obviously not everybody has the budget to do that, but one of the things that strikes me is that CARMA has built it’s reputation for delivering effective insights being based on media analysis but that marries so well with the primary research that helps guide your messaging and then the media analysis helps you evaluate if that messaging is indeed working and then you can follow up with further research to see did that media coverage actually sway your stakeholders, your target audience, et cetera.
Jason Booms: Yeah I look upon it really as two sides of the same coin. Media analysis, if you tend to look upon it as being public conversations. What’s being said in the news, what’s being said in traditional or social media, and you really want to dig deeper as far as understanding why things are being said, why influencers are saying things a certain way. You can have private conversations. These could be in the form of in depth interviews, surveys, diads or triads, anyone of a number of methodologies and approaches to just talk one on one or directly I should say with a key stakeholder population member and figure out okay, what’s most important to you? What are you really thinking about, I noticed you seem to be talking about this why issue A versus issue B and really getting a sense of what the motivation is and the world view of a particular respondent is. I think getting bad information really helps inform the work the communicators do.

Especially if you have a research if it’s acting very much as an honest broker because the interesting thing really for communications research professionals is you have to walk that fine line. You’re an advocate clearly because you’re working on behalf of a client, you’re working on behalf of the PR agency and their customer base. But you really have to be agnostic as far as outcomes are concerned. You have to be willing to frame questions properly, you have to have a knowledge of the proper question order and to any bias in the phrasing of the questions. And so in that regard, when you have these private conversations in the form of quantitative or qualitative research exercise. Really to make sure the methodology itself is sound because only with that can you truly add value as you should to the communication side of things.

Chip Griffin: Sure and as we know having come from the world of politics you can manipulate a survey to end up with pretty much any result that you want. But at the end of the day that doesn’t really serve a useful purpose to a communicator looking to improve their program. It might help them justify what they’re already doing to their bosses but it’s not the same as really truly evaluating what works and what doesn’t.

One of the things that struck me and I really like is this construct of public versus private conversations and how the media analysis sort of focuses on the public side and the survey research is on the private side. That I think is a valuable way for communicators to understand how it fits into the puzzle because as we all know sometimes people will say something in private that they wouldn’t say in public.

Jason Booms: Mm-hmm (affirmative) that’s definitely true. And even if it can be, because we often do influence your research where obviously anonymity is very important and but that said, so you can’t disclose necessarily who precisely said what. But if you do enough interviews and you’re noticing recurring themes coming out of this. You can definitely frame your argument or change the kind of argument you’re making. Give you one example of that. Actually I did work a few years ago for the Reagan presidential foundation and library. And from a researcher perspective it was really a just golden opportunity to talk with some people that were very close to president Reagan and to find out, then the communications purpose here was to basically establish a narrative to communicate the Reagan administration and it’s accomplishments to generations who were necessarily alive or politically aware when he was in office. And it was for the centennial so it was sort of looking a hundred years in the future what should people really understand about the Reagan administration.

And the fascinating thing was and I will readily mention being a bit of a presidential geek on such matters as I’m sure you are. That having lived through the administration, having read extensively about it, you come up with certain assumptions as far as what the influencers will want to say. And I think the communications team had certain expectations of, well first shaping programming or shaping a communications campaign about Reagan, we’re probably going to want to talk about the big things. How we dealt with the Soviet Union tax reform. The rekindling of the American Spirit for the Malaise of the 70’s. But one thing that really leapt out I thought was quite fascinating with these private conversations with folks, was to the extent to which at one point in time or another they all referred to one of the critical moments of the Reagan presidency was how he dealt with air traffic controllers and their union.

And which is obviously received a great deal of coverage at the time, but nonetheless they looked upon that as being, that’s the one that really, to them defined who Ronald Reagan was and where he was going and as a result of that research we’re able to incorporate that a little bit more into the programming, a little bit more into the communications, to really ensure that that was reflected in the public narrative about his administration. So that’s something, one example obviously where research played a role in terms of making sure the messaging captured the remembrances of the man and his accomplishments.

Chip Griffin: Right and that’s particularly interesting because I think that if you were to go ask a lot of people more broadly that that might not be the first thing they would say would be part of the programming. But if the research actually uncovers that then I think that that is the kind of insight that you can get from primary research that you probably couldn’t get anywhere else.
Jason Booms: Sure and those are the golden nuggets. When you’re doing research, most of the time you’re going to find information that is fairly well aligned with our expectations going in, something might be horribly amiss if you’re getting radically different information from a respondent base compared to whatever organization or corporation you’re doing the work for, but sometimes you get a very interesting handle on for example community building. I did work for a financial company not that long ago that really wanted to find out on the topic of financial inclusion, how can you really build a community of influencers. Everyone’s time pressed. What really drives people there, and there were certain expectations as far as well we think this is what’s really likely to get a community of similar folks gathered in one place, but we definitely have some surprises as far as the expectations for the ability to share information, the ability to talk with one another, the ability to not just have sort of a think tank but something that was really an engaging process where people could network, build connections, not only talk about the issue but sort of learn from one another, so it was really much more of an online conference if you will.

And that I think was an interesting wrinkle on some of the results, the client wasn’t necessarily expecting but it definitely came through on the research.

Chip Griffin: Yeah that makes sense, I think one of the things that can often intimidate people who are not familiar with survey research is some of the terminology. And you’ve thrown out a couple of terms over the course of this conversation that I think probably would be good to explain to the listeners because you’ve talked about things like diads, triads, IDI’s these are not necessarily common [inaudible 00:14:47] for people who are not doing everyday research. So if you could define a couple of these terms for listeners so that they understand you know that they’re not really as intimidating as they sound. So let’s start with diads and triads.
Jason Booms: Oh sure. A diad or triad you can think of as being a miniature focus group. By and large focus groups with which most people, I think many people in communications research are probably familiar it’s where you gather usually eight to 10 people in a room and you have a conversation on a particular topic that’s lead by a focus group moderator. Usually there’s a mirror in the back that which the clients are watching.

And hopefully not making too much of a ruckus. M&M’s are usually consumed. But it’s a place where people gather for 90 minutes or two hours and they discuss a particular issue or an organization. A diad or triad is a smaller version of that. A diad is two people, triad three people. Those are more useful for very specific purposes where you don’t necessarily want to have eight to 10 people in a room, say people are very time pressed or it’s a very hard to reach population. Actually just put together a proposal for diads and triads with a school age children to discuss financial literacy related issues. And that’s a situation where having two or three fifth graders is probably better from a research perspective than trying to manage eight to ten and hold their attention for 90 minutes.

Chip Griffin: I would say so, as someone who has had some kids in that age group not too long ago, I’m not sure you’d want to have ten of them in a room at the same time.
Jason Booms: Yeah, that represents it’s own unique challenge. And so really those are mini focus groups essentially. One on one in depth interviews is something actually I’ve specialized in a great deal over the past 10, 15 years quite frankly. And that’s ideal for many kinds of influencer oriented research. And by influencer I’m talking about policy makers and shapers, I’m talking about think tank executives, NGO officials, industry analysts, academicians, business executives, people like that who are very hard to reach and they’re very hard to get into one room at one point in time with other similarly situated individuals. So in order to be as flexible as possible, and flexibility is absolutely essential in market research these days, because there’s many distractions if people choose to not engage in market research. We have to make it as convenient for them as humanly possible.

And one way of doing that is doing phone based or Skype based in depth interviews we’re at a time and place of the respondent’s choosing, you talk for 30 minutes for 45 minutes about whatever topic it is that the client wants to explore. Usually with communications or business strategy focus and it’s just two people talking, just like you and I are. But it’s within a formalized structure where there’s a formal list of questions, they tend to be more open ended in nature, more explorational, where as a survey may have agree, disagree, support oppose type questions.

One on one in depth interviews tend to have more questions that why do you think that? Or what do you think are some of the emerging trends in the field are going to be? So you really give it a chance for the respondent to talk at length about something that they know about and they care about and they can render an informed opinion on. So that’s one reason why in depth interviews I think are very important methodology, especially for more key opinion and leader populations.

Chip Griffin: That’s what I’m saying and for folks like that I would assume that doing an in depth interview or IDI’s as you’ve called them, it’s a way to get them potentially to be more candid than if they were sitting amongst a group of their peers because generally people who are more influential, more senior, that they tend to be more cautious when they’re amongst groups of other people there as one on one. They might be a little bit more candid in the feedback that they’re giving you.
Jason Booms: That’s absolutely true. And even, and obviously in a focus group situation and sometimes you have, the moderator has to control for a certain group dynamic. You want to make sure that the collider folks they express their opinions. You want to make sure there’s no dominant personalities that are emerging that may be skewing the conversation. Generally you see a bit less of that with influencer populations, but it’s still there and you still have to control against it. Where as if it’s one on one there’s two people talking and especially if they’re responding to perhaps their home or their home office. I think you can really get some candid conversations and another benefit with this particular approaches, pound for pound you get more data for these one on one discussions. In focus groups, like I said you’ve got eight, 10 people in a room. You ask a question, most of the time you maybe get responses from four, maybe five people give you a response. When you do an in depth interview, every question gets a response from the respondent.

So from that way I think they’re richer, I think there’s more opportunities to gather more intelligence. I mean they’re all great ways of gathering data but when you really want to dig deep on a particular topic with an influencer population. I think IDI’s for the reasons we discussed are a really good way to go.

Chip Griffin: Now you know and influencers are all the buzz today right, if you talk about influencer marketing. That is something that is on the minds of just about every communicator and of course means all sorts of different things to different people but one of the ways that people have historically done influencer research particularly in more modern history is by looking at data from social networks and things like that. But you can use primary research as a way to uncover who the influencers are either by name or by description, right? I mean it’s a way to help improve that targeting as well.
Jason Booms: Oh yes it is and that’s another reason why media analysis can work so well with primary research. Through media analysis you can determine who’s being quoted in stories, who’s being … who is perceived as an expert, who’s been treated like an expert and from that you can build a sample which is a universe of potential survey respondents. And so the one can feed into the other so you get a sense, okay these are the 10 folks that are cited most often speaking about spent nuclear fuel rods or tiered copays and formularies and the bio farm space and we know that we want to talk to them. And from there we can go and we can conduct whatever the appropriate study design is and gather their opinions from them and then hopefully we’ll start seeing the messaging in the public conversations in the media change as there’s more, as the corporation organization knows what messages are working based on the feedback they got from these individuals. They can change their messaging accordingly and hopefully it becomes more prominent in the news coverage about organization acts.
Chip Griffin: You know we’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about these high touch you know highly personalized interviews, focus groups, et cetera. You know what do you think about online surveys, there’s a proliferation of tools and services out there that allow you to build audiences and do online surveys whether it’s something as simple as google surveys or working with some of the higher end polling firms. Everybody seems to have this as an option now. Do you view this as something that’s worth considering or do you really need to have that more human interaction in order to have valid results?
Jason Booms: Great question. Earlier on several years ago when we saw the introduction of survey monkey for example. And the rise of DIY sort of research. I think a lot of folks in this industry look at this with a little bit of skepticism married with apprehension. Like okay our folks gonna be start deeming themselves to be experts in the field.

The good news is I think those kinds of tools, they serve a role for just basic sort of gut check sort of things. What we’re really talking about here are platforms that are being used by data collection houses or by communications firms working in conjunction with pollsters, with researchers, with folks like us, there’s definitely a role for these sorts of platforms to do these large sample studies where you don’t necessarily can have that one on one connection with the individual respondent. Let me give you example. Well number on it’s still a very good means of tracking large populations for example. You can do some serious global work of say, Honda car purchasers within the last six months.

Online studies are really good at reaching out to that kind of population. They’re relatively affordable especially if they don’t have the labor costs of telephone interviewers involved. And so they’re a very effective means of reaching out to very specific population. Now they are still technically some concerns that are voiced in the research community about true randomness of such samples and they would get more of esoteric discussion on what that means. But I think the industry as a whole and going down to the level of the American Association for public opinion research which historically has been the guardians of solid science are tending to look more favorably upon online research tools as a means of gathering information.

Going back to what I was going to raise a second ago, they’re extremely useful when you’re dealing with very hard to reach segments of consumer population. For example, I did a study two years ago on a very rare disease state. There were only 14000 folks suffering from this particular condition in the United States. This should have been a very difficult population to reach five, 10 years ago. Medical privacy, and just the sheer representation within the US population. I mean we could have done several omnibus surveys and came away with maybe, a couple of respondents who had this particular condition.

But because you’ve got ways now of reaching out to these folks via online panels because you can actually house a link to a survey at an association or a forum where people can gather to talk about these issues. It becomes a very compelling tool and frankly a very good way of ensuring that the voice of these folks is actually heard because this is one of those conditions, there’s a lot of embarrassment about it given some of the symptoms. And being able to find these people to talk to them. Many of them found out to be a very healing process and are just very thankful that their concerns are being listened to and they feel this is a step towards ensuring that perhaps care improves and there’s greater public understanding about their situation. In that way I think online research plays a very valuable role in reaching very difficult to find populations.

Chip Griffin: So it sounds to me like what you’re essentially saying is that all these different tools have their place you just need to understand what to deploy and when and it’s not so much that online surveys are either good or bad or that focus groups are good or bad or that ideas are good or bad. They all need to be used at the right time and place.
Jason Booms: Exactly, they’re all different arrows in the quiver. Just finding out which one is most appropriate, whether you’re looking for hard numbers you can get from a quantitative approach or whether you’re looking at detailed findings, nuance oriented communications research that I get from a qualitative approach they all have their value and merit.
Chip Griffin: Excellent and that I think is probably a great note to end on that listeners just need to think about how to incorporate a primary research into the work that they’re doing and figure out which tools will be most effective for them in advancing the quality in their communications programs and ultimately their business outcomes. So again my guest today has been Jason Booms the managing director of market and influencer research for North America for CARMA. Thanks for joining me Jason.
Jason Booms: Well thank you Chip.
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About The Author


Jordan Gosselin recently began her career in marketing and communication with CARMA. Her experience includes social and digital work, creative content production, and marketing operations.

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