With a trend towards social marketing increasingly being used to inform policy and development of strategy, the need for actionable research has never been more important. Here, I outline best practice to ensure that your research programmes can be put into action.
· Involve the designers of social marketing programmes in the research process. Many have voiced concern regarding the lack of involvement of programme planners in the research set-up phase. By seeing the research and planning processes as distinct processes, social marketing planners are prevented from contributing to the research process to ensure that they obtain the information they need to understand behaviours. I recognise that involving more parties in the design process offers its challenges, but not doing so may present more. For example, from time to time I get asked (at the dissemination stage) why the research didn’t address a particular issue or question, and the simple answer is that no one raised it as being important at the outset! If the research doesn’t address the issues that the users of the findings are looking to answer, then its usefulness will be diluted.
· Whet the appetite of the users of the research by engaging them early. A good way to do this is by testing expectations prior to carrying out the research or prior to disseminating the results. This gets your audience thinking about the findings and their implications early on. Added to this, comparing expected and actual findings helps to identify the “knowledge gaps” which may need to be filled (e.g. via training, information dissemination): another way to make your research more actionable.
· Disseminate the findings from your research to those taking part. It may not increase the success of your social marketing programme but it will help to engage your audience with your organisation and increase the likelihood of future participation.
· Set targets to measure the impact of research recommendations. Just because your social marketing programme doesn’t have commercial goals, doesn’t mean that targets can’t be set to measure success. This should help to integrate the research within your social marketing programme. Objective-setting should be guided by research and may include targets relating to participation,
· Use context to add meaning to your findings. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reinforced this view in their seminal article on the social determinants of health. A statistic or finding is meaningless without context. This can be done using a range of techniques from benchmarking against other comparable research; using case studies to bring results to life or by cross-referencing several pieces of information. Not only does this add context, but it also broadens audience engagement with the outcomes.
· Carry out your research in stages and review each stage before proceeding with the next. Ideally research should be an on-going, ever-evolving process which builds on learning and responds to changing. This ensures that programme practitioners can act quickly. What is shouldn’t be is a one-off programme which provides insight at a fixed period in time. (That said, stages do not need to be exclusive and should be revisited as required.) Maybe I shouldn’t say this as an agency researcher, but smaller bite-sized phases of research offer greater flexibility to review findings as you go and refine your research design. For example, we worked with an environmental organisation which provided information to a range of organisations to help them to respond appropriately to legislative changes. The research was required to help develop its new website to improve accessibility to information. By carrying out a three-stage, mixed-method approach, we were able to ensure that the current site was fully reviewed prior to implementing any changes (thereby making sure that positive aspects of the site were maintained and that stakeholders had a voice in its development); pilot and refine a prototype; and fully test the site by observing users navigating its pages.
Rachel Cope has over 20 years’ research experience, including 10 years in social research and is head of mruk research.
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