Designing Research to be Actionable

In our previous article, “You have to know your donors to engage them,” we outlined the data points needed to build the emotional connections with your donors that lead to increased ROI for your fundraising. Many of those points can be found in your existing donor data, or through data appends, but some points will require primary research. In this article, we outline how to design research to be useful in creating more relevant and meaningful communications. 

It’s not uncommon for organizations to enter into a research project with great intentions and great enthusiasm only to lose momentum once the research results are tabulated. If you’ve surveyed donors and then failed to actually use any of the information you collected, you’re not alone. At Phoenix Innovate we avoid wasting time and money on unactionable research by paying attention to these 6 typical research pitfalls. 

1.Know the problem you’re trying to solve. Have a clear strategic issue the research is designed to help address before you write the first question. Usually, the objective will be related to creating more compelling donor appeal communications by a) recognizing those prospects most likely to give and b) understanding the motivations behind their donations.

2. Develop your questionnaire with hypothetical outcomes from the responses. For every question, you need to think about what the answers might be and how you would use that information to change the way you communicate and engage. You want to keep your survey short, so challenge every addition to the survey by asking: “How will we use this information?” This not only helps anticipate a resulting action plan, but also helps frame the questions properly for the greatest insight. Because you’re trying to build more emotional connections with donors, you’ll want to think about how the answers to your questions might affect your need for new photography, new appeal letters, or new channels of communication that might require new marketing partners. 

3. Ask a big enough sample. To be useful, the responses need to be representative of all your donors and prospects, so you’ll need enough responses from each donor segment. A professional marketing firm like Phoenix Innovate can calculate the sample size needed to generate stable and statistically significant results.

4. Use the right methodology.  Good research design is critical to getting actionable insights. Focus groups and one-on-one interviews (both are qualitative methods) are useful for probing for insights, but they don’t provide a big enough sample to be representative of your total donor base or prospects. For that, you’ll need a quantitative study (usually a survey). 

5.  Ask questions the right way.  It’s not always enough to ask which of 5 choices is most important, you might also need to know how important on a scale of 1-10 each of the 5 choices is. Asking respondents to fill in a blank with 5 charities they think are doing a great job provides a different perspective than asking respondents to rank the performance of a provided list of 5 charities. The first approach tests unaided awareness and the second tests perception. 

Experienced marketing consultants can provide valuable assistance in writing the questions. 

6.  Don’t stop at insights.If you’ve done all of the above correctly, you’ll have all the data you need to start connecting with your donors on an emotional level and a rough plan for what changes to make to your communications/appeal efforts. Now is the time to engage photographers and copywriters to create the content your research tells you is needed. Now is the time to re-think your mix of communications channels, mail, email, text, newsletters, blog, etc., and the frequency with which they are used.   

Check back next month for Part 3 in this series: Getting from “knowing” to “doing”. 

Mark M Gaskill
Mark M Gaskill

EVP of Marketing Solutions

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