Monday, September 28, 2009

Got no respect? Get research!

One of the pleasures of working in a university is the intellectual atmosphere, knowledgeable professors and talented administrators. Education is valued (obviously), and experts abound. Communication professionals without terminal degrees can face a challenge in getting their voices heard, even when it comes to our own areas of expertise.

While it's widely accepted that research is a marketing best practice, research takes a special place in higher education. Just as research informs teaching, it also informs good marketing—and academics respect it. Relevant research will instantly add credibility to any recommendation. Many people, academics or not, think that marketing is just good common sense, so research is particularly important if you're going against the prevailing opinion of someone with more academic credentials (even if those credentials aren't related to marketing).

Here are some low-cost ways to do your own marketing research:
  • Online surveys: Gone are the days of expensive paper mailings with time-intensive data entry. There are a number of free and low-cost online survey programs (SurveyMonkey is my tool of choice) that make survey research a cinch. For quick questions, Twtpoll is another helpful resource that you can post on Twitter or forward to e-mail lists.
  • In-house focus groups: For more in-depth information on a topic, focus groups are the way to go. There are many resources online about how to conduct them, and aside from staff time and refreshments, they're pretty inexpensive to conduct if you're not outsourcing it. (Not knocking professional research firms, who provide a great independent service if your institution can afford it.) The key is to have someone who is not invested in the project leading the group, so that your results aren't biased.
  • Peer research/consultation: Discussion forums or professional e-mail lists can provide a great place to poll your peers about their experiences and best practices in a given situation. CASE coordinates lists for a number of higher ed specialties (my favorites are the College/University Editors group University Web Developer groups).
  • Award competition Web sites: Check these out to get a quick overview of best practices in a variety of communications categories. While it's helpful to see examples of the best tactics out there, the real gold can be found in judges reports. These reports can provide an overview of the best—and sometimes worst—strategies.

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