Public research and the need to get face-to-face with our audiences

To say that the last year or so has been a shock to the system would be an understatement. In the UK we’ve been handed Brexit, and the US has elected a billionaire President with no political experience. Many of the shocks we’ve experienced weren’t foreseen by the experts, and they were also missed by many of us in the public relations industry. For a function that is externally focused, we’ve been poor at listening of late to public sentiment.

Part of the problem was supposed to be the solution to public engagement and research. It’s time to admit that we’ve maybe over-leaned on the internet and social media for undertaking public research and profiling our audiences. This is partly because social media algorithms on the likes of Facebook reinforce existing biases. The media that we view in our newsfeed is based on how we and people in our network interact with articles posted in the newsfeed, which then becomes an echo chamber of our and our network’s own views.

The other challenge of over-relying on digital platforms to research stakeholder views and develop insights is behavioral polarization; behind a screen, people often say and do things which they wouldn’t do in real life.

Over a decade back, the industry that I work in, the FMCG sector, took a different approach to consumer research. Brand managers asked themselves what was the best means to get in touch with the needs, wants and desires of their consumers.

What they turned to was ‘immersion’, a direct interaction with consumers in their everyday lives.

Marketers in the FMCG industry went from observing consumers through traditional research means, in controlled environments, to spending time and interacting with consumers in the places they live their lives. The aim was to remove the filter and let staff be with consumers, in their lives, to observe and develop insights in the most natural setting possible.

The danger with over-relying on digital research is that we don’t fully understand our audience in their own reality. At worst, we end up relying on data sheets and secondhand research, and interpret this research based on our own experiences and concerns. We fail to understand how our audience thinks and behaves, with the impact that our communications outreach will be less effective.

I believe we all would benefit from combining the shallow view provided by many traditional research techniques and online research with the much more in-depth view provided by participating in peoples’ lives through a concept such as immersion. The differing approaches are, in fact, complementary.

Without the framework of professionally conducted qualitative and quantitative research, immersion engagements will result in trivial, biased or incorrect insights being uncovered. But equally, we need to understand that without the context of experiencing the lives of real people, the people we want to engage with and influence, our research runs the risk of being opaque, uninspiring and unappreciated by those that need to use it. Our research, in effect, doesn’t achieve what we intend for it, namely, to provide a base from which we can build an effective outreach programme.

Will the lessons learned over the past year prove enough of a shock for us to start re-engaging face-to-face with our audiences? I for one hope so. And I also believe it’ll lead to better, more impactful communications. Maybe this is the silver lining for 2016.

Picture credit: Joshua Ness


Alex is a British national with Arabic roots. He’s a 15 year veteran of communications, both in the UK and the Middle East, who currently heads up communications for a global FMCG organization in the Gulf. He made the move back to the region in 2004, firstly as a journalist and then as a public relations professional. Alex actively promotes the communications industry across the region, in his roles as Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators, EMENA region, and as a board member of the Middle East Public Relations Association and the Global Alliance. You can read more of his insights on his blog and connect with him on Twitter @alex_malouf.

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