By: Glaelis Sierra – Account Director at Williams Whittle

Is research really essential for nonprofits? Absolutely. Research is essential for any organization, but especially for nonprofits. If you’re still unsure about research, let me point out at least 10 ways that it can help your organization:

  1. It can be used to identify and define market opportunities and areas for improvement.
  2. It can also be used to monitor your nonprofit’s marketing strategies – in what media do your various target audiences prefer to receive communication from you? How frequently? What topics do they care about?
  3. It can help benchmark and track awareness – how many people are familiar with your organization? Does it increase over time — before and after advertising and year over year? All of our clients’ conduct awareness studies on an annual basis.
  4. It can be used to test different creative executions to help you identify which ones resonate better with your target audience. For example, for our client MRC, we decided to test two TV spots against each other to see which version our target audience preferred – live-action or animated spots. Annual likability studies guide us in our message development for the next year’s campaign.
  5. Research can help you gain input from various target audiences and stakeholders on key differentiators.
  6. To collect demographic and psychographic information for better targeting.
  7. To collect and analyze media habits over time to ensure you’re spending your dollars efficiently in each outlet.
  8. To gain insights from donors, which will ultimately help you build better donor profiles.
  9. To gain input on who is the decision-maker vs action taker. This was important for MRC to learn who was making the decision to recycle a mattress vs who was actually taking it to the collection facility. We learned that the person taking the mattress was not necessarily the decision-maker.
  10. When done on a regular basis, research can help you make comparisons over time, chart those changes, make better and informed marketing decisions, plan initiatives and asses your success.

Most importantly, market research will help you get rid of the confirmation bias. This is what you think you know vs the facts. Sometimes, we make assumptions and research helps validate them. However, when you think about research, you might think it doesn’t fit in your organization’s budget, but the reality is there are plenty of ways to get information from your target audience without breaking the bank.

First, you’ll need to determine these three elements:

  1. Establish your KPIs – what questions would you like the research to answer? This will help guide what type of research you’ll need to conduct – qualitative or quantitative. Quantitative research measures or counts data. It attempts to answer the question “how much?” For example, if you’re looking to measure awareness, you might need to conduct quantitative research to find out the number of people that know about your nonprofit. Qualitative methods use direct or indirect contact with people and they consist of interviews, observation or review relevant documents. It’s important to note that the qualitative data cannot be quantifiable; it provides an approximation, rather than exact information. Defining your KPIs and the questions you’d like to be answered will help guide your research.
  2. Look it up – After determining the questions you’d like research to answer, go ahead and do some research. There might be trade association reports, government data, academic research and research databases that might already have some answers to your questions. Here’s a list of 101 research databases that could be helpful in your search.
  3. Choose a method – There are several methods that can be used when doing market research. Here are eight affordable ways your nonprofit can do market research:

a. Observation this is the most primitive way of doing market research. You can get a lot of information from just looking around at how your audience is behaving. Also, get your employees involved. Tell them to ask questions and get some insights about what others are saying about your organization.

Our client, MRC participates in several events throughout the year, one way of getting insights from consumers is going to these events and observe how they react to our creative, what types of questions they ask about the program, etc.

b. Mystery Shopping – although this method is commonly used in commercial settings, you can still do some “mystery shopping” in your organization. For example, call and ask questions to see how your employees provide the information. This might work to get some competition data as well. Call other nonprofit organizations in your line of work and see what are they doing differently.

c. Transactional Surveys – we’ve all done these at some point and nonprofit organizations can use them as well in different ways. Think about when you call a customer service line and they ask if you’ll have a few minutes after the call to evaluate their service. Well, you can use this approach or email your donors and volunteers a short survey to get some data. Consider maybe having a pop-up on your website with a few questions.

d. Survey or Questionnaire – This is one of the most common market research methods. This method can be cost-effective when reaching a large group of people, plus it can be done electronically via an online survey platform such as:

    1. SoGoSurvey
    2. SurveyMonkey
    3. Typeform
    4. Google Forms
    5. Client Heartbeat
    6. Zoho Survey
    7. SurveyGizmo
    8. SurveyPlanet

It is best to keep the survey as short as possible, to ensure you get as many “completes” as you can. Sometimes, offering a small incentive for people who complete the survey can improve the response rate. You’ll have to keep in mind your audience’s demographic; older audiences might prefer a phone questionnaire versus going online (if they’re nottech-savvyy). Our MRC client does on-site surveys at their Earth Day events; brand ambassadors ask the questions to people that accept answering the survey. Because they’re done on an event and people are walking by, we can get a better completion rate by filling out the online survey for them on a tablet.

e. Focus Group – this method involves a small group of people that is brought in to have a guided discussion about a specific topic. Focus groups can provide a lot of good information, but might take longer to review and analyze and they are significantly more expensive. Also, keep in mind the information collected on a focus group in qualitative not quantitative. It is recommended to have a skilled moderator to guide the discussion.

f. Customer Advisory Panels – this method works well for organizations that have traditional customers. People from different consumer groups are brought in together to serve on a discussion panel. This method can be beneficial for organizations looking to gather information needed to make a significant decision. You bring the idea up to the panel for discussion and get their input to discover potential issues or opportunities before it is executed.

g. Individual In-depth Interviews – these are very time-consuming to complete and review, but they provide detailed information about a person. For our client, the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington we conducted in-depth interviews with specific donors. These one-on-one interviews helped us understand their motivators to donate which is harder to quantify via a questionnaire sent over email. We were also looking for more qualitative data to help us develop the campaign concept that we developed for them.

h. Marketing Experiments – this can also be known as A/B testing. This involves preparing different materials and test them against each other with your target audience, then track the results. For example, you can send outa different newsletter to your target audiences and see which one received better results.

Each of these methods can be used in conjunction with each other or by themselves – it will ultimately depend on your goals. You can consider starting with a survey and following up with an in-depth interview to gain further insights from your prospects.

After determining your goals and KPIs, doing a little bit of exploration and choosing a method to implement your research, don’t forget to turn your information into action once it’s done. Make sure you use those insights to drive your communications and marketing efforts. Share those insights with board members and key stakeholders. Consider developing a one-pager to share on your website with data that can be shared outside the organization.

At Williams Whittle we love data and we have developed several blog data series on the subject. Start by reading our Data Visualization for Beginners blog where you can even download a free data visualization template or contact us to get your research started.