Breaking down brand research

Times, to put it mildly, have changed. You and your clients are working differently, communicating differently. Buyers are looking for brands that are in tune with the new challenges they face.

In the post-COVID-19 era, it’s important to take a fresh look at your brand and communications. Is your messaging still relevant to the market? Do your communications work in an at-home setting? Is the information you are providing what people want? There’s never been a more critical time to do your homework — and that means research.

Research may not be the sexiest part of a brand campaign, but it’s a critical tool that shouldn’t be overlooked. It can help you develop smart strategies and, just as important, sell them upstream. At Right Hat, we conduct research to get inside the minds of professional services buyers and learn what they find most compelling. We ground brand campaigns and design choices in information from diverse sources so they don’t become an exercise in “I like blue.”

You can choose from many different types of research, depending on your goals and resources. Here’s a breakdown of the most common choices:

Internal research
Don’t overlook the low-hanging fruit. Your team is one of the best sources of information about your firm’s authentic attributes and aspirations. This applies not only to facts and figures, but also to your philosophy, your personality, what holds you together and sets you apart. For effective internal research, start by gathering information from a small group of key stakeholders through in-person interviews. Then confirm it with a wider employee study that can be conducted online.  Although sometimes dismissed as naval-gazing, this type of research can yield important insights about different perceptions within the firm based on tenure, gender, ethnicity and other differences. And involving people in the research process is a key part of gaining buy-in for your brand decisions.

A number of companies offer independent benchmarking information that will help you test your internal research against market realities. Are you a law firm that wants to position yourself as a litigation powerhouse? Look at how many trials you’ve won in key jurisdictions compared to your close competitors. Are you a consulting firm that sees its key differentiator as a fast-growing healthcare practice? How many experts have you added in the last two years? Do you need to fill gaps in your expertise due to market shifts? Subscribing to syndicated studies and reports can help you make sure your internal perceptions are accurate and credible. In addition, they provide valuable intelligence about what your competitors are good at and what they’re known for — so you can either beat them at their own game or stake out a unique position.

Client research
Who knows where you excel better than the clients you work with? A 20-minute, one-on-one interview will tell you where your current clients think you shine. It may also reveal surprising information about potential opportunities or lurking threats to a valued relationship. For that reason, we recommend using a third party to conduct the client research instead of doing it yourself — clients are more apt to be candid when they are not worried about hurting someone’s feelings or causing internal trouble.

Client research can be affordable and relatively convenient. Even a small sampling of 15 or 20 interviews can be helpful. Don’t be reluctant to ask clients to participate — when interviews are set up by someone they know and trust, clients are often flattered to be asked for an opinion. However, be aware that speaking only with clients who love you will give you a one-sided story. Client research tends to have a bias toward the positive, keeping the data from being truly “clean.” One way to offset this is to speak to former clients and clients whose business may have slowed down over recent months or years, or for whom your work may have been lacking. And consider reaching out to people in your orbit who are non-clients, but are similar to the types of clients you would want to have.

Unbiased subjects
If you want to break into new markets, new services or new relationships, there’s no substitute for broad-based research that includes impartial subjects. Many firms choose not to invest in this type of research, as it can be expensive and time-consuming to hire a panel company to conduct it. But if you do, you will have by far the most accurate picture of how your organization is perceived in the marketplace, including by people who have never used your services. One caveat: in working with your panel company, make sure that the sample they promise will be large enough and will truly represent your target audience. There’s no point in paying for a survey that is mostly junior execs in small East Coast companies if your target is decision makers in California.

Digital research
Widely available website analytics can show you what drives people to your website, where they go when they get there and how long they stay. Test the appeal of an online ad or a piece of thought leadership by tracking your clickthroughs and how often the piece is forwarded or downloaded. There are also tools that will enable you to compare your site visits with those of your top competitors. Where are they ranking organically compared to you in a target practice or industry?

Test the appeal of an online ad or a piece of thought leadership by tracking your clickthroughs and how often the piece is forwarded or downloaded.

Since perception often becomes reality, consider a “sentiment analysis” of what relevant  people say about you on social media. Choose several sites where your targets and clients may go to talk about  law firms, monitor your news coverage and check the rankings. Social media not only reflects your brand, but also helps form it.

Focus groups
Let’s be honest: we’re not big fans of using focus groups to create brand strategies. Their small size and results-driven mission tends to foster groupthink as opposed to creative exploration. (And note: People don’t usually experience marketing in groups.) However, focus groups can serve a valuable purpose after a brand is launched by measuring how familiar the market is with your brand and what characteristics it associates with you. And focus groups can be helpful in testing ad campaigns and design directions if you know how to carefully consider the input.

Whatever research mix you choose, be sure to update it periodically. Public opinion and context change, and relying on stale data can jeopardize your goals.

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