Research. It can be intimidating, definitely if you’re being “researched” by the local media, or “investigated” by the local police. But that isn’t the kind of research we’re talking about. In fact, research in our world is a good thing. A great thing, really.

Research plays a vital role in marcom. In fact, it’s one of the foundational elements of any good strategic plan. It can help a company better understand its competitors. It can provide valuable information about consumer attitudes, perceptions and preferences related to services. Research can also help a business identify messages that resonate—or better yet, those that don’t—with key audiences. It can even help leaders isolate potential barriers and pinpoint opportunities for growth.

With all these positives, why are so many organizations hesitant to conduct formal research? Some say it’s too labor-intensive or takes too long to get results. Others say it’s too expensive. And there are even a few who’ll admit they don’t want to hear negative feedback. Yet, failing to do research before jumping into planning or implementation is like building a deck with only three out of four concrete footers. Without it, your strategy will fall flat. Instead, think of research as a way to bolster your foundation and ensure long-term success.

Even more important than acknowledging the need for research is finding a partner who has expertise in good data collection. This is often the make-it-or-break-it part of any research project. At IronStrike, we help clients conduct research the right way. Today, we’re looking at the different types of research and the role each plays in helping you make better business decisions. Let’s start by talking about the two types of research: primary and secondary.

Two general types of research: Primary and secondary

Primary research is information gathered directly from the source. In your case, your primary “source” may be staff members, customers, vendors or even suppliers. It all depends on your target audiences. These can take the form of surveys, interviews, focus groups and other methods. We provide more information about these tools below.

Secondary research is information gathered from secondary sources, such as the internet, library, governmental agencies or trade associations. In some scenarios, this might include gathering statistics, reports and other studies that support your efforts or help you identify new market opportunities. Later, we outline specific resources to help you conduct this type of research.

Pretty straight-forward, right? Now that we’ve covered the two types of research, let’s explore a couple of approaches to gather the appropriate data.

Research approach 1: Qualitative research

Qualitative research, or that pertaining to the quality of something, is more exploratory in nature. It gets to the heart of why someone likes or doesn’t like a product, how they feel when they use that product, and what motivates them to keep using it or recommend it to a friend. Qualitative research often involves unstructured, open-ended questions that allow a person to freely describe how they feel about a topic. It can be either primary or secondary.

While you can collect some narrow qualitative feedback using free and low-cost methods (which we’ll get to later), most companies partner with a firm to conduct this very important research. IronStrike specializes in conducting qualitative research using three different mechanisms. Each has its own pros and cons, which we discuss here.


Qualitative surveys conducted via phone, paper or online are meant to reveal a person’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors regarding a topic. Often administered anonymously, these surveys can provide you with a “gut check” regarding your company, products, even customer service satisfaction levels.

Sometimes, these surveys reinforce a job well done. But be prepared. Sometimes they uncover what can only be referred to as “green slimy things.” These “slimy things” are issues that start out small—almost undetectable. But left alone to fester, they begin to grow and erode at important elements like customer loyalty, product sales and market share.

Consider this example: A healthcare system asks 400 people how they’d rate a facility. Results show 80 percent of those surveyed ranked it a 1 or 2 on a scale of 1-10 (10 is best). A leader at that organization might ask, “What happened. How’d we get here?” This is where you’d turn to the open-ended questions in the survey for some answers.

In most scenarios, you’d find it’s not one “green slimy thing,” but several that lead to an overall negative perception. For one person, it may have been in how they were treated rudely by a staff member. Another, a mistake made on a room service order. Yet another, the lack of appropriate signage. Individually, these things may seem inconsequential. But collectively, they spell trouble for the organization. How? By fueling a negative perception that is then perpetuated through word-of-mouth. And as the old saying goes “bad news travels fast.” Indeed, today’s social media platforms make sharing experiences all that much easier.

In the end, if a survey turns up some “green slimy things,” don’t panic. Instead, consider yourself lucky to be one of the first to know what the issues are so you can begin to correct them.

1:1 interviews

Individual interviews are an excellent way to gather qualitative feedback, as they allow for two-way dialogue. The advantage to 1:1 interviews is that the conversation is generally a little less structured. The interviewer can also probe deeper on topics that seem to strike a chord with interviewees. They can also tease out themes that begin to emerge among interviewees, allowing an organization to gain a more complete picture. And interviewees can seek clarification on questions—something they can’t do in paper or online surveys.

But beware, this kind of interaction can unwittingly lead to interviewer bias. As humans, it’s natural for us to engage emotionally when sharing an experience with others. This isn’t to say that interviewers should be detached. Just that they need to be aware of how their emotional reaction—or lack thereof—can influence an interview. For this reason, we strongly recommend that you carefully choose a moderator. Find one that can remain objective, yet still encourage interviewees to open up, when conducting interviews.

In addition to 1:1 interviews, sometimes interviews involve two or three people (called dyads and triads). Like 1:1 interviews, these interviews can help uncover underlying motivations, beliefs, attitudes and feelings.

Focus groups

A focus group is a structured discussion among a small group (8-12 people). Though focus groups tend to be a little more structured than 1:1 interviews, they’re designed to create a non-threatening environment that encourages people to express their opinions. Over the years, we’ve found that many clients like to do focus groups, in part, because they can reveal a lot of information in a relatively short period of time.

Focus groups are good for gathering information about peoples’ opinions, attitudes and beliefs about a topic or issue. They’re particularly helpful when you want to:

  • Introduce a new program, service or other offering.
  • Test assumptions.
  • Explore emotional and cognitive reactions to visual elements such as a logo or tagline.
  • Test the functionality and ease-of-use of a communications tool, like a website or online program.
  • Supplement knowledge gained from written surveys.

Two big advantages of focus groups are the depth of responses and how the interaction between group members can stimulate new ideas. You can conduct focus groups the traditional way—in one room—or via telepresence (virtual reality technology) to allow for visible interactions.

While any one of these qualitative approaches can yield great information, we generally recommend combining them with more in-depth quantitative research to paint a more complete picture of your situation.

Research approach 2: Quantitative research

Struggled through statistics in high school or college? You’re in luck. We’re not going to bore you with all the technical jargon about what “quantitative” really means. We’ll leave that to the statistics junkies out there. Quite simply, quantitative research produces data that can be measured numerically and put into categories, or rank order—often based on manipulation or control of variables. Think of quantitative research as a way to quantify the problem and undercover the patterns behind it.

This type of research is typically gathered using structured research methods, and results are based on larger sample sizes that allow researchers to generalize concepts across populations and predict future results. In this approach, researchers use tools such as questionnaires to collect information. That information is then translated into tables, charts and other statistically significant facts and figures. The questionnaires are usually administered online or by phone.

How to get your research done

So, who’s going to do your research? First up is free research that you can do yourself. Yes, there’s such a thing as free research! If you’re looking for some limited informal feedback from staff, customers or vendors, you can conduct a free online survey using a service such as Survey Monkey. Keep in mind, the free service generally covers basic surveys. So if you want more, in-depth questions you’ll likely need to upgrade your account. Regardless, it’s still a very cost-effective way to gather input from those who matter most to you. In work environments where email isn’t widely used—such as manufacturing—you can set up kiosks for people to take the survey online, or encourage them to complete a paper version.

Another way to gather research cost-effectively is to conduct secondary research through websites that offer free or low-cost access to a treasure trove of business-related information. There are literally thousands of sites to choose from, but a few credible resources include US Census Bureau,, Commerce Department’s Economic Indicators and These can be helpful if you’re tasked with developing marcom plans for products and services, as they can provide insights on population trends, accessibility issues and other barriers that could limit your ability to take advantage of new market opportunities. You can also conduct free research through online chat rooms/communities, mobile device polls and social media crowd-sourcing.

Word of caution: If you’re making key decisions and need rigorous information to back you, an unbiased party should conduct your research. And if you need additional credibility, hiring someone outside your organization is the way to go. While this applies to any type of research, it’s particularly important to hire an outside consultant to conduct quantitative research and focus groups. Because there’s simply no substitute for good research.

Putting research to work

One of IronStrike’s long-standing clients, Disciples Church Extension Fund and Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, recently wanted to gain insights from their customers and prospects. First, they wanted to know what was working and what could be improved upon when it came to their services, outreach and overall customer experience. They also wanted to better understand the factors their customers consider when thinking about engaging with the ministries. And finally, they wanted to better understand referral sources, identify key competitors, and pinpoint barriers and growth opportunities.

Guess what? All good information to gather through quantitative research methods. And that’s exactly the route we recommended—and they took. IronStrike partnered with an Indy-based research firm to conduct a statistically sound survey that yielded the results the two organizations were seeking. And now those results are helping them make more informed decisions about their future.


When it comes to research, there are many ways to gain the insights you need to make better business decisions. It’s important to acknowledge the good, the bad AND the ugly when reviewing the research results—regardless of the approach. It’s only when you truly understand your current situation that you can build a strong foundation for the future. And ultimately rid your organization of those “green slimy things!”

Like what you see and wondering how to get started on your own research project? Let’s talk.