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Understanding how to develop, conduct, and use data and research is an essential function of senior leadership positions across industries, including higher education. At the most recent Annual Conference on Marketing and Branding sponsored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), a portion of the first day was focused on research and data, and it was a theme throughout the conference’s presentations and discussions. If you and your team think it’s time to take on a marketing research project, these are four things to consider as you begin developing your plan.

1. Make the case for conducting research.

To make an effective case, you will need to provide an estimated return on the investment (ROI) and how you will measure it. Knowing the history of research at your institution is an essential first step. You don’t want to make a case for answering a question that you already have asked and answered in another survey or research tool.

In my experience, one of the strongest arguments is the idea that research will help the communications team better align current marketing resources with institutional goals and provide critical insights to refine institutional strategy and tactics. It also offers the opportunity to test how some of the new ideas or programs of a strategic plan are received in the marketplace.

2. Choose your approach: external consultant or DIY model?

Who will conduct the research? I have used both models successfully, working with a market research firm and managing research internally, but there is a cost to both. Depending on your scope and timeline, using an outside consultant for a market research project can cost into the six figures. But doing your own research also has a cost: you’ll spend a lot of time that you won’t be able to devote to other projects. If you are going to use your existing institutional resources, it is important to make sure that you have the right expertise which includes understanding how to conduct focus groups, develop appropriate questions, and the knowledge of how to break down and analyze the data that you will yield.

3. Engage campus partners.

Engaging the right campus partners can be helpful when selecting your audience and developing questions. I have conducted research projects with alumni, prospective students and families, current students and families, guidance counselors, and employers. I have found partnerships with advancement, admissions, student life, career development, and academic affairs. But the most crucial partnership was my connection with institutional research. No matter how you approach the project, they have relevant institutional data and expertise to be a great partner. They will help you develop questions that are free from bias and framed to help you answer the questions that you want to ask.

4. Use the research.

Once you break down your results, you need to consider who needs to see it and in what order. Depending on the scope and audience for your research, you may need to include your institution’s senior leadership team, including the President and the Board of Trustees in your plan. I highly recommended creating an easy-to-understand executive summary that includes recommendations for action based on the results. You may also want to consider how to integrate the research into your marketing materials depending on the type and audience that you have selected.

Concluding Thoughts

As you plan your market research project, having clearly defined goals will help you throughout the process. No matter what model you decide, knowing where you want to end up will make getting there easier. Carefully select your campus partners and engage them early in the process. Remember, there is no one perfect way and you can be successful using a variety of models and approaches.

Paul Redfern is vice president for communications at St. Lawrence University. in Canton, N.Y. He is a frequent presenter on marketing and brand topics at national conferences and serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the College and University Public Relations and Associated Professionals (CUPRAP).

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