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Researching Sensitive Subjects
Planning For Success
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September 2010
ADM logoA New Year 
The Romans started their year in March--that's when winter was over and spring planting began. Renewal, rebirth, all those good things. That's why "September" is so named--it was the 7th month. Likewise, October, November and December.  They actually didn't have monthly designations for what we now call January and February because the winter was considered "dead time." Sometime in late antiquity, this changed and by the 15th century, the year officially began January 1st.
However, from a pragmatic point of view, the "new year" really begins in September: the kids go back to school and organizations begin to offer programs again. Not that our summer wasn't quite busy with all manner of networking meetings and events. But the new cycle begins this month. I hope it is a productive year for you!
Researching Sensitive Subjects
Changing Methods In A "Snooki" World 
Common wisdom historically dictated that if one was researching a sensitive subject like sexual behavior or certain personal care practices, focus groups were not to be considered. Who would share such personal information, even among a group of strangers? But then Oprah, Sally Jesse Rafael, Montel Williams, and Dr. Phil came along. I don't know how they get people to share their most personal and private matters on network television, but they do. Even if some people embellish their stories for the publicity (or notoriety), they are still exposing themselves to millions of viewers.
And then along came "reality" tv. Even if Snooki and her friends on the Jersey Shore are exaggerating for the cameras, it is still a sign of where we have gone in public comportment and public discussion. 
When a client asked me to conduct focus groups, the subject of which is sexual behavior, I naturally advised him to conduct individual depth interviews. He insisted that he would learn what he needed from focus groups. After thinking about it for a while, I realized he was probably right. People talk about anything to anybody--especially strangers. The client also insisted that we NOT record the groups. This is counter-intuitive, but he had his reasons. And it might actually help people open up more if they know there is no digital record.
We haven't done these groups yet, but it will be interesting to see how it works out. Things change and we must adjust to these changes.
Planning For Success
If You Fail To Plan You Plan To Fail
It keeps coming up, like a bad lunch. Planning, whether it is an event, a product launch, or a communications campaign, often spells the difference between success and failure. This is certainly true for a marketing research study. In his "Research Playbook" blog, Carey Azzara, of AtHeath, LLC, writes about nine milestones in marketing research planning (; steps that are necessary to having a productive outcome to your research. Here's my take on it.
The most important part of planning for a research study is the articulation of objectives--preferably in writing. If you make them too broad (I want to know everything about the ABC market), you will wind up with a very long questionnaire, a very complex analysis, and you will learn very little of importance. Pick two or three things that are mission critical and focus on those things. Try not to let your marketing/management team tamper with it too much or you will wind up with the proverbial camel (a horse designed by a committee).
Allow a professional to design the survey instrument. He or she will certainly ask for input, especially when it comes to jargon, competitors, and attributes of your product, service, or brand. However, an experience researcher will know best how to frame questions in order to facilitate respondents to answer. For example, telephone surveys and self-administered surveys (either online or snail-mail) should be worded differently. The ear needs to hear shorter, more direct questions, while the eye can cope with longer, more complex ones.
Sampling is another critical piece of the puzzle. The most reliable quantitative study results come from a random probability sample. However, not all studies are conducted among a general population, so a random probability sample can be obtained from a list, especially when the universe of possible respondents is small, well-defined, and relatively homogeneous. For example, a customer survey in a B-to-B marketplace must be done with a list. On the other hand, the desire to gain knowledge of a large marketplace, including users of a certain product category and non-users should NOT be conducted among a list of customers. The bottom line is: review your objectives and use a sampling design that matches them.
Data collection methods follow a similar process. Choose a method that matches your objectives and sample population. Focus groups may not be appropriate if you want results that are generalizable. Check with your consultant for advice.
Finally, leave enough time for planning, design, data collection, and report preparation. Make sure your consultant (or internal staff) knows WHEN you need the results; you might need to adjust your study design to accommodate your time frame. Nobody likes surprises--especially when they may denigrate the product or the results.
Planning adequately will yield reliable research results. They may not be what you hoped, but they are invariably instructive; which is why you decided to conduct research to begin with.
Upcoming Events
September 15, 11:30am-1:30pm
The International Association of Business Communicators, Long Island, begins its new season with a great program in a new venue: The Melville Marriott, 1350 Old Walt Whitman Rd, Melville. Jonathan Willard, Change Management Consultant, will present "Using Communications To Drive Profitable Employee Behaviors." This interesting concept, from an industry expert, will give you a new way to look at branding, whether you have employees or consult with companies that do. Go to for more information, and sign up at  I look forward to seeing you there!  
September 15, 8-10am
SMPS-LI begins its new season with "Getting Off The Short List:What You Can Do To Hedge Your Bets And Move To the Top." This program features Carolyn Ferguson, President of Win-More Marketing Advisors and Ron Worth, CEO of SMPS. Held at the Milleridge Inn, Broadway, Jericho, you can register at
September 28, 8:00-10:00am
SMPS-LI is opening its Marketing Tools Series with "High Visibility Made Easy: Drawing Crowds And New Clients To Your Next Exhibit." This interactive workshop will be led by Deborah Elms, CEO of Imprinted Originals. It will be held at RXR Building, 58 South Service Road in Plainview. It is free for SMPS members and $25 for non-members. AIA Continuing Education Units are available.  Register at
October 27, 5:30-7:30pm
IABC-LI is pleased to co-sponsor a sterling event with NY Women In CommunicationsLong Island Women's Agenda, North Shore-LIJ Katz Institute For Women's Health, and several other groups. Mary Lou Quinlan, author of "Just Ask A Woman" and head of a strategic marketing firm of that name, will speak about "Marketing To Women." This is a must-see presentation, so mark your calendars. It will be held at TWO, a new restaurant in New Hyde Park.
Register at Venue capacity is limited, so sign up as soon as possible.
October 28, 6:00-9:00pm
SMPS-LI is holding its fourth annual Canstruction Gala at RXR Plaza in Uniondale. This extraordinary event has teams of architects, engineers, and even student groups competing for the best "sculpture" made solely of cans of food products. Afterwards, the cans of food are donated to Long Island Cares/Harry Chapin Food Bank. For more information on the event, go to
Check out Adrian's Network,, to find out the schedule for virtual networking calls and face-to-face meetings on Long Island and in Manhattan.
This practice is dedicated to helping companies become knowledge-driven, rather than assumption driven about strategic and tactical decisions concerning lines of business, branding, communications, and various marketing activities. For more information about how we do this, case studies, frequently asked questions about marketing research, and testimonials, please visit our web site:

Ann Middleman