Communications Research Methods and Resources

Research is a fundamental step in your communications plan. In this article we will go over some common research methods and resources you can use. Primary research refers to research you will do yourself, and secondary research uses the interpreted findings and data from other sources.

Primary Research


Interviewing can be a powerful way to gain deep insights into your customer or target audience and can take many forms, but always includes a structured or semi-structured conversation between an interviewer and an interviewee. Typically, you will prepare questions beforehand that you will ask the interviewee to help you organize the data later on.

• Deep insights can be gained
• Produces rich qualitative data
• Can build trust and relationships with your audience

• Can be costly and difficult to perform on a large enough sample size
• Interviewer may inadvertently influence responses
• Can be very resource intensive to transcribe and interpret data

Focus Groups

Focus groups are commonly used to gather data on the social opinions and perspectives of a particular group of people. Typically, a targeted group of people is brought together for a structured or semi-structured conversation. A trained facilitator should guide the conversation while another researcher gathers data, it is difficult to effectively run a focus group and gather data with only one person.

• Deep insights can be gained in a social context
• Can produce rich qualitative data
• Can build trust and relationships with your audience

• Facilitator and other group members can inadvertently influence responses
• Can be very resource consuming to transcribe and interpret data
• Participants can derail or hijack conversation, a trained facilitator can help mitigate this


A survey is a set of structured questions that a research subject responds to. Commonly, responses to survey questions are open ended, true or false, or multiple choice. Surveys are a very useful research method since they can make it easy to gather and sort large amounts of data. Surveys are commonly administered online, by phone or voice call, or in person. There are online platforms that can help you design and deliver your survey, we’ve used SurveyMonkey several times.

• Since data is already structured, it can be easier to sort into themes and interpret
• Can reach a large audience relatively quickly and efficiently
• Can be very effective when well designed and used in combination with other methods

• Poorly worded questions can lead to confusing or useless results
• Online surveys can sometimes get hijacked by fake responses
• With a very large sample, survey data can become complex and helpful coding software can be costly

Ethnography and Observational Research

Ethnographic research involves researchers immersing themselves in the lives of their research subjects. It can generate useful data about customer beliefs, values, and behaviors. Observational research more generally refers to any type of research that consists of the researcher observing and gathering data about the target group, with various levels of interaction.

• Can generate unique and otherwise difficult to obtain data
• Can produce data about the real actions and behaviors of the research subjects

• Ethnographic research can be very costly to time and resources to do well
• Observers may inadvertently influence research subjects or become overly involved
• Researcher’s interpretation of phenomena may not be accurate
• Data can be difficult to structure and quantify if not well planned out

Secondary Research

Secondary Sources

In this context, “secondary” describes any research sources you refer to that were authored or published by others. Secondary sources can be very valuable in helping you to understand the context of the current situation, and what others have already done. They can also help to validate your own findings and conclusions, and bring up concerns or issues that you might need to address.

When looking for secondary sources, make sure that they are from credible or relevant publications. Generally, government statistics and census data are trusted, as are peer reviewed academic journal articles. You can often find these types of sources online through services like government websites and Google Scholar, or you might want to visit your local university or municipal library.

When researching a particular market or industry, you may have better luck looking to well respected industry publications and company reports. Just be sure to review the data you are using to make sure it is reliable and trustworthy.

Statistical Analysis

When using stats from other sources, be careful taking liberties with them or applying them to your own situation. Online, statistical information travels quickly and often loses context of where it originated. Before using statistical information, see if you can find the original source. If you can, and are able to find the original study, assess what the numbers really mean before using them.