Conducting Research on a Shoestring Budget

By Rod Hemphill

Here’s a trend I’m sure you have noticed: Big retailers and restaurant chains asking you to go online and complete surveys evaluating their customer service and products. Often they provide some nice rewards in the form of coupons or free products.

Too often smaller businesses shun formal research. Management may view it as a time-consuming, expensive process that may not provide a good return on investment. Or they may wish they could do some research, but never get around to it, depending instead on gut-feelings and informal, day-to-day feedback from customers and clients.

It’s true—research isn’t free; someone on staff or a hired consultant has to take the time to do it. But it does not have to be complicated, time-consuming or expensive. It involves taking the time to ask your customers what they like or don’t like about your products and services and evaluating their response. This research can provide huge returns on investment by helping you establish benchmarks, evaluate progress, detect strengths and weaknesses and inform your planning process.

Research on a shoestring budget can work.

Several of us local public relations practitioners have been working pro bono to develop a communications and marketing plan for a local non-profit. It’s our annual service project of the Gainesville Chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association.

We have spent quite a lot of time on the research element of the project. To provide valid counsel, we have to understand how the client’s organization operates, who its clients and customers are and what they value and expect from the organization. Our research will show us what keeps our client’s managers awake at night and enable us to provide a plan that will enhance our client’s standing and prominence in the community while increasing its members’ profitability.

Having virtually no budget, we have had to get creative. Big companies employ consultants to conduct focus groups and polling. We volunteers want similar results, but on a smaller budget. One of our first steps was to conduct a focus group with the client organization’s board of directors and a few select members.

Most formal focus groups take place in dedicated facilities that have audio and video recording capabilities, two-way glass to permit clients’ viewing of the proceedings and experienced moderators. Ours happened on a Saturday afternoon in the open air, under a canopy. Despite the lack of creature comforts, we learned a lot about the dynamics of the board, its members’ concerns and its collective vision. We also polled a representative sample of our client’s customers to collect hard data on why those customers value the client or how they feel things could be improved.

Online services such as Survey Monkey provide an easy way to set up and execute surveys, and even collect and tally results—all for free or for a small subscription, depending on the number of people surveyed. Fortunately, our client’s active presence on Facebook and the customer email addresses collected for the electronic newsletter made it easy to survey a representative sample of customers.

We hope our client will find value in our final plan. We also encourage our client to continue the research process—evaluating its customers’ needs and expectation—just as the big guys do.

When it comes to your business, make sure research doesn’t get pushed to the wish-list. Enlist some of the methods outlined here to better understand your customers and plan accordingly.


Rod Hemphill, APR, CPRC, has been a member of the Gainesville Chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association since 1985 and previously served as chapter president. He retired as director of public relations for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation in 2010 and is currently a public information specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Plant Industry, based in Gainesville.

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