The Use and Misuse of Research

Years ago a terrific boss and good friend taught me a valuable lesson when it comes to the use and misuse of research; “Good and Bad are Only by Comparison”! Analyzing or conveying data to employees or clients/prospects without placing the information into proper context is at best an exercise in futility. Assuming that the data you have is accurate, having the “What” doesn’t do you much good if you don’t know the “Why” or the “How”.

  • Why is the information important, and to whom?
  • How does the data compare to previous surveys?
  • How will it be used?
  • How long ago was the survey taken? Is it still valid?


When preparing to conduct or commission a research project for any media organization, the following questions need to be asked and processes need to be in place:

  1. What information do you hope to learn? If your focus is “quantitative”, you want to know how many readers/viewers/listeners you have a day/week/month. You may want to know their age, gender, marital status, education level, how often they return to your publication/website/radio or TV station and how much time they spend. If your focus is “qualitative”, you want to understand their lifestyle including income level, occupation, home and automobile ownership,  credit card usage, leisure activities like reading, traveling, how often they attend live cultural and/or sporting events etc.
  2. What do you plan to do with the information once you have it? If your focus is editorial/content driven, your goal may be to determine what types of articles/interviews/videos are most popular with your readers/viewers/listeners. If your content parameters are somewhat restricted due to mission or mandate, the survey questions need to be specifically tailored to reflect this so that the information gleaned is relevant to the realities of the environment in which you operate. If the goal is to provide ammunition for the ad sales force, the survey questions need to focus on acquiring both quantitative and qualitative data as it relates to the needs of the marketplace. How many viewers/ listeners/readers are reached and why are they attractive to advertisers? Both “demographic” and “psychographic” data are required in order to give advertisers the most accurate profile of the audience. If your survey determines that your audience enjoys reading books, that’s nice. If a prospect is a publisher and your survey indicates your audience is 50% more likely than the national average to purchase books, you have a pretty compelling argument, right?  Conversely, if the primary goal of the survey is to assist editorial, questions to determine things like Time Spent Listening (radio), Number of Pageviews per Visit (online) or Time Spent Reading each issue (print) will provide data that has limited (if any) application to the sales process.
  3. What information do you have to compare it to? Critical to the value of gathering the data in the first place is understanding how it relates to; (a) data gleaned from previous surveys, (b) similar media in similar markets, and (c) national averages. Information in a vacuum has limited value at best. Those who enjoy research for research sake may find it interesting to pore over data, but as the saying goes, “Information without application is entertainment”.  If you have nothing to compare the data to, how do you know if the numbers are good or bad? Rising or falling? Trending one way or another?
  4. Who determines what questions to ask? Involve all of the stakeholders in the process from the very beginning. Find out what information is critical to the process.  If the purpose is to better serve the needs of the audience, make sure everyone is comfortable that the questions being asked will provide answers that are relevant to the goal. If it’s important to know how many different pages a reader views on a website, great. If not, why bother collecting the data? If the purpose is to provide the sales staff with data that will help them sell ad space/time, have the sales department do a preliminary survey of their clients and prospects to find out what kinds of information their customers feel are most relevant. Information specific to business categories that are already large or growing should take precedence over questions targeted to categories with limited potential.
  5. Does everyone who needs to understand the data? Lastly, once you’ve completed the survey, review the information as a group to make sure everyone in the organization understands the data they are using before they make any decisions or quote one number to anyone. Simply stating facts (our readers are 45% male, 55% female) without putting them into context does little to move the process forward, and in many cases only confuses the issue. If you’ve completed an audience survey, publishing an article or reporting a news story including some of the results gleaned from the survey as they relate to trends and preferences is fine. It shows your publication/website/station is attuned to your audience, that you care about what they think and like and that your goal is to do an even better job of fulfilling their needs. From a sales perspective, make sure that any data offered to advertisers is customized to their specific needs. Your prospect may find it interesting that the majority of your readers are married, own their home and hold a professional/managerial job, but all these points of information may be irrelevant to their business or specific marketing campaign. Their sole reason for considering doing business with you is a belief that your publication/website/station may provide an audience that is open to their specific message. Again, if your prospect is a publisher and your survey indicates your audience is 50% more likely than the national average to purchase books, that kind of targeted information is both pertinent and appreciated.


In order to be able to gather and use research effectively, we have to;

(a) First have clearly defined goals for the organization and have identified what information we’re expecting to gather that is critical to the process

(b) Construct questions that will elicit answers specific to our goals and allow us to compare the data to previous surveys and/or national trends

(c) Make sure all appropriate members of the organization are part of the process

(d) Review the process to make sure the methodology and sample size will provide accurate data/estimates

(e) Have accurate/timely data already in hand with which to compare the latest findings for both accuracy and context

(f) Ensure that everyone who will have access to the data fully understands it and can offer specific ways its use will help to accomplish the goals of the organization.

Bob Bugle's career spans 25 years in commercial advertising sales and management including Radio (Pittsburgh-Hearst Corp.) and Cable Television (Pittsburgh and Baltimore-AT&T, Comcast). For the past 13 years, Mr. Bugle has assisted businesses and Church-related organizations in their efforts to market to the Catholic/faith based community via ad placements in faith based media including national and local Print, Digital and Radio, as well as select commercial media including Outdoor, Transit, Cable Television and national/local Print (Baltimore-Cathedral Foundation), and since 2009 expanded to include healthcare recruitment advertising (George Washington University Medical Center) as the owner/founder of Bugle Media Services. Personal: Married for 38 years, Bob and Bobbie Bugle have two children, Stephanie and Cliff and live in Forest Hill, Maryland. Bob is a graduate of Duquesne University, is past President of the Pittsburgh Radio & Television Club (renamed Media Association of Pittsburgh), is an active member of the Knights of Columbus, Chairs the Finance Committee of St Margaret’s Parish in Bel Air, MD and has presented at numerous national and regional conferences for the Radio Advertising Bureau, Cable Television Advertising Bureau and the Catholic Press Association. Hobbies include golf, gardening and Civil War reenacting.