Taking the Message Testing Plunge

By Kevin Manning, Vice President

There has always been a great deal of conversation around research in the political realm. Polls are fodder for media attention, and a critical tactic when weighing support for a candidate in a close election. There are many ways, apart from the most recognized political uses, that public affairs professionals can utilize message testing to support client initiatives and impact public policies.

The Herald Group (THG) often employs these strategies to pursue objectives for corporations, industry associations, and non-profit organizations. While we regularly work closely with our clients throughout the entire process, there are a few important questions to answer before anyone considers launching such an effort:

Who Should Consider Message Testing?

Groups that need to gain an understanding of what is believed, said, or understood about their organization, practices, products, or positions on issues can garner information through message testing research. More specifically, if a client was looking to move the perceptions of outside groups or people in a preferred direction, or test a new external initiative, varying research platforms can be uniquely beneficial, especially when partnered with other public affairs tactics.

What Can Research Do for You?

Clients can utilize these platforms for a wide array of goals. The type of test, cost, questions, audience, and methodology will all depend on what we are trying to achieve, so it is critical to clarify this at the outset of any engagement. Overall, messaging testing can be used to:

  • Provide a concrete, scientific basis for internal decision-making processes
  • Garner external attention for a particular cause or entity
  • Drive home a perspective on an issue or topic
  • Track opinions of the general population or subsets
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of prospective ad campaigns
  • Help predict the results of elections or policy debates involving public input

Should You Pursue Quantitative or Qualitative Testing?

Both approaches can be called upon to uncover vastly differing data. Quantitative testing takes a large pool of respondents and collates their opinions to arrive at conclusions backed up by the data collected, such as which line of messaging a voter found to be more persuasive. Largely consisting of public opinion surveys, these can be constructed at national, state, and local levels and on focus on anything from larger voter pools to select political, social, and demographic characteristics.  

On the other hand, qualitative testing relies on the thoughts and impressions on any number of subjects of a handful of participants – typically anywhere from four to fifteen – and usually from a specific demographic or geographic cohort, for instance a state, voter identification, or professional background.

Generally speaking, qualitative techniques are more advantageous when more shades of color are needed on an issue or topic, where quantitative results in more cut and dry outcomes in the form of hard numbers. Occasionally, we advise clients to pursue both, for example beginning with focus groups then proceeding with broader public survey applications to see if the conclusions of a small number of individuals is then borne out with the wider audience they were chosen to represent.

What Does the Typical Testing Regimen Entail?

While both testing methods can take time to complete – especially if the client is particularly unfamiliar with data collection – with seasoned counsel and a fully formed goal in mind, an effort can be turned around quickly.

On the quantitative side, we work hand in glove across the elements involved in the project, settling on the beneficial questions to ask, formatting them correctly to control for any outstanding variables which could impact the results and ensuring the study will uncover the information needed among the identified audience.

For qualitative projects, THG aids the client in zeroing in on the right make-up of the focus group, engineering the discussion guide to fuel conversation led by the moderator, and finalizing any content for debate.

Hybrid options are also available such as live audience testing using measurement tools controlled by individual participants responding to key messages or events, in-depth interviews with concentrated pools of known subject matter experts.

Message Testing Research Managed or Provided By THG

  • Public Opinion Surveys (phone/online)
  • Traditional Focus Groups
  • Digital Focus Groups
  • Audience Dial Testing
  • Paid Media Effectiveness
  • In Depth Qualified Interviews (Qual-boards)