Is Formative Research Really That Important?

Is Formative Research Really That Important?

Formative research is a critical step in developing communications programs and campaigns, and can be useful for all types of program development.

Why? Because we need to deeply understand the audience that we are trying to engage and determine what it’s going to take to achieve the impact we want.

And that means going beyond gathering statistics and demographics.

It requires answering some fundamental questions about the audience:

  • What are their motivations and needs related to the issue we are trying to address?
  • How do they understand and think about the issue?
  • Who is going to be able to spark and influence the action we want to see?
  • When and how should we engage them in our program?
  • Where and how can we really make a difference?

Getting this level of insight isn’t easy. Getting it through formal research is even harder.

Now, that may seem counterintuitive. Isn’t structured, rigorous research the best way to gather information? Not necessarily – especially, if you are trying to build that deep understanding to help you drive change.

Let me explain.

There are some benefits to conducting formal research:

  • It is systematic and structured, providing a clear and straightforward process.
  • It can be peer-reviewed and results of the research can be published.

But there are also some significant costs:

  1. Literally – it’s expensive! Did you know the average cost of a focus group is $5,000?
  2. It takes significant time and effort to plan, implement, analyze research. Have you ever been through an IRB process?
  3. It’s difficult to get honest, meaningful insight through formal methods because, well, they are rarely conducted in real-life situations and appropriate context. How often do you meet up with 6 random strangers in an office building to talk about your health concerns? And if you do, how open and forthcoming are you going to be?
  4. Most formal research methods don’t let you dig deep enough to really understand motivation and decision-making processes, especially when we are talking about sensitive or controversial issues. Those that do, take lots of time, effort, and money (see above).

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t do formal research. I’m recommending we take a broader, more informal, approach to gathering formative insight.

Take advantage of every valid opportunity to collect and triangulate information. Don’t just trust what someone tells you on a survey or in an interview – listen to what people are saying in informal conversations, watch what they do in social situations, and ask those insiders what they think is going on.

For example, when I was working on intimate partner violence prevention, we conducted focus groups, interviews, and surveys to gather the data we needed to design our program. Pretty standard best practice. However, we quickly realized that the people who were willing to participate in our research were not representative of the broader community we needed to engage in our program. We also discovered that, because the topic was one that was sensitive and not widely acknowledged, we were not getting completely open and honest information.

Fortunately, we had a number of community members who were part of our planning team. They were able to share their own insight as well as gather “insider” information through informal conversations with a wide range of community members and observation of interpersonal and community dynamics (which they recorded in a journal). We used both sets of information – formal and informal – to create a fuller, more accurate picture of how this community understood, perceived, and dealt with intimate partner violence as well as how best to help prevent it.

So, back to the original question. Is formative research really that important? I’d say it is…especially if we can redefine it as formative insight.

For more ideas on how to use research and insight to plan more effective programs, contact

About the Author:

Aparna Ramakrishnan has 20 years of experience developing and evaluating social sector programs. As Principal at Devi Partners, she provides expertise and technical assistance in strategy, communications, partnerships, research and evaluation to nonprofits, government agencies, and other organizations that do good.
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