Marketing Research: When is it Healthy to Compare?

Paul NealThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Market Reserach 1I am a marketing researcher by profession and training. I have been conducting research and leading teams that do research for 20 years. Prior to that, I studied statistics and research methods and used what I learned (sometimes with difficulty) for my own research, not realizing that as a student in a political science graduate program, I would actually use those courses more professionally than any others. After a short time in academia, I went in a different direction and made a career out of consulting in pharmaceutical marketing research.

Marketing researchers study which commercials people respond to and why, what products are needed in the market, and how products are perceived by consumers.  Marketing research is a pretty well developed field and few industries make any major decisions without doing marketing research, with the exception of the education field.  I’m not saying that marketing research doesn’t exist in education, because some schools are doing a really good job with it. However, few leaders in education are unable to consistently use marketing research and make decisions based on the research results. This problem is more common in the K-12 world than in higher education, and more common at Christian schools than independent, non-religious schools

One day my business partner at Charter Oak Research, David Urban, suggested that we take what we were doing for pharmaceutical companies and offer it to Christian school leaders. Our idea was simple—data ought to inform the decisions that we make as school leaders. This data can be powerful in what it reveals and how it can lead to changes in messages and activities. The decisions that can be made using research include:

  • Marketing messages—is that message unique? Is it believable? Does it motivate people to action?
  • What are our strengths compared to our competitors? How do we fare against those competitors when parents make choices?
  • What do people know about us and how deep is that knowledge?

Two key elements to keep in mind when conducting research with your audience and using research for marketing purposes include: 1) consumers learn what and when they learn on their own terms and 2) very few insights become truly valuable apart from norms.

First, until we really understand the process by which consumers become informed, we won’t get the full benefit out of a marketing plan or strategy. Almost, without exception, research with one of our target markets (type of prospective parents) shocks us because we can’t believe that the people we have been talking to know very little about our greatest brand attribute (distinctive). If we recognize that our customers will inform themselves of us as they have a need and will gather the information based on their perception of what that need is, we are more able to position ourselves to be at the intersection of their decision-making and their learning about options.

If parents tend to learn about programmatic elements of a school as they do initial exploration and personal factors (your child will be known and our teachers are special because…) as they come on board, should that be the order of the stages in which we present that information? In reality, in many cases it’s just the opposite. If our target audience doesn’t pick up on a distinctive that we are convinced is compelling, research can help us figure out if that is a function of them needing more exposure to the idea or if the idea is just not compelling.

Three equally important questions that we have to have answered with respect to our messaging include:

  • Is what we say unique? Do we have our own space around something that we are offering that is special to what we are doing?
  • Is what we claim believable? Do we have reputation for wild or unsubstantiated claims? Or do we know what we need to do in order to show that the claim is true (test scores, reputation, offerings)?
  • Finally, does our message motivate? Who cares? Will what we say matter? Thinking about and finding answers to these questions matters.

Second, we need to know what our research means in comparison to others. When Dave and I started working with Christian schools, we quickly learned the value of having normative data. Scores mean little unless compared to others. And in marketing and marketing research, this is especially true. In reality, scores and ratings can vary by demographic (age, gender) behavioral (profession, having explored a purchase decision in the past) and psychographic (personality elements) factors. Given all of the reasons behind scores, it becomes even more valuable to compare them to how other schools have scored (aggregated).

Finally, one last key to using using research right —it can never be all about messaging. We always need to be prepared for the fact that the consumer may be right in their perception of us and that the correct course of action is improvement. Find out what matters, then compare yourself to others to see how you are doing. Is your school using marketing research?  If yes, how is your school using the data to market to your target audience ?


  • Paul Neal

    Paul T. Neal serves as the Director of Operations at CACE. Paul brings years of experience in marketing research and enrollment management expertise to the team. Paul has presented and been published on the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities, and respondent quality. Paul joined the team after serving as Senior Vice President for Advancement and Communications at Cairn University. Prior to founding research firm Charter Oak Research (now part of CACE), Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.

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