by By Nancy J. Powell | June 01, 2005

The best way to know what your audience needs is to ask. Survey them before an event to shape the agenda and make critical changes; survey them afterward to make sure you achieved your objectives.
    Employee satisfaction surveys, customer interviews, focus groups, post-event questionnaires and web-based solutions are all part of the wide array of tools available. The method you choose should be based on objectives that are clearly defined before the meeting ever takes place.
    What often is missing, however, is a clear-cut plan for what to do with the results once they are gathered. This is powerful information with which an organization can create effective communication strategies and tactics for multiple audiences.

Parsing Results
The following scenarios give some ideas on the many ways research can inform communications quandaries.
    Refining the message. A national transportation firm was doing extensive internal restructuring and decided to hold a first-ever national meeting for executives and managers. Beforehand, executives were asked about the top challenges and issues facing the company, and a web-based survey sent to potential attendees asked about their goals, challenges and perceptions about recent changes.
    The results were used as a strategic planning tool for top executives and speakers attending the conference. It helped them prepare to field the audience’s questions and shaped their key messages. In this case, while real-world constraints forced them to operate pragmatically, the results were used to create an event that was targeted, meaningful and a resounding success, according to the post-event data gathered.
    Creating the agenda. A Fortune 500 company that prided itself on having strong communications with employees was holding its annual managers meeting to motivate and educate them. The executive team determined they needed to understand the expectations of the employees before creating the agenda. Through phone, online and face-to-face surveys, the employees said they generally were content with the company and its leadership. But they complained that executives were “overcommunicating” with them, requesting compliance on multiple initiatives that prevented them from doing their jobs effectively.
    Essentially, corporate leadership had failed to communicate with each other before sending out new information, resulting in simultaneous projects and an overwhelming amount of e-mail.
    This finding motivated the executives to make considerable changes, using the information to build content for their meeting.
    In post-event research, employee confidence and satisfaction rose significantly, as they felt they had been heard and were already witnessing changes at the top. Leadership began discussing new initiatives internally before asking for employee compliance.
    Deciding to cancel. A Fortune 1000 company planning a 2,000-person annual leadership conference sent out a preconference questionnaire designed to shape the content of the event. The results revealed many key, unresolved issues, and the executives realized they needed to address these before executing a large leadership conference. They made the decision to cancel their annual event altogether, resulting in hard-cost savings of $1.5 million for the company.
    More importantly, they incurred soft savings in terms of employees’ time and loss of productivity due to negative perceptions and misinformation. In this case, research helped the company understand that the most effective conclusion was to shift the timing of their communications.