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Activating research

Research that just sits on the shelf (or these days, in a digital folder) is research that probably should not have been conducted. If it is not going to be used, then why do it?

Effective research takes many things, from the beginning through the end. We’ve blogged before about the need to start with end in the mind, but what happens when you get to the end? Then what?

Sharing results internally, with the right audiences, and in an effective medium, is key. Here are several ideas of how to do that beyond the common report or PowerPoint deck.

Make it interactive. Can the data (in part or whole) be made to allow for manipulation by users? This could be a fully interactive dashboard where the user gets to select variables to look at, or it could simply be a predefined analysis that users can pull up, filter, and review. For example, Corona often delivers open-ended verbatim responses with a series of filters built in so users can quickly drill down, rather than just reading hundreds or thousands of verbatim comments.

Video summaries. Can you tell the story through video for greater engagement? We have found that video works best in short clips to convey the primary findings and are often best accompanied by more detailed reporting (if users need more). Longer videos can be harder to digest and cause people to disengage. Corona has created short videos to communicate general findings to larger groups of employees who may need to know the general gist of the research, but do not need to know as much detail as core decision makers.

Initial readouts and workshops. Can you involve the users in designing reporting, such as holding a workshop to help build their dashboard so it includes the metrics they want? This not only helps create a more effective dashboard for them, but also creates buy-in since they were involved in its creation. Similarly, sharing preliminary findings can help focus additional analysis and ensure their questions are being addressed in the final report.

Also, consider the following to make any of the above more effective:

  • Who needs what? Who in the organization needs what information. Share what it is most important so critical points don’t get lost in the larger report.
  • How much? Consider the level of detail any one person or team needs. Executives may want top-level metrics with key points and recommendations; analysts may want every tabulation and verbatim response.
  • Who has questions? I think when people read a report or finding, they often think that’s it. Encourage questions and allow for follow-up to make sure everyone has what they need to move forward.

What challenges have you had making use of research? What have you done to try and overcome it? We’d love to hear bellow.

Getting the most our of your customer survey

There are a multitude of tools available these days that allow organizations to easily ask questions of their customers.  It is certainly not uncommon when Corona begins an engagement for the client to have made internal attempts at conducting surveys in the past.  In some cases, these studies have been relatively sophisticated and have yielded great results. In others, however, the survey’s results were met with a resounding “Why does this matter?”.

The challenge is that conducting a good survey requires a much more strategic view than most realize.  This starts with designing the survey questions themselves.  We always begin our engagements by asking our clients to think through the decisions that will be made, the opportunities to improve, and the possible challenges to be addressed based on the results.  By keeping the answers to these questions in mind as you design your survey questions, you can minimize the amount of “trivia” questions in your survey that might be interesting to know, but won’t really have any influence on your future decisions.

Even after having questions designed, you have to consider how you will get people to participate in the survey.  If you have a database of 100,000 customers, it may be tempting to just send invitations to all of them.  But what if you plan to send out a plea for donations in the next few weeks?  Consider the impact of asking for 15 minutes of time from people who might be asked to support you very soon.  Being careful to appropriately time the survey and perhaps only send it out to a small segment of customers might help to minimize fatigue that could negatively impact your overall business strategy in the near future.

Finally, once you’ve collected the results, simple tabulations will only tell a small part of the story.  Every result should be examined through the lens of the actual strategic impact of the results.  A good question to ask throughout the analysis of your results is, “So what?”.  Keep the focus on the implications of the results rather than the results themselves, your final report of what you learned with have a much better chance of making a meaningful impact on your organization moving forward.

Obviously, we at Corona are here to help walk you through this process in order to ensure the highest-quality result possible, but even if you choose to go it alone, keeping a strategic view of what you need to learn and how it will influence your decisions will help to avoid a lot of wasted effort.

How data-driven insights can reveal strategic advantages

A client recently asked us for guidance in the middle of their communication campaign.  They had already created and deployed a series of vivid ads encouraging a specific behavior. (For confidentiality reasons, I can’t state the behavior, but let’s pretend they wanted dog owners to register their dogs with the local human society). Their desired outcome was to increase the percentage of registered dogs from the baseline, which hadn’t changed for many years. Their strategy was to use mass media messages to motivate all dog owners to register their dogs.

They hired Corona to evaluate the campaign and provide recommendations for improvement.  We found that a small percentage of the population had strong intention to not register their dog (intention to do something is a relatively good predictor of what people will do).  Based on other scientific research, we know that it is difficult to change peoples’ strong intentions, especially through mass media.  Thus, we suggested that the client stop trying to influence all dog owners, at least in this campaign.

A better strategy was to motivate dog owners with weak intentions or were unsure what they would do.  Our research found that people with weak or unformed intentions had different barriers and reasons to register their dogs. Indeed, those with weak intentions often said they just “never got around to it.” This finding was the keystone of our research because it showed how a strategy shift aimed at influencing this sub-population – rather than all dog owners – would have the biggest impact on increasing overall registration!

Shifting strategy was not easy for this client, but the data and our recommendations compelled them to make the change.  We helped them see their issue from a new perspective, and our guidance made the transition of the communication strategy easier. Quality research and thoughtful analysis can reveal strategic advantages, and every strategic advantage can have a meaningful impact on success.

Market research can be more than just research

When most think about conducting market research, they are just thinking of the core questions they want answered and the information they need to move something forward. They have a goal in mind, and market research is a way to reach it. What many don’t consider is how market research can, and often does, function simultaneously as a marketing tool.

Any research that involves surveying, interviewing, or moderating focus groups of your customers or constituents draws their attention to your organization. You are engaging your customers with your brand, and you’re doing it in a very positive way: by asking for their opinions. You signal that you value their input, ensure you’re providing something of value, and are determining what you can do better.

The degree to which you engage with your customers or constituents varies, of course, dependent on the type of research. Interviews and focus groups create a large amount of bandwidth between you and the customer. Interviews and focus groups are personal and lend to a deeper and less restrictive dive into your customers’ opinions – as a result, your customers feel empowered. Surveying, while impersonal, allows you to give more people a voice, even if it is a smaller one.

In the end, you’re giving a voice to your customers. You’re creating another touchpoint that allows them to share their opinions and be heard. The next time you think of conducting market research, consider how you might be able to fully maximize your investment by best engaging your customers.

Engagement in evaluation

Engaging program participants in the evaluation is known as participatory evaluation.  (See Matt Bruce’s recent blog on participatory research for more detail about this approach.) The logic of participatory evaluation often resonates with human services providers.  It empowers service recipients to define their needs and goals for the program.

It can be eye opening for program staff to hear participants’ views of what is most important to them, and what they’re hoping to get out of the program.  For example, program aspects that are critical to participants may be only incidental to program staff.  This kind of input can lead to improved understanding of the program logic, as well as changes to desired outcomes.

In what ways could you bring participants into your evaluation process?


Who’s coming to your next meeting? Flame throwers, feral cats and posers

We all know that anxiety and stress can bring out the worst in people. They go to extremes in behavior as they attempt to navigate unknowns and exacerbating risks.  An inability to cope leads to three behaviors.

  • The flame thrower – this person may initially show up as the conversation dominator who simply must have the last word. What if this person is in fact a bully, or maybe worse? The flame thrower is the person who torches people and ideas they perceive as threatening to their preferred role and view of the world. They make incendiary comments, attempting to belittle, berate or anger those in roles of positional power. Rather than view the strengths and talents in others they prefer puffery and falling on the sword.
  • The feral cat – in the blink of an eye this person will lash out with claws and fangs. You never even saw the paw sweep through the air towards you. They appear like an average cat, perhaps with a bit of a different manner, but wowza, who would have thought they could pounce like that? After they harm they tend to slink away.
  • The poser – hey, let’s go along to get along. Why take a risk – and share an opinion or recommendation – that may rankle someone, especially if there are flame throwers and feral cats in the room. This person is a survivor. They appear to be a team player but you can’t assume true buy-in or cooperation.

What do all three of these people have in common? Self-preservation. Regrettably these behaviors and habits run counter to creativity, collaboration, and change. It’s difficult to have a meaningful design session when group members are committed to a scorched earth policy.

Who is showing up at your meetings?

Moving from customers to patrons

One of the most important drivers of long-term success for nonprofit organizations is having a solid financial model.  It’s often one of the primarily areas of focus when Corona assists organizations in the development of a strategic plan.  Typically, some combination of unearned income (such as grants or donations) and earned income (such as goods or services that people pay for) will yield the most stable foundation on which a nonprofit can thrive.

It is easy to be envious of nonprofits that derive significant portions of their revenue from earned income, but we at Corona have recently worked with a number of organizations that have found themselves on shaky ground because they almost went too far and lost sight of opportunities to generate broader support for their mission because their earned income programs were so successful.

When it comes down to it, the problem is when nonprofits think of their constituents as customers rather than patrons.  Just to emphasize the difference as we see it:

  • Customer – A person who purchases goods or services from another.
  • Patron – A person who supports with money, gifts, efforts, or endorsement an artist, writer, museum, cause, charity, institution, special event, or the like.

The problem with this is simply that nonprofit organizations exist to fulfill a mission, and simply selling tickets (or cookies) should be the means to that end – not the end itself.  Consider these issues that we at Corona have observed among some of our clients recently:

  • One organization relied heavily on ticket sales to support their organization. However, focusing on that audience over the long-term resulted in an overreliance on a certain demographic (generally, older individuals), so no new programs were developed to reach younger, more diverse, audiences.  Declining attendance resulted in drastic changes being necessary just to sustain the organization.
  • A recent survey of one of Corona’s clients’ “patron” database revealed that only around one in four had ever actually made a donation to the organization. What’s more, fewer than half of such patrons had ever interacted with the organization beyond attending a concert.  This indicates that many such patrons were really nothing more than customers; they enjoyed the events put on by the organization, but they didn’t truly understand why the organization exists.

Again, earned income isn’t a bad thing and, in fact, is a vital piece of many nonprofits’ funding models.  However, nonprofit leaders should be careful not to become over-reliant on earned income to the point that telling people about the organization’s mission and impact isn’t necessary.  Don’t miss out on key opportunities to convert simple customers, who could go away simply due to cultural changes or increased competition, to patrons, who truly believe in your organization’s mission and will support you through the tough times.

Welcome to the consumer era: When engagement drives change

It’s inescapable. Every day I see more and more examples of it. Consumer behavior is at the core of sweeping industry change. Too often we get caught up in thinking about technology as the disruptor and forget that people are at the heart of the transformations all around us. Here are four examples from this past week:

  • Sears. J.C. Penney. Bebe. Macy’s. Target. Kohl’s. Neiman Marcus. And that’s just for starters. The epic decline of department stores and apparel-focused retail is linked to Amazon’s domination of the online marketplace. At the heart of that change? Consumers who expect something more – and something different. Increasingly, consumers are saying no to the traditional retailer and shopping mall. What do they demand? Convenience, cost and a user-defined experience.
  • Who would have thought that consumer choice would lead colleges to guarantee that their degree will get you a job – and a job with a decent salary? As college students – and their parents – increasingly question the return on investment given staggering student loan debt, higher ed is having to respond creatively to compete for students. Both educator and student take on the risk – and reap the reward.
  • Decades of tradition are on the chopping block as movie studios  plan to release films to online platforms mere weeks after release to theaters. As reported in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, movie companies have experienced declining home entertainment revenues for 2 years straight and global box-office growth has also been slowing. In a quest to increase revenues they are looking to meet consumers where they are – in the comfort of their home on a tablet, pc or tv.
  • And lastly. Bruce Springsteen. We are experiencing the beginning of the end of rock and roll as we’ve known it. Boomer rock stars became global corporations in the days when record companies invested in them like R&D. That era is over. The concert business is bifurcating into festivals and small venues as consumers expect more intimate and novel experiences. No longer satisfied with paying high prices for poor sound quality and a miniscule view of the band, consumers are pursuing other entertainment options. Today’s young stars will build careers in an entirely new era. Welcome to Me, Inc. rock and roll style.

Each of these stories has a common denominator – consumers demand the experience on their terms. They define the where, when, how and how much. These changes are sweeping and have only begun. The question now is, who is next?

What will this mean for other industries and sectors?

From engaging to capturing – rethinking business models that stick

As a strategist, I’m frequently looking over the horizon to see what’s next. At other times, you’ll see me scanning side-to-side looking for forces that may be coming together in new or unexpected ways.

Sometimes hindsight puts much of it into perspective.

Looking back at 2008 it occurs me that I was well ahead of the curve when I designed Corona’s Synergistic Business Model. At the time I noticed that nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver and companies like New Belgium Brewery – both former Corona clients I may add – had integrated engagement deep into their respective business models. Each realized that fostering loyalty, connection and contribution required a long-lasting approach to relationships.

They were smartly ahead of the curve.

Since then engagement has become top-of-mind for organizations. The old transactional approaches simply don’t hit the mark when people are searching for meaningful relationships and ways to make a difference.

Perhaps engagement isn’t enough.

We need to enmesh relationships into our business models.

  • How are we using online communication channels to fully engage donors before, during and after a fundraising event? What is the immediate call-to-action waiting for them when they get home? Have we thanked them (enough)?
  • What will define the patron experience from the first email message to the thank you note?
  • How will volunteer love for us be returned in 3 months? 5 months? 1 year?
  • Have we thought about the ways that a board member could entrap that new neighbor or business colleague into adopting our cause as their own?

Maybe it’s time to:




Hold onto

We need to activate our language if we want to activate our relationships.


Listening isn’t enough

Recently, we’ve been having a few conversations at work about engagement processes, in part because we’ve seen a few requests for proposals that have some focus on engagement with a particular audience. Often, this engagement takes the form of listening in some way to the audience of interest. While hearing from a group of people that you are interested in engaging with is critical, I would argue that it’s just one part of an engagement process.

In fact, if you look at various types of research on engagement with different groups (employees, customers, etc.), there are a couple of similarities that stick out. Based on this research and some our own experiences at Corona, I identified a couple of themes of a successful engagement:

  1. Listening. Listening is a critical part of engagement. It is important to think carefully about which methods of listening will produce the type of information that is most useful. Are you making an attempt to hear from less engaged people? Are you interested in what kinds of ideas/concerns/problems/etc. people are having or are you interested in how common those are? Have you ensured that people feel comfortable being honest? Do people need additional information before giving input?
  1. Reflection. Often, it is easy to get so wrapped up in translating what you hear from the group into action that you forget to reflect what you heard back to the group. Telling people what you have heard from them is an important part of the engagement process. It makes sure that everyone is working with the same base of information and helps people understand why different decisions or changes are being made. Also, demonstrating that you understand what people were telling you can make later criticism less harsh.
  1. Expectations and Accountability. Finally, clarifying expectations and how accountability will be incorporated into the relationship is important. People generally like knowing what is expected of them and why. Initially, this can be as simple as explaining clearly the goals of an engagement process and why the group of interest is so vital to the process. Later in the process, this might be aligning expectations and goals with what you heard when listening to the group. Also, it’s important to think about how you will evaluate whether those expectations and goals are being met.

While there are definitely unique components to engagement processes with certain audiences (e.g., employees, stakeholders, community, etc.), the three components above stood out as common themes to all types of engagement.