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Researching marketing trends in the government sector

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Research background: The world’s largest nongovernment publisher of substance abuse treatment and prevention materials recognizes that dramatic budget cuts at the federal, state, and local level will have a negative effect on the ability of its institutional customers to purchase new materials.

However, from budget numbers alone it is impossible to tell exactly how cuts may play out “on the ground,” where purchasing decisions are made.

To get beyond the numbers, the publisher recognizes that it needs to conduct research to learn how public agencies at the state level will actually cope with changing budgets.

The executive team charges the marketing director with the task of collecting and reporting this information in time for a corporate strategy meeting, to be held in six weeks.

Research budget: Learning the truth behind the numbers is extremely valuable to the publisher’s marketing, editorial, and sales strategies.

Without this information, the organization could be making extremely expensive mistakes.

The publisher allocates staff time and resources equivalent to $10,000 to conduct research and compile a report that will be used to define the organization’s strategy for the next several publishing seasons.

Research strategy employed: Because “on-the-ground’ information is as critical as data about state budgets, the marketing director puts together a strategy that combines online research with phone interviews of key individuals within state agencies. The project is too big to take on in one wave, so she breaks it into two phases.

1. Gather Background Data. First, the research tem will collect information from each state on budget allocations for substance abuse treatment and prevention in the schools, corrections facilities, and public health departments.

To do this they will need to identify key agencies for the distribution of funds and collect any existing information on trends in funding for these areas and what drives those trends.

Data sources will include state government Web sites and public information sites, online directories of state agencies, and searches in local newspapers (especially in capital cities).

Some specific sources will be the federal agency Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (http://www.samhsa.gov); national nonprofits in drug treatment/prevention research such as Drug Strategies (http://www.drugstrategies.com), the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (http://www.treatment.org), and Boston University School of Public Health (http://www.jointogether.org); ProQuest and InfoTrac, accessed through the local public library, for newspaper coverage; and Bizjournals for local news (http://www.bizjournals.com).

2. Conduct phone interviews. Next, the researchers will identify key individuals within agencies and conduct phone interviews.

Questions to ask include, What portions of your budget come from public allocations? How are those allocations changing?

How do you expect the changes, if any, to affect the way you deliver programs and services? and What internal and external factors will affect your budget and programs in the next three to five years?

Research results: The biggest expense associated with this project is the time required to perform the work.

The research team is able to complete all research without paying for access to proprietary information.

They devote approximately thirty-five staff hours to Step 1. In Step 2, interviews eat up an average of 35 staff hours per state, including time spent tracking down individuals, doing the phone interviews, and writing up results. Assembling the final report for the strategic planning group takes another ten hours.

Typical steps in the process are illustrated by the research for Wisconsin:

• Contact information for relevant agencies is researched at the state government Web site (http://www.wisconsin.gov). The agency index provides links to the appropriate agency home pages. Health and Family Services, Education, and Corrections.

• The researcher enters site-specific queries on agency sites, using the keywords substance abuse; treatment; alcoholism; drug abuse; addiction; and similar terms.

Documents retrieved through these searches include agency reports, press releases, and contact information for public officers responsible for administering programs. These documents are saved in electronic format and annotated for easy search and retrieval.

• National clearinghouse sites, including Join Together Online (http://www.jointogether.org), SAMSHA, the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, and Drug Strategies are accessed and searched with the terms Wisconsin AND corrections OR treatment OR prevention.

Because these sites are subject-specific for drug and alcohol abuse, broad search terms are effective for retrieving relevant information.

(In a general search engine such as Google, such broad terms would need to be qualified with a limiter such as alcoholism; drug abuse; or substance abuse.)

Documents retrieved through these searches include program analyses, news articles, grant programs, and policy alerts. These documents are saved in electronic format and annotated for easy search and retrieval.

• Newspapers in Madison, Wisconsin, cover state government news in depth. The papers accessible through the city’s Web site (http://www.madison.com) include Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times.

The researcher searches public archives at this site, using the terms funding; allocation; substance abuse; drug prevention; drug intervention; and other relevant terms.

They conduct separate searches that focus on federal funds and state funds by adding the limiters federal or state to the search terms.

These searches retrieve numerous news articles identifying challenges at the state level, and the documents are saved in electronic format and annotated for easy search and retrieval.

The researcher reviews the electronic files with the following four questions in mind:

1. Are budget numbers for substance abuse treatment and prevention in public health, corrections, and education trending upward, downward, or staying the same?

2. What factors are affecting these trends?

3. Are funds other than those allocated by the state or federal government becoming available through other sources?

4. Who are the appropriate contacts at each agency to discuss the “on-the-ground” effects changing budgets may be having?

If the appropriate contact has not yet been identified, what strategy can we employ to find the right person?

The researcher assembles a preliminary report, documenting findings to date. From this report, specific questions about changes in Wisconsin agencies are crafted, and contact with agencies is made.

For each relevant agency, the individual or department responsible for substance abuse treatment and prevention is contacted and interviewed regarding the budget situation, creative methods they may be using to address budget shortfalls, the outlook for the next three to five years, and other factors affecting the way they deliver programs to individuals.

In some cases, several calls are required to home in on the person who has the right answers and to complete the interview.

Summary of solution: The data gathered for each state paints a detailed picture of the complex interaction of public funds (both federal and state), politics, agency operations, and substance abuse treatment and prevention services.

The publisher now has detailed information on the flow of funds to those who make material-purchasing decisions, and on how those individuals and departments may actually be making decisions.

Reduced funding for programs is indeed the trend, yet the publisher learns that some states and agencies are finding alternative funding sources or creative ways to maximize the funding they have so that they can continue to serve the needs of the public.

Additionally, the publisher learns that not all states are facing the same kinds of budget shortfalls, and that some are actually experiencing increased budgets for a variety of political and/or legal reasons.

With this data, the publisher is able to make informed decisions about editorial direction, the kinds of materials that might be most welcome in the marketplace, where to focus the company’s marketing and sales resources, and messages that will resonate with its audiences.

An additional, unexpected benefit of this project is the creation of a robust database of information on state trends and issues; a maintenance program is designed so that the database can be updated on a quarterly basis.

Useful tips
• When searching subject-specific resources, use broader search terms than you would use in a general resource (e.g., treatment instead of substance abuse treatment).

• Published data doesn’t always tell the whole story. For complex topics, ask an expert for assistance in interpreting the data. An “expert” can be anyone who is directly affected by the data.

• All state governments have Web portals that are, for the most part, well designed and easy to navigate.

In searching for any state government information, the portal is the logical starting point and a good place to return to if you get stuck.

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