Research is the secret sauce

March 19, 2013 — 4 Comments

In my previous post, I outlined In order to effectively reach our audience, whether that be a congregation, our donors, or new clients, we must understand what they do online. But so many organizations think they already know what their audience does… From my book:

Once you have identified your potential audience, it is essential that you fully understand their digital habits. This is where so many go wrong: they assume that they already understand their audience and can skip this step. Simply using intuition or a “gut feeling” about it is not acceptable; you must include solid research on your target audience as part of your strategic planning.

You cannot assume you fully understand your audience, you must do the research. This actually happened to me when I was researching my own church’s use of the web. We made some assumptions about how a certain segment of our church used the Internet, and we were plain wrong. I wrote about that experience here. In the book, I go on to say:

Research is important for two reasons. First, it will help you un- derstand the best way to reach your target audience. If you design your research well, you will come up with new insights about your target users that will surprise you. For example, when I worked with a church on a website project a couple of years ago, we first did a survey of the congregation to understand their usage and atti- tudes toward the Internet. Going in, we had an assumption that our congregants over sixty would want very little to do with the In- ternet, and we were already planning on how to handle that. But were we ever wrong! The usage of the Internet and email were just as high by people in their sixties as they were by people in their twenties. Knowing this allowed us to include more things online and to feel confident that we could reach the majority of the church.

The second reason research is important is simple: funding. If your ministry is applying for a grant or needs approval for funding from a board or oversight committee, you stand a much better chance of gaining approval if you can show solid research that sup- ports your decisions. Good research will give you the ability to defend your strategy in front of those from whom you will be asking for resources.

Good research takes time and talent. You cannot simply throw up a survey, hope some people fill it out, and call it research. There are three simple things any organization can do right now to begin getting some insights into what their target audiences are doing online.

  1. Create good surveys. Creating a well-thought-out survey is not simple; I would suggest that, if possible, you find a survey used by a reputable research organization and modify it, as opposed to creating one yourself. A copy of the survey that I used at our church is available here (note that it was designed in 2007, so some updates may need to be made!).
  2. Use focus groups. If you can get a group of individuals from your target group together to discuss how they use digital tools, you will learn quite a bit about how to reach them. A focus group is more than simply having coffee with people; for a focus group, you need to have specific goals in mind before beginning.
  3. Use third-party research. Using third-party data, such as that from the Pew Internet & American Life Project or the U.S. Census, will also give you some ideas of how to reach your group. In fact, just combining data from those two sources can give you quite a bit of insight about your own community.

Do you have any experience doing research for your own ministry? What was effective for you? What didn’t work? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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Online ministry researcher and educator. Associate Professor and Director of Innovation for the Crowell School of Business at BIola University. Author of Ministry in the Digital Age.

4 responses to Research is the secret sauce

  1. The need for audience analysis can not be overstated. We have encountered far too many ministries that have devoted significant time and resources to digital projects that no one was requesting.

    Dave, do you have recommendations for third-party research outside the confines of the States? I’d be interested specifically in recommendations for an European audience.

  2. Dana – I don’t know of anything specifically. I would think that some of the American research would apply, things like, but each country is probably a bit different. I will reach out to my international colleagues to see what I can find and post the responses here.


  3. Dana –

    I received some info from Tony Whitaker at Internet Evangelism Day. He suggested the following:

    • UK has its various government and quasi-government bodies that maintain stats on many things, particularly YouGov: and opinion researchers such as Gallup are often publishing on various attitudes.
    • Christian Research, which is now part of the Bible Society, has always produced helpful reports and analyses:
    • TEARFund and the Bible Society have themselves commissioned and published studies from time to time, eg on levels of churchgoing, and those will undoubtedly be referenced on the Christian Research site.
    • Operation World (book and website) also covers UK and Europe and the world from a missions perspective:
    • I did blog about a European wide belief study from Eurobarometer at

    I hope to add more of these resources as I hear back from others.


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