Audience Research Basics

The Prevention Communication Research Database (PCRD) contains reports from audience research studies conducted or sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that are focused on various disease-prevention and health-promotion topics with specific audience segments.

For the purpose of the PCRD, audience research is defined as any communication research that is conducted on specific audience segments to gather information about their attitudes, knowledge, interests, preferences, or behaviors with respect to prevention issues. Segments may be based on various grouping strategies, such as race and ethnicity, age, education, or family income. Some investigators refer to audience research as "formative" or "elicitation" research.

This document provides the following information:

Benefits of audience research

In the initial stages of program development, exploratory audience research is used to learn about potential audiences and the types of incentives and barriers that the audiences perceive exist to adopting a new behavior (or ceasing an existing one), as well as which incentives and barriers might be addressed effectively by a communications effort. In addition, information often is obtained about the audience's preferred channels or formats of communication, respected or credible sources of information, and other issues that program planners may be considering.

The results from exploratory research are used to create preliminary concepts and/or messages to achieve communications objectives, such as increasing knowledge, changing attitudes, enhancing motivation to change behaviors, and increasing the perceived benefits of new behaviors. These concepts (depictions of different "reasons why" or benefits to behavior change relevant to the audience) then are tested to understand which concept appeals most to the audience and why.

On the basis of the results of concept testing, and before dissemination, the final products—such as public service announcements, print advertisements, and educational materials—are created and pretested with individuals from the same audience to ensure that they are understandable and compelling, culturally and linguistically appropriate, and supportive of steps to behavior change.

Audience research also can be used to assess the impact of a communications program. This research may include testing the target audience concerning awareness of the message, the exposure to or use of the products, or the intention to change behavior.

Back to Top

Uses of PCRD research studies

The information derived from these reports can help program planners in the early stages of program development by providing insight into what a given audience segment already knows about a prevention topic. Regular use of the PCRD also may help maximize the impact of audience research resources by avoiding duplicative efforts and noting where further research may be needed.

Because this database contains research studies conducted to inform the development of specific HHS programs, the studies should not necessarily be substituted for another program's research.

Developing program strategies

Often, the first step in developing a program strategy is to conduct a literature search of what is already known and documented about the topic or the audience. A search might include:

  • The identification, collection, review, and analysis of overall trends or findings from previously published research studies
  • A summary of existing literature reviews or environmental scans
  • A compilation of other types of descriptive studies

These reports may or may not have appeared in peer-reviewed journals and may include project reports, limited circulation publications, articles and investigative reports from newspapers and magazines, and other types of "fugitive literature" (not found in databases of scientific literature).

To complement this process, studies available in PCRD also can be reviewed for insights into how specific audiences think about, feel, and act with respect to various prevention topics.

Often exploratory in nature, the studies in the PCRD can provide information such as:

  • What members of an audience segment understand or do not understand regarding a particular prevention topic
  • What benefits and barriers the audience experiences with regard to engaging in certain prevention behaviors
  • What behaviors members of an audience segment are or are not practicing

Shaping future audience research

The studies contained in this database may inform future research efforts by providing data that help to:

  • Shape research questions
  • Identify potential research methodologies
  • Identify audiences with whom more research is needed

Although national studies may help inform research, they should not be used as a proxy for project-specific research. Database users should note the following limitations:

  • Audience research cannot be generalized to the public as a whole.
  • Audience research does not prove something to be universally true.
  • Audience research using a national sample of a specific population group should not be generalized to a local population or variant of the original sample. For example, focus groups used to explore health beliefs among Hispanic men in general may not be applicable to men who have emigrated recently to the United States from Mexico.

Back to Top

Overview of qualitative and quantitative research

Audience research can employ qualitative research methodologies, quantitative research methodologies, or a mix of these two broad types of research. Audience research also can be primary (i.e., the information is gathered directly from members of the target audience) or secondary (i.e., the information is gathered from previously conducted research).

The following overview describes some of the basic characteristics of qualitative and quantitative research approaches and their benefits and limitations.

Qualitative research overview

Qualitative research can help program planners understand an audience segment of interest and can be useful in creating and validating communications programs. Techniques for gathering information vary greatly and range from in-depth individual interviews or focus groups to mall intercepts, observational studies, and ethnographic techniques, such as participant observation. Often, the study participants are not drawn randomly from a known population group, but are recruited by using telephone directories, databases maintained by various organizations, geographic proximity to the research site, key informants, snowball sampling (persons recommended by others as participants), and even "samples of convenience" (whoever is available at the time and place of the study).

Such research often collects participants' verbatim responses or researchers' observations. Participant responses are analyzed to identify common themes or ideas expressed across different individuals and/or groups. These analyses may use more or less rigorous methods, such as multiple reviewers, structured review protocols, and analytic software.

Benefits of qualitative research

Qualitative research provides the opportunity to develop a descriptive, rich understanding and insight into individuals' attitudes, beliefs, concerns, motivations, aspirations, lifestyles, culture, behaviors, and preferences.

Qualitative research allows one to:

  • Explore a topic or idea with target audiences
  • Gain insight into what and how people think and feel about a topic or idea
  • Understand the language individuals use to talk about a topic or idea
  • Observe the adoption of new behavior within the context of peoples' daily lives
  • Discover motivations that underlie behavior

Limitations of qualitative research

The most important limitation of qualitative research is that the findings cannot be directly generalized to the larger population being studied or for whom a communications program is being designed. This is especially true when the definition of the population is broad (e.g., elderly women or patients with Type II diabetes). The reasons for this limitation are:

  • Participants often are not selected randomly. Individuals who participated in some studies in the PCRD were recruited from databases maintained by market research firms and therefore previously consented to participate in research studies. In other cases, recruitment strategies that introduce a selection bias may have been employed. The PCRD user should note the participant recruitment strategy used in each study and determine whether and how these individuals might be somewhat different from the population at large or the population segment of interest.
  • The number of participants in a typical qualitative research study is too small to be representative of the population. Focus groups or interviews with just a few dozen members of a target audience, the population of which numbers in the thousands or more, cannot meet the statistical assumptions to project the results accurately or reliably to the total audience.
  • Qualitative research does not collect numeric data from a representative sample of the target audience. As a result, this type of research cannot be subjected to statistical analysis to estimate to what extent opinions expressed by participants reflect the opinions of the population studied. The most important implication of this limitation is that researchers should refrain from drawing any conclusions about the actual prevalence of specific concerns, attitudes, or beliefs among the target audience.
  • Some participants tend to express views that are consistent with social standards and try not to present themselves negatively. This social desirability bias may lead respondents to self-censor their actual views, especially when they are in a group setting. Program planners should critically examine the results and recommendations of quantitative research studies within the broader context of their own training, expertise, and familiarity with the target audience.
  • The quality of the data collection and the results are highly dependent on the skills of the moderator or interviewer and on the rigor of the analysis. Because all of these methods are dependent on interpersonal exchanges with respondents, any number of variables, including the dress, demeanor, and language used by the interviewer may influence the quantity and quality of information given by respondents. The skill and experience of the analyst(s) also influence how well the data are summarized into themes and insights that are useful for subsequent program planning.

Common qualitative research methodologies

Most studies in the PCRD used qualitative methods to conduct audience research. This section briefly describes some of the most commonly used qualitative research methodologies.

Focus groups

Focus groups are among the most popularly used qualitative research methods. These groups typically comprise 8 to12 individuals who are recruited from the larger audience of interest. The number of groups convened varies with the number of subgroups or segments that one wishes to sample, time and resource constraints, and the ability to recruit sufficient numbers of participants. Recruiting may be difficult if the condition or disease is of low prevalence, if few members of the audience reside in a specific geographic area, or if the subject matter is personal or particularly sensitive. A trained moderator leads the group discussion using a moderator's guide. This guide includes a series of questions on issues that are relevant for planning the communications program. These questions may be supplemented by "probes" or specific follow-up questions designed to ensure that certain topics are covered in the discussion. One advantage of this method is that the moderator is free to pursue points and issues raised by participants even though these topics might not have been anticipated when the guide was developed.

These group sessions last from 90 minutes to 2 hours and can be held in-person at a market research facility, at another location that is convenient for participants, by telephone conference call, or through the Internet. Each modality presents its own strengths and weaknesses. Although participants in most focus groups are recruited as strangers to each other, in some instances, participants might be recruited deliberately to include a spouse or friend to better simulate how a behavior might occur in real life (such as choosing a health plan or rejecting offers to try illicit drugs) or to reduce the anxiety of participating in a group discussion (such as might occur, for example, among people with limited fluency in English). The discussion is often video and/or audio recorded; written transcripts may or may not be produced. Depending on the setting, the groups may be observed or listened to by program staff. The proceedings of the groups are reviewed and analyzed for common themes as well as for specific insights that may emerge from individual comments. A final report usually is prepared, and it may take the form of a "top-line" report of an abbreviated nature for a homogeneous set of groups or a more lengthy report that contains numerous verbatim quotes and detailed analyses for each of the various subgroups sampled.

In-depth interviews

In-depth interviews offer researchers the opportunity to gather information from individuals in the audience of interest in a more private setting in which group dynamics and social conformity are less a likely to influence responses than they are in a focus group setting. As with focus groups, an interviewer (or interviewers) obtains a sample of respondents and, whether in person, by telephone, or through the Internet, poses a preset series of questions (following the interview guide) that explore relevant communications program/planning issues. The conversation is intended to be free flowing, with the interviewer able to follow up on questions or to pursue new information that may come up during the interview. These interviews often are recorded for later review; the interviewer may take notes during the discussion, and unobtrusive observers also may be present. The results of these interviews are analyzed and reported with respect to the common themes that emerge, as well as to insights gained from specific individuals. Interviews frequently are used when it is difficult to bring together people in a focus group, when the subject may be embarrassing, or when participants may find it difficult to be candid in a group setting. Interviews also are more useful when the type of information being sought is of a confidential nature.

Central location intercept interviews

Central-location intercept interviews consist of stationing interviewers at a point frequented by individuals from the intended audience and asking individuals who appear to meet recruitment criteria to participate in the study. If they agree to participate, they are asked specific screening questions to determine whether they fit the study's intended audience profile. If they meet the screening criteria, the interviewer takes them to an interviewing station (a quiet spot at a shopping mall or other site), poses a short series of questions, or shows them prototypes of materials, and then administers a brief questionnaire (usually resembling a closed-ended survey) about their reactions to the materials. Unlike in-depth interviews, mall intercepts are usually fairly brief (10 to 15 minutes) and are not designed for spontaneous interactions between the respondent and the interviewer. Responses to the questions are tallied and/or summarized in a final report. In practice, especially for pretesting materials, most professionals recommend that 60 to 100 respondents from each intended audience segment be sampled. Mall intercepts can be implemented frequently and in short timeframes, so results can be made available quickly to program planners.

Ethnographic methods

Ethnographic methods include a variety of techniques that usually share three characteristics.

  1. They study the behavior of a group of people in their natural setting, rather than in a more artificial "research" setting.
  2. Investigators seek to understand the sequence and connectedness of behaviors of interest as well as how and when health beliefs and behaviors are affected by interpersonal, social, cultural, and environmental factors.
  3. In contrast to more focused qualitative approaches—in which certain hypotheses or hunches made by the investigators are examined systematically through structured interview guides or questionnaires—ethnographic research is much more unstructured and seeks to observe and informally speak with a wide variety of people or "informants."

Typically, field workers visit an area where they observe behaviors of interest unobtrusively. They supplement these observations with informal conversations with local informants who represent a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. Data from other records (documents, recordings, photographs, and more) are used to "triangulate" and report on common themes and issues that emerge from these various sources. These methods are useful when planners seek to understand the cultural (or subcultural) context in which health beliefs and behaviors occur, how activities and interpersonal interactions give meaning to these beliefs and behaviors, and how these beliefs and behaviors fit (or do not fit) with the rest of an individual's daily life.

Quantitative research overview

Quantitative research usually is designed to produce estimates of the prevalence of knowledge, attitudes, opinions, behaviors, and other characteristics of a defined population group, whether the U.S. population as a whole or some subgroup. Most quantitative research attempts to do this by using various approaches to randomly selecting a representative sample of the audience of interest, such as random household surveys, random digit-dialing telephone methodologies, or random selection of names from voter lists or other lists believed to be inclusive of all members of the audience (for example, membership lists, motor vehicle registrations, school enrollment lists).

These and other approaches can involve complex decisions about the comprehensiveness of the data from which to sample, whether the sampling should be "stratified" (a process in which attempts are made to represent different segments of the overall population of interest, such as by gender, age group, or household income), whether adequate numbers of people can be sampled from which to reliably make population estimates, as well as specific ways in which "random selection" is actually accomplished.

After a representative sample is selected, surveys are then administered to the sample via one or more modalities, including in-person, telephone, or mail, and, more recently, the Internet. Each of these methods presents technical challenges, among them ensuring that all members of the sample have equal access to the chosen modality so as to not introduce a sampling bias. Another major challenge is to achieve high response rates, so that the results are not potentially biased by unknown characteristics of either the "responders" or "nonresponders."

Because of the nature of this research, and its use of relatively high numbers of respondents, surveys often use a limited number of questions that are presented in a consistent way to all respondents. Approaches to questionnaire development and phrasing can vary in rigor from internal professional review and discussion to formal cognitive laboratory testing with potential respondents.

To facilitate data entry and analysis, most questions will be structured in a "closed-ended" format, which limits the respondents to making a choice between two or more predetermined alternative responses. "Open-ended" formats also can be used in this research. If responses given by respondents do not fall within a limited number of categories or themes that can be discerned by either software or analysis by the researcher, however, they can limit the value and generalizability of the findings.

Finally, the other defining feature of quantitative research is the statistical analysis of the responses and reporting of these data in summary form. Statistical analysis can range from simple frequencies, percentages, and cross-tabulations for selected subgroups (such as age group, income, race/ethnicity) to complex analyses that may try to explain how various characteristics of the population or subgroups relate to one another (for example, what characteristics explain differences between people who engage in a healthy behavior versus those who do not).

The results of these analyses are then used to draw conclusions about the prevalence of the measured characteristics in the larger population of interest. These results are often expressed using confidence intervals or p-values to gauge the level of certainty that the reported results may in fact reflect the population as a whole.

Benefits of quantitative research

The most important benefit of well-designed and well-implemented quantitative research is that it can give planners of communications programs fairly reliable information about the prevalence of certain characteristics among their audience. Quantitative research that is conducted on a periodic basis also can track the effects of the program on targeted knowledge, attitudes, and/or behavioral change objectives. Quantitative methods also can be used to determine if the results of qualitative research are valid for the larger population.

Limitations of quantitative research

Researchers must consider several limitations of quantitative research before making a decision to conduct audience research using this family of approaches. The more important limitations are:

  • Such approaches usually are resource intensive and can take several weeks to many months to design, implement, and analyze, thus extending the time needed to incorporate audience-based research into program planning. One option to address this limitation is to add questions to ongoing omnibus marketing and opinion-sampling surveys conducted by commercial entities. These results can be turned around much more quickly. How these firms construct their samples, what modalities they use for interviewing, and how they achieve high response rates all need to be explored, however, to assure the quality of the information provided to the planners.
  • Quantitative research also requires skills in sampling design issues, sampling methodologies, survey design, statistical techniques, and how they are all applied in a communications research context. The extent to which these skills are used in planning and carrying out a quantitative study determines both the quality of the data and their generalizability to the total population.
  • The structure of most surveys limits the number of questions that can be asked, the variety of responses that respondents can provide, the time each respondent has to answer questions (15–20 minutes is what many surveys aim for to minimize respondent burden and to maximize full completion of the survey), and any type of interactive process with or among respondents. Thus the data are limited in the amount and richness of audience information that can be fed into the program and message design processes.

Back to Top

Additional resources

For more information on how to conduct audience research

Making Health Communications Programs Work, National Cancer Institute

CDCynergy, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Back to Top