3 Reasons Research is Critical in Behavior Change Marketing (and strategies for getting it done)

Research is an important component of almost any marketing plan, but in behavior change marketing, research is imperative. Successful behavior change marketing relies on customized messaging and message delivery platforms that speak directly to very specific audiences, and in order to be effective, it’s important to completely understand the behaviors, desires, barriers, and motivations of those audiences.

There are three areas of behavior change marketing in particular that require research: formative research and persona development, message testing, and evaluation/assessment. Below we’ll outline why research is needed in each of these areas and strategies for getting it done.

Formative Research and Persona Development

The first step in developing a behavior change marketing campaign is to conduct deep research into the target audience. What are their current behaviors? What barriers are in the way of them making a behavior change? And finally, what might we offer in the way of a relatable motivation that could help them make the desired change. Understanding everything you can about the target audience is the key to developing a successful campaign.

Armed with the formative research, the next step is persona development. Personas, or fictional representations of the target audience, contain pieces of information such as demographics, psychographics, preferred communication methods, and other personal details that help define the target and shape the plan. In order to accurately develop these personas, research is needed to better understand the target audience.

There are three common strategies for formative research and persona development – IDIs, market research, and social media polls.


IDIs, or in-depth interviews, are either in-person or phone interviews with potential target audience members or people who interact with them on a regular basis. The interview questions for this type of research are developed strategically in order to uncover key pieces of information such as how people in the target audience consume information, what influences their actions, and what’s keeping them from making the desired change. The results and information uncovered in the IDIs are then compiled into an overall report, which is used to develop key personas.

Market Research

If IDIs aren’t available, either due to budget or time constraints, market research can sometimes be used in its place. Market research refers to previously generated consumer reports available for purchase by marketers. While these reports may not be as specific to the target audience as IDIs, they can often offer useful insight, particularly around demographics and communication preferences of various targets.

Social Media Polls

If both IDIs and market research are out of scope, or if more information is needed to supplement them, a simple and affordable way to learn more about your target audience is through the use of social media polls. While it’s difficult to gather comprehensive information from an audience via polls alone, in conjunction with another form of research, social polls can help round out a persona by providing insight into specific audience preferences such as which bloggers or influencers they follow, where they go for information on a certain topic, or what their beliefs are about a certain subject.

To conduct a social media poll, simply pose a question on a social media platform such as Facebook or Instagram, and then promote that post to the target audience you’re seeking to understand. Make sure to put enough budget behind the promoted post to gather a statistically significant sample size. Also, keep in mind that there are a number of biases at play in terms of who responds to social polls, especially when you use a reward to incentivize participation. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the learnings, but it should be taken into consideration when interpreting the results.

Message Testing

The next stage in behavior change marketing, after personas have been completed, is message testing. This critical period involves testing various messages and interventions with the target audience to determine which approach is most likely to motivate them to make the desired change. Once potential message concepts have been developed, there are two primary ways to test them, often used in tandem; focus groups and A/B testing.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are the most common research method used for message testing. The reason is that focus groups allow marketers to understand which messages are resonating and which are not – and, it also allows them to dig deeper for the “why.” Focus groups are typically conducted by a third-party research company to avoid any bias on the part of the facilitator, but groups can also be set up informally. Typically, participants are compensated in some way for their time, and participants should be as representative as possible of the target audience. The participants are shown or read various concepts and messages and queried for their reactions. Sometimes focus groups use direct lines of questioning such as “does this message motivate you to make a change?” while others use indirect questions such as “how does this message make you feel?” to try to understand how the messaging is being interpreted by the target audience.

A/B Testing

While A/B testing isn’t as comprehensive as focus groups, it can be used in tandem (or in a pinch, if budget is tight) to understand which messages get the most attention from the target audience. A/B testing is typically done through digital media, either social media posts or digital ads. It works by running two posts or ads targeted to the same audience at the same time. Everything about the ads/posts is the same (promotion budget, timing, audience targeting) except for the messaging or concept. After a period of time, the engagement with the ads/posts is measured to determine if there was a noticeable difference in performance between the two.


Unlike selling a product or service where success can be measured in clicks or purchases, behavior change marketers face a unique challenge – demonstrating that the marketing plan and/or interventions motivated people to make a behavior change. Pre- and post-campaign assessment can help close the gap and enable marketers to understand whether or not their efforts were successful.

Pre- and post-assessments work by using research (typically IDIs or quantitative surveys) to understand the existing attitudes of a target audience. Once the campaign is completed, the same research methodology is used to survey the audience again. This time the post-campaign results can be compared to the pre-campaign research to see if the marketing was successful in shifting the attitudes or actions of the target audience.

Quantitative Surveys

In addition to IDIs (discussed above as they relate to persona development) quantitative surveys are often used for pre- and post-campaign assessments. These surveys are typically conducted online by a research company. Marketers consult with the research company to determine and prioritize the most important questions, and then researchers use a variety of tools, recruiting programs, and incentives to elicit a statistically significant number of responses from the target audience.

Research is an important piece of behavior change marketing, and one that should be accounted for in the budget and planning phase. While it is possible to develop behavior change campaigns without research, these marketers will be relying on instinct and inferences to make decisions about personas, messaging, and evaluation – a potentially costly game of trial and error.

About Ethos

Ethos is a multiplatform branding agency that specializes in behavior change marketing programs designed to reach specific target audiences across multiple communication channels to encourage measurable change.

At Ethos, we believe that the most effective way to set a company’s marketing course is by finding its core truth – its ethos. We know that once we discover and communicate that core truth, we can truly make a difference for each client’s unique marketing and business objectives.

With Ethos, you get more than a behavior change marketing agency. You get a long-term partner whose goals are your goals.

Learn more about the Ethos approach and the work we’ve done for our clients. Contact us!

Written By

The ETHOS Team