Navigating Shark-Infested Waters: Delivering Difficult Research Findings


When the Creative Director’s favorite ad doesn’t test well with consumers…oof!
When shoppers don’t show purchase interest at the board’s target price…yikes!
When market spend hasn’t resulted in increased brand awareness…ouch!

Delivering Difficult Research Findings

If sharing these types of negative research results with company leaders sounds like navigating shark-infested waters—you get the picture! As research professionals, our key role is to design and implement studies that can reveal honest answers to business questions.

When the truth resulting from our study is positive, it can be a joy to communicate those insights. However, research efforts sometimes reveal different results than were expected or hoped for. Although being the bad news bearer is never fun, ultimately it’s these types of scenarios that best make the case for the cruciality of market research. Accurate results, even if disappointing, can inform strategic pivots that can mark detours from disastrous marketing mistakes and place well-informed companies on the path to success.

Treading Carefully

Especially if bad news is anticipated, stakeholders may be eager for early access to research data. While it's important to be responsive, it is also wise to proceed with caution. Sharing preliminary previews and toplines may be necessary but ensure you only do so when you have sufficient substantiation to avoid skewed data. The first insights you communicate can often be perceived as “the answer,” so if final data analysis ultimately points to a different conclusion than data previews, this can create confusion and erode trust in the results. Strive to strike a balance between satisfying stakeholder curiosity and protecting data integrity.

Crystal Clear Seas

Clarity becomes paramount when presenting research results with negative implications. Ensure your report findings are concise, straightforward, and supported by substantial evidence. A great way to buoy the story is to incorporate verbatim quotes or video clips from interviews or open-ended responses from surveys. These authentic narratives in respondents' own words help illustrate the deeper insights behind the data and lend credibility to your findings.

Surfacing Amidst The Waves

While it's essential not to shy away from delivering bad news, it's equally important to highlight any positive aspects present in the data. These glimmers of good allow research stakeholders to come up for air amidst the waves of bad news and can help them better absorb the findings. Identify elements that demonstrate areas of strength, potential, or opportunities for improvement. Presenting positive findings as examples to continue or build upon can help balance the overall perception and encourage a more constructive discussion around the challenging aspects.

A Lifeboat

When possible, include a separate "respondent-generated" recommendations for improvement section in your report in addition to your recommendation summary. Spotlighting potential solutions directly from the perspective of the target audience can serve as a lifeboat, creating a hopeful way out amidst a sea of bad news. By incorporating respondents' suggestions and insights, you demonstrate that negative findings can serve as a catalyst for growth and transformation. These recommendations provide a clear way forward for stakeholders to take actionable steps to address the issues raised in the research.

In The Same Boat

Delivering research results that convey bad news is a delicate task that can feel like navigating shark-infested waters. By adhering to a strategic approach, market research professionals can effectively share challenging insights while maintaining trust in the findings. Treading carefully as you communicate early data, ensuring clear and well-substantiated findings, highlighting any positives, and buoying your findings with respondent-generated verbatims and recommendations help remove the researcher from the results. Our ultimate goal as researchers is to sail alongside our companies through even the most turbulent waters, providing honest insights that guide them towards improvement, growth, and success.

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