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Conducting formative research

Last edited: January 03, 2012

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Formative research, i.e. research carried out before and during the campaign to determine and refine the campaign planning process, provides accurate, up-to-date information to strategically develop the campaign on a sound basis. The complexity and nature of formative research depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the campaign. For example, in an advocacy campaign for legal change, analysis of law, law-making processes, the institutions involved and ways of influencing these will be key topics for formative research. In behaviour change campaigns, formative research examines the prospective target audience, their behaviour and the factors which influence it. Using social marketing theory, formative research is used to determine the best ways to reach the intended target audiences. 

See formative research on target audiences for a case study that illustrates how this can influence campaign design.

Formative research should combine several methods and use different sources of information so as to take into account different perspectives and cross-check the data obtained. Where resources are insufficient for large-scale surveys, participatory research methods, e.g. focus group discussions, can be used to obtain basic information. See Monitoring and Evaluation in this module for guidance on data collection.

Formative research may also include a baseline study, i.e. an initial assessment of the situation the campaign aims to change. Ideally, this assessment should be conducted in the early campaign planning stages, well before any campaign activities take place. The baseline study provides a critical reference point for assessing changes and impact, as it establishes a basis for comparing the situation before and after an intervention, and for making inferences as to the effectiveness of the campaign.

In campaigns for policy/institutional change, research on legislation, policies and their implementation are the most common data needed for baselines (see also Policy Analysis in this module). In behaviour change campaigns, a baseline would typically collect data on knowledge, attitudes and practice (KAP) of the target audience with respect to the campaign issue. For guidance on data collection, please see Monitoring and Evaluation in this module. See also Baseline assessment.


Example: Freedom from Fear, a 10-year advocacy education campaign in Australia, focused on perpetrators of domestic violence and men at risk of perpetrating domestic violence. Formative research included qualitative research with the primary target group to investigate awareness, attitudes and beliefs about domestic violence, and to explore potential communication messages regarding their acceptability, credibility and potential to change attitudes and behaviours. Based on the findings, the campaigners decided on two types of messages:

(1) A “consequences” message focusing on the damaging impact of domestic violence on children, considering that all target audience participants in the formative research expressed strong attachment to their children (while very few expressed any feelings of fondness for their partners). Furthermore, many respondents were able to relate to their own feelings from their childhood, when they witnessed or experienced domestic violence.

(2) A “help” message that would stretch out a helping hand to perpetrators ready to change their ways. Most perpetrators questioned voiced a need to be pointed to sources of formal help, such as counseling and treatment programmes.

Read the Freedom from Fear mid-campaign assessment (2000) describing the research underpinning the campaign development and evaluation.

Source: Gibbons & Paterson, 2000. Freedom from Fear. Campaign against Domestic Violence.