The analytics from the big report you wrote are finally in. You sit down at your desk, excited to see the results, when suddenly your jaw drops: Only 50 people read it?!
For anyone working in global development, this feeling is familiar. Whether striving to end global modern slavery or build new markets for smallholder farmers, the global development community spends millions of dollars conducting research to fill knowledge gaps and solve big global challenges. Yet, despite our best efforts, much of this research fails to reach or influence the people who can drive the needed change. For instance, the World Bank reported in 2014 that nearly half of its 1,600 policy briefs were downloaded only 1 to 100 times in the previous five years, suggesting a serious misalignment between research investments and actual impact.
To bridge the connection between publishing research and changing behavior, the global development community needs to approach the question of “how do we communicate our research?” with renewed intention and rigor. While this directive may seem obvious, the reality is that many leaders in global development aren’t prioritizing it—whether for lack of resources or an inability to align communications with their organization’s core activities. Whatever the barrier, if global development leaders truly want to see their research drive actionable results that influence decisionmakers, they must make intentional and targeted communications a top priority.
Doing so is easier than you might think. Several organizations, including ideas42 and IDEO.org, have dedicated serious time and resources toward understanding what drives behavior change and how to influence others. To apply those findings to our own work, we partnered with the Mastercard Foundation’s Rural and Agricultural Finance Learning Lab—a knowledge sharing platform for rural and agricultural finance—and Dalberg Advisors. Together, we published a brief about how to influence decisionmakers to shift their strategies and ultimately improve financial solutions for smallholder farmers. While some of the Lab’s findings are specific to agricultural finance, many of the influencing principles are relevant for anyone trying to drive change through global development more broadly:
- People want less talk and more action. This finding is no surprise—of course people want action! But how do you actually put this principle into practice? During our nearly 40 interviews with stakeholders, we routinely heard that decisionmakers want to read content they can apply directly and immediately to their own work. For instance, to make research practical and useful for senior leaders, one person interviewed said that research, “should not be hollow praises … it needs to have 3-5 points that explain how [I can] actually do it.” Publishing learnings in simple, usable formats—such as case studies or toolkits—makes it easier for readers to take away learnings quickly and tailor them to their contexts.
- Shorter is always better. We’ve all been there. You’re in the weeds, researching a specific topic, and it feels like every fact is critical to share with a wider audience. Unfortunately, the cold, hard truth is that decisionmakers—just like the average Twitter user—want short, flashy, and easy-to-read information. The Lab’s research found that more often than not, decisionmakers actually prefer infographics and short videos to long reports or briefs. In fact, one senior leader interviewed said, “If it’s more than two pages, I won’t read it.” While longer-format reports, such as “Inflection Point: Unlocking Growth in the Era of Farmer Finance,” a landmark state-of-the-sector report jointly published by ISF Advisors and the Lab can be important for defining a problem or providing data, more visual and digestible versions are the shiny objects that will catch the attention of the C-suite.
- Know your audience and tailor the content accordingly. It’s not just about how your audience absorbs content, of course, but what that content actually is. Before you dive into your next project, take the time to segment your audience and ask them directly, “What new research or knowledge will help you achieve your mission?” After we asked our audience this question, we found that readers didn’t want to learn about policies or donor dynamics in agricultural finance, but rather, they wanted to learn about the business case for investing in agricultural finance. Even if you can’t complete a thorough study of your audience and their needs, set up 15-minute meetings with a few important audience members or hold a mini “market testing” focus group to achieve a similar goal.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. While new media like interactive blogs and virtual reality are making waves across global development, traditional communication channels remain critical. The Lab heard from decision makers that email newsletters, particularly when concise and visual, continue to be the main way they stay up-to-date on sector news. Many of them also demonstrated interest in using WhatsApp for thematic learning groups, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of using limited resources to develop the next big thing, first try investing in your existing “bread-and-butter” channels to meet your audience where they already are.
Whether you're working in communications or leading a technical research team, there’s a good chance you were drawn to global development by the opportunity to drive real and actionable change. It’s no easy feat, but understanding how to influence decisionmakers is the first step to making it happen. To ensure your research and learnings drive results, commit to asking yourself these four main questions before you dive into the next big project:
- What action do I want people to take after reviewing my publication?
- Am I answering the questions my audience wants to learn more about?
- Are there extraneous details I can trim down or cut out?
- Am I making the most of existing channels that reach my audience where they already are?
If we don’t get smarter about communications, the global development community will continue solving big global challenges on paper, without capturing the attention of those who can turn game-changing insights into action. Understanding how to influence decisionmakers can help bring researched solutions to life, drawing us one step closer to a zero-poverty world.