message testing

Questions Federal Marketers Should AskIncreasingly over the past few years, federal marketers have been asked by senior management to prove a positive return on investment on their marketing dollars. In today’s altered landscape, marketers are also faced with having to account for their target audience’s changing work environment and agency priorities. With this in mind, what questions should federal marketers ask before their strategies are developed and investments made?

Who Are You Targeting?

Earlier this year, our President, Aaron Heffron wrote about the difference between expanding versus exploring when it comes to your customer base. Regardless of whether you are looking to expand your customer base to new agencies or looking to build deeper relationships with the agency you are currently working with, it’s important to know your customer’s preferences, learning styles, preferred communication styles and the challenges they are facing.

Agency-based marketing (and even people-based marketing) are terms we hear more and more. Sales and marketing need to work together to develop their buying personas to understand who and how to best approach the marketplace. Using data versus anecdotes will yield the best results. Whether you develop your own personas or look to the Federal IT (FIT) Persona Study, knowing your customer will increase the ROI on any marketing effort.

Will Your Message Resonate?

Before launching any new campaign (especially grand (read: expensive) ones), it’s a good idea to include message testing research in the beginning to create a baseline and ultimately demonstrate the ROI from beginning to end. Pre-testing your messaging provides information on your prospects’ awareness of your brand and a read on how well your message fits within that brand perception. Returning to a similar audience to test the change in awareness and perceptions allows for dynamic message refinements and adjustments to ensure resonance and relevance with your audience. Agency priorities can change swiftly, and contractors often need to be able to change with the tides.

How Should It Be Delivered?

Once you have an idea about what you want to say, how is it best delivered? Depending on whether you want to create awareness or influence buying decisions, your content may need to take different formats.

Public sector marketers know content is king, but you will need to consider your target audience’s learning preferences. Do they tend to read, listen, or watch content to learn more about the services or products? Are they looking for past examples of how new ideas have worked or seeking knowledge (and reassurances) from industry or government thought leaders?

Over the years, we periodically dove into the world of content marketing. Our 2017 Federal Content Marketing Review highlighted what content federal audiences want during the different steps of the buying process. The 2019 Content Marketing Review introduced state and local audiences into the mix. In 2021, we will reprise the study and assess the K-12 and higher-ed markets and review how COVID-19 may have impacted preferences from years past. (Register for the 2021 Content Marketing Review: Reaching the Public Sector)

Where Should You Place It?

Whether earned or paid, you want to ensure the content created is reaching the right eyeballs. In times of tightening budgets, every marketing and advertising dollar spent needs to be well-thought out.  Targeting matters. Some media channels can be more effective for a general federal audience, while others can most efficiently reach an agency, agency-type, or professionals with a specific job function or within a purchase category. The Federal Media and Marketing Study provides you data about their media usage across print, broadcast, social and digital sources.

This is especially important in years where their habits may have changed. Various factors are challenging conventional wisdom. With more federal employees teleworking, things such as radio advertising, print advertising and social media use have been deeply affected. Having the data to back your advertising decision will help you decide where to invest your advertising and marketing dollars.

Final Thought

Data-enabled informed strategic decisions can help maximize ROI. Market Connections has spent the past 25 years gathering data and insights from public sector influencers and decision-makers to support our government contracting clients in informing their strategic planning, validating their marketing spend and ensuring the best ROI possible.

Want to learn more or develop a custom study for your audience, contact us at

Distance learning involves so much more than making sure your child submits their homework on time. The role of technology in education has accelerated to a level many weren’t expecting for another 3-5 years, leaving some behind. Millions of students are without sufficient access to the online tools they need (Read this article from edscoop) and even the largest and wealthiest school districts are struggling to roll out the tools teachers and students need for continuity (Check out this article from WUSA9).

There are significant opportunities for the technology community to step in and help.

The level of technical expertise of K-12 and higher-ed institution decision-makers can vary. Our research has shown that board members, administrators, teachers, IT specialists, parents and even students can be key influencers and play different roles when it comes to decision-making for school systems. Therefore, unlike marketing to state and local government audiences, SLED marketers must take note of this varying level of technical expertise when developing their marketing materials.

Are you considering each of these influencers in your communications and marketing to educational institutions? Are you considering your tone and messaging to reflect the range of their technical expertise, or lack thereof? Have you considered how your (and your competitors’) messages might be resonating with this audience?

In a time when the education market needs a trusted industry partner for your expertise and technology to support their unmet needs, ensuring your messaging is heard, understood and impactful is necessary now, more than ever.

How can you ensure your messaging is making an impact?


If the January 2019 Federal Shutdown has revealed anything, it’s that the best laid marketing plans may fall to the wayside in the need to react to changing dynamics of the market. A solid marketing plan focused on brand awareness, strategic outreach, and effective communication tools can handle any fluctuations and bumps in the road. A strong brand perception among your customers can ease anxieties, knowing that solutions exist when budgets and timelines are in turmoil.

As part of Market Connections’ ongoing efforts to help its clients, we often tap into the great ideas of other thinkers in the marketplace and try to bring it home for public sector marketers. A recent LinkedIn article by Ironclad Brand Strategy’s Principal, Lindsay Pedersen, got us thinking: What should one do to develop a brand strategy that can weather the ups and downs and layers of uncertainty? According to Ms. Pedersen one should “define the target customer and the competitive frame of reference.”

Over the years, some of our clients have broken into the federal market almost by accident by producing commercial solutions that help address a public sector issue. In these cases, sales teams experienced great success by being the first in, bringing a new technology or solution to bear in a way that hadn’t yet been considered. Thus, enlightened public-sector buyers saw the potential and worked hard within their organizations to justify its value in a traditionally rule-bound, risk-averse setting.

However, as other players came into the market, the “first in” vendor wasn’t connecting like it used to. While they had identified the customer, built some brand awareness and started understanding the competitive frame of reference, what they didn’t have was the right way to talk to the federal buyers. Their potential market had expanded beyond the early adopters and the commercial messaging rooted in bottom line rewards did not resonate in an environment focused on mission, service and public good.

For those clients who have experienced some success and need to break through to the broader federal market (whether new altogether, or bringing new offerings), we suggest THREE key steps, building on Pedersen’s first two:

  1. Define the target customer: Is the whole federal market right for you and your offering?

Who is your target customer? Are you trying to break through or increase the offerings you provide in the federal market? Would they benefit from the products or services you provide? Does your product offer solutions to their challenges? Do you truly understand their pain points?

For those focused on making the federal market a part of their business strategy, this takes on an additional meaning. Are you targeting the federal market as a whole? Are you focused on a particular product category for the federal market? Are you focused on a type of agency or a specific agency? Whether broad or specific, contractors must consider not only pain points and challenges, but what it means to work with the federal government including mission, processes and timelines. Will your product or service be viable in the federal market? To find out, it’s important to go right to the source.

However, companies looking to break into the federal market may find it difficult to gather this type of information directly. Those looking to break into this market or looking to bring a new offering to federal audiences may want to consider a market opportunity assessment to help them make informed decisions around whether to keep, eliminate, or enhance offerings. This type of study provides a profile of the federal market, specific target audiences and titles that offer the strongest potential for success, market needs within the framework of the offering and characteristics and features of the offering that resonate the strongest in the market.

Once companies have a firm understanding of their federal customer, their unique challenges and mission goals; and having a confirmation that the products and services they offer can benefit this customer, the contract and the mission; the next step is to understand how they are perceived by federal decision-makers, especially in comparison to other contractors in the same space.

  1. What is the Competitive Frame of Reference: Are you working in an environment with strong incumbents, new players, or a mix of the two (and what do customers think about them?)

As Pedersen points out, the second part of preparing is defining the competitive frame of reference. Who are your top competitors? What differentiates you, your services and products from theirs? What are your competitors’ weaknesses and where are their strengths?

To understand your customer and competition better, Pedersen recommends conducting customer interviews. She points out to small focus groups or interviews conducted over the phone. However, in the federal market, as many of our clients can point out, getting honest feedback from customers, especially if those contractors sit among their clients day in and day out, can prove to be difficult, if not impossible. Working together with a third-party firm may help in getting honest feedback about current customers while also looking into the satisfaction of service of contracts whose incumbents you’d like to unseat.

If clients are interested in winning new contract work, it is key to do this type of contract evaluation prior to when the RFP has been issued. A minimum of 12 to 18 months prior is recommended. Seasoned contractors know that once the RFP or RFI has been released, it is nearly impossible to get any feedback from agency decision-makers.

This type of research can provide key insights that could help shape a proposal based on current or past challenges or even future expectations and help you understand how you can position yourself to differentiate yourself, your products and your messaging from those of your competitors.

  1. Tailor your message: Are you talking the talk WHILE you walk the walk?

Your offering is viable in the market, and you have insight into the unique challenges of the customer and how you can differentiate from the competition, now is the time to focus on the framework of your messaging.

To ensure the messaging resonates, the best next step is to do some message testing. Whether you are investing in concept, communications, advertising, logo, tagline or name testing, having feedback from your customer/prospect ensures that you are delivering the right tone that addresses their key challenges and pain points.

This is especially true in the federal market. Experienced federal marketers understand that developing messaging for this market is not as simple as taking corporate marketing materials and simply adding a federal agency name in place of other customers. To truly reach and resonate with public sector clients, in addition to understanding their pain points and criteria, those seeking to reach federal audiences must develop marketing materials and assets with the right tone and language formatted for the channels in which they will be most visible. An example of this is seen in how a company addresses how their solution may “support the mission,” a concept less heard of in the corporate/commercial markets.

However, getting the deep insights needed to develop their brand framework as laid out in the three steps mentioned above can be difficult – not only for contractors who are trying to break into the market, but even for trusted vendors who sit next to their federal clients day-to-day. To get these insights, we recommend using a neutral and objective third-party who can uncover honest feedback on messaging and articulate the needs and expectations of federal audiences. By evaluating impact and effectiveness of messaging appeal, credibility, relevance, and usability, contractors can create campaigns with messages that address federal clients’ needs. This will strike a deeper chord with their federal audiences, motivating them to act on that messaging.

This way, contractors seeking strong brand recognition for their company and offerings in the federal market can have solid data to help them make key decisions. They understand their target audience and how that audience will respond to their offerings, how they fit within and differentiate from the competition, and key messages that resonate with their audience to help them stand out from the noise. Having this information will ensure that strategies they put in place in the federal market will be successful and provide a stronger ROI for their investment.

Learn more about Market Connections services to support your brand strategy framework:

To ensure the messaging in a communications plan hits the right customer pain points and the right tone, savvy corporations don’t rely on hunches. Rather, they prove the hunch is right before investing resources. They do this through message testing.

This type of qualitative research usually takes the form of focus groups, in-depth phone interviews, and similar types of discussion.

Real World Example

When one of our commercial clients was planning a nationwide introduction of a new online information database, they wanted to ensure their advertising would yield a good ROI. After all, national advertising campaigns cost well into the millions, which is not an investment to take lightly for any company.

The focus groups tested a variety of messages for the ad campaigns as well as the style of communication that would resonate with the audience. We were able to identify the launch messages that focused on users’ “hot buttons,” and were able to customize the message with regional focuses. Without the research, all of this would have been guesswork and we discovered some of it would have missed the mark. But because the company conducted the message and ad testing research (coupled with product testing), the launch was a huge success.

Concept, Communications, Ad & Usability Testing

There are different types of message testing: concept, communications, ad, and usability testing. In all of them, qualitative researchers probe the appeal, credibility, relevance, and usability of communications to evaluate impact and effectiveness. The findings result in clear direction regarding how your message resonates, and is accessible, to your target audience. Types of research include:

The bottom line: don’t guess what messages will resonate with your audience, or how they wish to communicate with your brand. Time and again, the results of message testing surprise our clients. When millions of dollars are on the line, does it really make sense to rely on a hunch?

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