At Evidence for Action (E4A), our mission is to support research that contributes to real-world advances in health and racial equity. The essence of action-oriented research is disseminating the findings in meaningful ways to decision-makers, communities, and others who can drive action to advance health and racial equity.
At E4A, we define dissemination as the targeted sharing of relevant information with specific audiences for a specific purpose, with an opportunity for bi-directional knowledge exchange. Dissemination is most effective when there is a clear strategy that lays out the who, what, when, why, and how of sharing the findings.
Building a Dissemination Strategy
To aid E4A applicants and other researchers in developing a plan for disseminating their findings, we’ve put together a dissemination strategy template (access the Google doc version). The template is structured in such a way to guide folks through a step-by-step process from identifying objectives to selecting communications tactics and materials. Each component should flow into the next. The different components of the template and key considerations for completing each one are outlined below.
Establishing your objectives for disseminating your work sets the stage for the rest of your strategy. Essentially this boils down to, why are you doing the research? What changes are you hoping to see in the world because you did this research? These objectives can be to inform development or implementation of policies or practices or to build the evidence base, for example. The objectives should be realistic, timely, and aligned with stakeholder priorities and needs. There should be concrete ways to determine whether you’re making progress toward achieving them.
Who needs to know about your findings in order to achieve your objectives? These individuals or groups will be your primary audiences, the individuals who will use the evidence to make decisions and work to advance health and racial equity. In addition to the people who have direct decision-making power, you should also consider who influences their decision-making. For example, if you’re trying to affect local or state policymaking, audiences that have sway with the policymakers might include advocacy organizations, local media outlets that can broadly share the findings and increase public awareness, community based organizations, and specific segments of the general public. People most likely to be impacted by the topic or intervention of interest should always be a priority audience.
It’s also important to keep in mind that audience groups are not monolithic; they are composed of individuals who may have different priorities, values, perspectives, interests, and other attributes. This may mean that the methods you use to engage with them or the messages you convey to them should be tailored to different segments of the broader audience.
What are you asking audience members to do? These actions can range from retweeting a social media post to using the evidence in their policy- or decision-making. Questions to consider when determining the desired actions for members of each audience include, does the action align with their values? Do they have the authority and ability to do what you’re asking? Is what you’re asking them to do reasonable? If you’re not sure about the answers to these questions, you should work to learn more about the audiences you’ve identified. The best way to learn about your audiences is to engage with members of those audiences early and often. In addition to enhancing your dissemination strategy and activity, engaging with the end users of your findings may inform aspects of the research itself, from developing research questions to interpreting the data and disseminating the findings.
Relationship Building Tactics
Building relationships allows you to learn more about your audiences, and the more you know about them, the more effective your outreach and engagement will be. You’ll have a better sense of where they get their information, who they trust, what their values are, and what messages and which messengers are most likely to resonate with them. Additionally, the more your audiences know about you, the more likely they will be to engage with you, trust you, and undertake what you’re asking them to do.
How will you engage with each audience? Some of the questions you’ll need to answer to figure out the best tactics are: where do members of this audience acquire information? What sources do they trust? Example communications tactics include, but are in no way limited to, posts to social media channels, emails, phone calls, text messages, websites, podcasts, and op-eds (these last three can be considered both Communications Tactics and Supplemental Materials, because they can be sent to audiences as part of other communications). This shouldn’t be a one-size-fits all approach for different audiences or even individuals within an audience. For example, if we are trying to reach federal policymakers we might conduct a targeted email campaign that includes key staffers, make appointments for in person meetings, or place a piece in a publication such as The Hill. If we’re trying to reach high school students, a video to YouTube or a story on Instagram might be more effective.
Supplemental materials are the resources we put together for audiences to convey the key findings of the research in ways that are engaging, easy to understand, and relevant to them. These resources are vital to help individuals understand the findings and implications and to give credence to them. Examples of supplemental materials include data visualizations (e.g., maps, graphs, etc.), policy or research briefs, one-pagers, toolkits or implementation guides, short- or long-form videos, case studies, GIFs, press releases, and academic journal articles. Similar to the tactics, the materials and information you provide each audience or segments of each audience are not likely to be the same. For instance, while emailing an academic journal article to your colleague in a similar discipline may be sufficient, that would not be advisable for almost any other audience. Journal articles are often long and include jargon and too much detail, making it challenging to read and understand the implications for real world decision-making. If you’re reaching out to policymakers and advocacy organizations, a policy brief may be much more effective than if you’re reaching out to practitioners, student groups, or members of the “general public.” The materials used will also depend on the communication tactic you are using. For example, videos and GIFs may be very effective via social media, but may not be very effective for in-person meetings or town hall events.
Completing the dissemination strategy template is a great starting point, but the real work starts when it comes to implementation. While specific communication tactics and materials may need to wait for research findings or until academic journal publication, there are other things you can get started on in the meantime. It’s never too soon to start learning more about your audiences and building relationships. You can also build the foundations for some of your tactics, such as developing distribution lists, establishing yourself or your organization on the social media channels you plan to use, and building your team’s capacity to implement some aspects of your plan.
One last piece of advice, dissemination strategies are not meant to be set in stone. Try to be flexible. Things may change with your projects, you may identify new or different audiences, things may happen in the world that impact your research or the application of your findings. It’s a good idea to revisit your plan regularly and update it as needed.
If you would like to learn more about developing and implementing a dissemination plan, check out the video guide I put together. Still have questions? Reach out to E4A on Twitter or LinkedIn.