If a Report Is Published and No One Reads It, Did It Really Happen?

Investing in smart communications can help ensure that valuable research gets read and put to use in solving global development challenges.


  1. “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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”