Public Education

Listening to the Community: Low-Cost Research Tools to Build Stakeholder Support and Manage Opposition

When it’s important to understand your target audience and build support for new solid waste initiatives, online surveys, stakeholder interviews and focus groups can provide rich, nuanced information about community attitudes and opinions.

Mary-Jane Atwater


All too often, solid waste management leaders make difficult decisions, based on careful data collection and lengthy planning meetings, only to encounter vocal community opposition to their plans. Planned changes that upend the status quo are especially likely to result in opposition by special interests or groups with hidden agendas. Siting a new facility, expanding a waste-to-energy plant, changing a trash collection schedule, or closing the market for collection services are just a few examples of the types of decisions that spur opposition and even anger in the community and among stakeholders.


Fortunately, solid waste decision makers have a number of efficient, yet relatively inexpensive, research tools at their disposal that enable them to listen to and better understand the community and key stakeholders.  These tools, when used early in the planning process as well as during implementation of changes, enable public officials to gain a realistic assessment of community fears, opinions, assumptions, attitudes, questions and concerns. They help decision makers engage with the publics they serve, informing them of the problems they are trying to solve and why they have chosen a specific course of action.  Often, when the public is informed and understands why the change is needed, officials can better manage opposition and marshal community support.


What research tools are best and, in these days of tight budgets, cost the least? This article discusses three lower cost, effective research methods: online surveys, stakeholder interviews and focus groups. In considering these research tools, it is important to note that they are exploratory and qualitative in nature. They provide important insights and direction, rather than quantitatively precise measures that can be generalized to the entire targeted audience.1


The First Step:  Defining Your Goals

Before undertaking any research project, it is important to define your research goals.  Ask yourself: What do I hope to accomplish through research? What specific questions do I need to answer? What will I do with the data? Who can best provide the answers? Answers to these questions will determine which tools are most appropriate and which audiences you should involve in your research. Now, let’s take a closer look at each research method and how solid waste managers can take advantage of these tools.


Online Surveys

Online survey research is a great tool when you need to collect a large amount of data in a relatively short time. Online surveys are flexible, allowing randomization of question order, complicated skip patterns and easy modification during the design phase. Also, people are more likely to respond, since the questionnaires are easy to complete and can be finished when respondents have time.


Online surveys are inexpensive and offer real time data analysis as well. Using online survey software packages such as Survey Monkey ( or SurveyGizmo (, you can create surveys with unlimited questions and a variety of question types (multiple choice, rating scales, open-ended, etc.) for about $20 to $25 per month for a “professional package.” These packages offer assistance in questionnaire development, and real time collection and analysis of data, including filters, cross tabulations, and the ability to create charts and graphs.


The main disadvantage is that your results will not necessarily reflect a representative sample of the target population. Internet users tend to be younger and more urban and highly educated than the general U.S. population, and some ethnic groups may be poorly represented. Further, those who respond are often a self-selecting group who have a special interest in your issue or project. Online surveys can also be subject to fraud by respondents who complete the questionnaire several times.2


Despite these disadvantages, the ease, low cost and flexibility of online surveys makes them a valuable tool for solid waste managers. Online surveys provide excellent baseline data, and online survey data can be used to refine questions for future research using in-depth interviews or focus groups. The following tips are important for developing a successful questionnaire:

  • Keep your questionnaire short and simple. Your response and completion rates will be higher with a 10-minute survey than a 20-minute survey.
  • In an introduction, tell respondents what group is conducting the survey, why the research is important and how they will benefit from the results. Reassure respondents that their answers will be confidential and grouped with those from other respondents.
  • Ask only those questions that are relevant to the goals of your research.
  • Put the least controversial questions at the beginning of the questionnaire, and group together questions on similar topics.
  • Use clear, specific wording in your questions.
  • Make minimal use of open-ended questions. They are time-consuming for respondents and more difficult to analyze.
  • Include a comment section where respondents can explain their answers.
  • Offer “Don’t know” or “Not applicable” response options where appropriate.
  • Be sure to pre-test the survey with a group of colleagues or friends, or work with a local university market research professor to pilot the survey with a group of students.  Ask them to point out confusing questions or response options.


In-Depth Interviews

In-depth stakeholder interviewing involves conducting intensive, individual interviews with a select number of respondents. This methodology enables the researcher to explore perspectives, behaviors, attitudes and situations in greater depth than in an online or written questionnaire. In the solid waste arena, this tool can be used to gauge the opinions of key stakeholders about an issue or proposal.


The primary disadvantage of in-depth interviews is their time-consuming nature.  Interviews take time to conduct, can involve travel expenses, and the results must be transcribed and analyzed. In addition, results can reflect bias on the part of the respondent or the interviewer or both. The following are some tips for in-depth interviews:

  • Identify the stakeholders who should be interviewed, including those who will provide a wide range of views and stand to gain or lose from the success or failure of the project.
  • Develop a written interview protocol, including what is said to interviewees when inviting them to the interview, as well as what is said at the beginning and end of the interview.
  • Develop the interview questions or issues to be explored. Interview questions should be open-ended with probes, or follow-up questions, for each topic.
  • Ask factual questions before opinion questions.
  • Organize a session to train interviewers. Brief them on the goals of the research and interview protocol. Using mock interviews, train them in how to record verbal as well a non-verbal responses.
  • In analyzing the results, group trends, themes or patterns of comments together.  Determine if responses can be grouped according to the type of interviewee (e.g., public official, solid waste manager, recycling coordinator).


Focus Groups

Focus groups are an excellent method to answer the “why” questions about a particular topic. For each group, you will want to include six to 10 people who are representative of the target audience in order to question them about an issue and elicit their opinions.  When moderated well, participants interact with one another in a non-threatening environment, and rich new insights emerge. The chief value of focus groups is providing a window into the attitudes, behaviors and feelings of participants with the benefit of group dynamics. The groups are not a means to share information or persuade, nor are they designed to encourage group members to reach a consensus on an issue. It is possible to conduct a single-group study for $3,500 to $5,000.


The focus group should comprise a homogeneous group of participants―people of similar age, socio-economic status or education levels―so they will approach the discussion topic with shared experiences. Focus groups are typically conducted in a special facility that includes a discussion room and a separate client observation room with a one-way mirror. When group sessions are also audio and videotaped, the ethics of focus groups requires that the facilitator tell participants they are being taped as well as observed. Sometimes it is not possible to conduct focus groups in a focus group facility, which can charge $500 or more per session for room rental and taping. Effective focus groups can occur in other locations such as conference facilities and hotel meeting rooms.


A discussion guide is essential for conducting a well-run focus group. This guide lists the research topics to be covered, the questions that will be asked (including follow-up probes) and the time allocation for each segment of the discussion. The guide also includes any worksheets that will be completed by participants to record their reactions and opinions. To get the best results, you should arrange for the groups to be conducted by an objective, trained facilitator, preferably someone who is not part of the sponsoring organization. Trained facilitators have skills and training for thoughtful questioning and sharp listening as well as the ability to interpret non-verbal communications and group dynamics.


To conduct an effective focus group, the following steps should be taken:

  • Recruit participants carefully. Develop a recruitment screening questionnaire that outlines the desired composition of the group, including age range, education level, job title or experience level. When recruiting, give recruits a general sense about the nature of the discussion but do not go into great detail, since it is important that group members provide their “fresh” reactions to the discussion topic, without prior preparation. An honorarium of $75 to $150 for each participant is customary.
  • Recruit groups of seven to 10 participants with homogeneous characteristics. Plan to recruit three or four more participants than you need, since there will usually be a few who are unable to attend. Remind participants several times before the group meets.
  • Secure a trained facilitator to conduct the groups.
  • Work with the facilitator to prepare a detailed moderator’s guide that spells out the questions to be asked and time allocated for discussion of each question.
  • If observers are present, plan for a way for them to communicate with the facilitator during the session, to ask any clarifying questions. One option is for the facilitator to exit the room to speak with observers while group members complete a worksheet.
  • Prepare a summary report that organizes the data by themes as well as concerns, questions and suggestions from the group members. Include verbatim comments to illustrate the themes.


Understand Your Target Audience

In short, when it’s important to understand your target audience and build support for new solid waste initiatives, online surveys, stakeholder interviews and focus groups can provide rich, nuanced information about community attitudes and opinions.  Using these research tools provides insight and direction that enables you to be responsive to community concerns and questions when difficult, sensitive issues are proposed.  These research tools belong in the toolbox of every solid waste decision maker.


Mary-Jane Atwater is a principal associate at Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc. (Fairfax, Virginia), a national solid waste management consulting firm. She has conducted focus groups and managed research projects in Maryland, Texas, Virginia, Iowa, California and the Territory of Guam. She also helps communities plan and implement public education and outreach programs for solid waste and recycling. Mary-Jane is the winner of two Thoth awards from the Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter. She holds an MBA in marketing and market research. Mary-Jane can be reached at [email protected].




  1. Quantitative research is best if you seek results that are representative of the entire population you are studying. In quantitative research, random sampling techniques are used to develop a probability sample of the target audience, so that any one member of the population has a known, nonzero chance of being selected. Qualitative research methods, such as those discussed in this article, are best for exploring issues, generating ideas and gaining insight and generally do not yield results that are representative of the entire target audience.
  2. There are ways to get around fraudulent entries. If you are recruiting from a defined sample of subjects, the best way to avoid multiple entries from the same respondent is to assign each subject a unique ID and allow each ID to be used only once. If you are recruiting from the population at large, you can use the respondent’s email or IP address to track responses.



Listening Tools in Action

GBB, as part of their work to help communities address their solid waste management challenges, frequently conducts qualitative research using online surveys, in-depth stakeholder interviews and focus groups. For example, in one Texas town where solid waste officials proposed to close the market for trash collection and add recycling opportunities for the commercial and multifamily sectors, GBB used all three methods to better understand stakeholder opinions about the town’s proposal and the types of hurdles the town would have to surmount to implement the new system. Online surveys gave baseline information about collection practices and opinions while stakeholder interviews enabled GBB to “dig deeper” and understand why target audiences felt the way they did about the proposal. With focus group research, we were able to obtain even richer, more nuanced information concerning participants’ opinions about recycling and the town’s proposal, as well as concerns and questions about the new system. The online survey showed that few businesses were recycling. The in-depth interviews explored why this was the case, revealing that some businesses were not aware they could recycle the materials they generated and others did not believe recycling collection would reduce their solid waste collection costs.


In another project in Guam, where in 2008 the U.S. District Court of Guam appointed GBB Receiver of the island’s solid waste management system, the company used focus groups and stakeholder interviews to assess community attitudes about the implementation of a new cart-based trash collection system. These methods gave us important information that helped guide the cart registration process, extra fees for bagged trash, promotional messages, and the development of collateral materials. Online surveys would have been less useful, given our research questions and the less prevalent Internet use on the island.