Research can bolster the effectiveness of your thought leadership and help your content marketing do exactly what it is supposed to do: get your customers and prospects thinking differently about how to address their key business issues you know how to solve.
With so much changing in 2020-21, there’s no time like the present for conducting or commissioning a little research among companies and executives within your target market. A good research study is a great way to get inside the heads of the people who stand to benefit from your services. You can dig into their expectations for the year ahead, ferret out their biggest frustrations with the status quo, and drill down to find out their greatest needs. If you collect company performance data, you can also learn what the most successful companies are doing differently from their peers.
Obviously, all of this information can be invaluable to your organization and your sales team. But it can and should also be great fodder for your thought leadership marketing efforts. You can use what the data are telling you to shape and support your unique point of view about what’s happening in your industry, what is likely to happen down the road, and what is the best way for companies to respond. The data will add an extra layer of depth and credibility to your content, giving your thought leadership a little more oomph.
While the benefits are many, a good research project requires careful planning and considerable effort. Here are six ways to ensure you are collecting and using data to your firm’s greatest advantage:
- Decide who you want to survey.
- Be thoughtful about the questions you ask.
- Be willing to be surprised.
- Remember that the data are the data, but how you interpret them is up to you.
- Get the anatomy of your research report right.
- Share the key insights in multiple ways.
Decide who you want to survey.
For your research effort to return valuable data, you will need a good base of respondents. How you get them largely comes down to how much time and money you have to spend. And in general, the more targeted your respondent group, the more expense and effort it will take to reach them. If you’re not picky, you can use social media to field your survey to anyone. But the quality of the responses may be questionable. You can also field to your current customers and prospects via email, which can work well if you have a large, high-quality data base. If you’re looking for a larger number of respondents, an online panel like Survey Monkey can help get you the numbers you want—but the respondents might not be exactly the right audience. Ultimately, if you’re looking for a very specific number of responses from a very specific audience, working with a full-service research partner is your best bet. It’s the most expensive choice, but as in most things, you get what you pay for. And, having expert support can improve all aspects of your research effort.
Be thoughtful about the questions you ask.
Once you know who you are going to survey, it’s time to decide what you will ask. Don’t rush through this effort. How a question is worded can have a significant impact on how someone responds. If you’re using a research-firm, get the experts to help, and do a test drive to see how others interpret the intent of your questions. You should also be mindful of the length of the survey and how much time it will take to respond. Overall, to keep respondents engaged, try mixing up the question format:
- Use both multiple-choice and open-ended questions.
- With multiple-choice queries, consider including an “other” response where respondents can write in an answer not listed in your options. You’ll gain some valuable insights this way.
- Throw in some leader/laggard questions that can help you determine who’s having success solving a problem and who’s not. For example, you can ask how well a company feels it performs on a specific skill or issue compared to its peers. This will help you draw some conclusions about what the data really mean.
Be willing to be surprised.
Once you get your responses back, don’t be surprised if you are surprised. Of course, you should always double check your data set and confirm accuracy and quality. But what you think you’re going to learn may be entirely different than what the data actually show. And that’s okay. In fact, it may even be preferable. In our own research, Rattleback has found that the most successful though leadership marketers do research to uncover new insights rather than to confirm their own hypotheses. So keep an open mind. And make note of your initial reactions to the findings. What you found to be the most unexpected will likely be extremely interesting to your audience as well and should factor into the key insight that will make it into your final report.
Remember that the data are the data, but how you interpret them is up to you.
Even if the data don’t say exactly what you thought they would say, they will tell an interesting story. They should spark some excellent conversation among your firm’s thought leaders. Indeed, this is where the true value of any research lies. Using the new information, your thought leaders can now expound on how the data align with and support your firm’s point of view and core beliefs. Your experts can share their unique perspective and what they believe their customers and prospects should do as a result of the new findings. This can be extremely exciting, especially if the data challenge convention and can be used to support novel ideas with which your firm is aligned.
Of course, there is always the possibility that the data will be completely at odds with your firm’s point of view. If this happens, and you’ve double checked the data’s accuracy, you might have to face the fact that your POV is not in lockstep with what’s actually working for your clients in the real world or what matters most to them at this point in time.
Get the anatomy of your research report right.
After you’ve done the work of interpreting the data and thinking through your company’s stance on what it all means, it’s time to package the key insights together into some type of report or summary. No matter what format this ultimately takes, there are several things you should do to help ensure your audience learns and benefits from all your effort:
- Include an executive summary or key findings section as part of a larger report. This gives your reader a quick overview, allows you to highlight and emphasize what you believe to be the most important and relevant findings, and sets the stage for your audience to dive deeper into the meat of the report for more details.
- Think about how you will visualize the data in the body of the report. Consider working with a data visualization expert who can help you create charts and tables that speak for themselves and that clearly illustrate your research findings.
- Be sure to keep the straight data separate from your interpretation or perspectives. Use headlines, subheads, and language to clearly show in your content where your experts are weighing in on what the data mean or where you are making recommendations based on what the data show. Sidebars, a clearly labeled perspective sections, and a conclusion section are great places to include your point of view while keeping it separate from the straight data facts.
Get the greatest possible value for your effort.
Keep in mind that a full-fledged research report is just one way you can publish the results of your data and your thought leaders’ perspective. To fully leverage your investment in the research, think about how you can split your data apart into multiple reports and assets that can be used with different audiences and in tandem with the full report. Options might include infographics, online experiences, assessment tools, webinars, and client-only virtual events. You may also be able to break your data down into sub slices and mini reports, for example, by industry. You can then create a schedule and campaign for releasing your findings and publishing your various assets, extending the usefulness and impact of your work. Remember to choose what (if anything) you will gate to help your capture more leads. One research endeavor and data set can generate multiple options and meaningful touch points with your clients and prospects, so take some time to plan your approach and how you can get the greatest bang for your research buck.
Closing Thoughts—Research takes commitment. But it’s well worth the effort.
Taking the pulse of what’s really happening in your marketplace makes a lot of sense for a business for a variety of reasons, from shaping your sales strategy to developing new products and enhancing the effusiveness of your thought leadership marketing. Yes, it takes time and effort. But, if you leverage the findings thoughtfully and use them to inform all areas of your business, the return on that investment may be even greater than you expect.