If you’re thinking about conducting original research to use the data for your content marketing, there are important questions to ask before you get started.
I’m talking about collecting data to produce various types of content (e.g., blog posts, e-books, webinars, videos) for content marketing purposes. It’s helpful (versus promotional) content. It’s research-informed content that can help position your brand as a thought leader and draw attention to your solutions.
Like any other tactic, original research must fit into your overall content marketing strategy and within your organizational constraints including budget, staff, and expertise. Even though many types of research and survey software are readily available, not just anyone can “do research” successfully.
Conducting high-quality research requires an understanding of:
- Research methodologies (including selection of the best methodology based on your objectives)
- Sampling procedures
- Questionnaire design
- Project management
- Data analysis
You also must factor in the costs and talent necessary to develop content based on the research findings and a distribution strategy (as you know, what’s the use of developing content if no one sees it).
That said, let’s get started.
1. What is your objective?
Begin with your audience in mind. Conducting research, analyzing the findings, producing a report and other content, and distributing the findings for content marketing purposes requires an investment. Your primary goal should be to provide valuable insights for your audience. Your audience will sense if the research was conducted for self-serving purposes, and that could turn people off.
Be clear about what you want to study – and why.
Top goal for original research for #contentmarketing is providing audience w/ valuable insights. @LisaBeets
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For example, the CMI research team is surveying a segment of our audience with unique educational needs around content marketing to identify their biggest pain points. We intend to use the findings in a report as well as in an e-book accompanied by prescriptive guidance to address their challenges.
2. Is the data already available?
Once you’re clear on the objective, it’s time to move into the exploratory stage of research. You’ll look for any secondary research – information already published on the subject matter.
This phase can be expensive if you don’t limit the time you will spend because, depending on your topic and objective, many potential resources exist. A basic internet search could lead you to industry association data, libraries, government reports, etc. Also look at internal information (marketing stats, sales data, etc.).
If you discover good existing research, you may determine you can use and properly cite it to develop content for content marketing purposes instead of spending a lot of money to conduct new research.
On the other hand, your discoveries may identify gaps in available research that you might fill.
If you proceed with an original research project, your objective(s) determines the methodology. Qualitative research (e.g., personal interviews, focus groups) or perhaps a quantitative study (e.g., surveys) – or a combination of the two – may be the best method based on your objective.
3. Do you have the resources?
To generate credible results, you can’t wing it. It takes time, expertise, and budget to execute a high-quality, original research project that produces findings for content marketing.
Don’t fulfill this prediction of Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research & Consulting, who shared this insight: “Unfortunately, there will be even more bad researchers, as tight budgets and timelines mean more and more non-researchers ‘do research,’ not fully understanding sampling, methodologies, and other basics of insights.”
Staff researchers in large corporate environments generally are well versed on the time, expertise, and budget requirements for various types of research. Because they often (if not always) are working at capacity, it can be tempting for other departments in the company to try to undertake research. If that’s you – or your company doesn’t have researchers – proceed with caution.
Important initial considerations include:
- Who will manage the project? Do you have a qualified person on staff with time available or will you need to outsource it?
- Who will design the qualitative survey instruments (e.g., moderator guide, screening questionnaire, question/discussion guide), recruit the participants, and conduct the interviews?
- Who will design the quantitative questionnaire, program and host the survey, and collect the data?
- What survey tools will be needed in house?
- Who will write and design the report? Do you have experienced resources in house, or will you need to contract with freelancers?
- Who will develop the strategy for creating content pieces around the insights and distribute the findings?
- How much is all of this going to cost?
- What are your ROI goals? Are they financial, metrics-based, or something different? Put them in writing. For example, do you want to attract x number of new visitors to your website to view your research findings, with a goal of having x% convert to email subscribers? Or do you want to generate x number of qualified leads from the research-focused content with a goal of having x% convert to sales?
The point is if you don’t have the expertise on staff to answer these questions, you must invest the time (and money) to learn or find someone who can help.
If you don’t have #research expertise on staff, invest in finding an expert, says @LisaBeets.
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4. Do you have a quality list?
How will you reach the people who can provide the type of insights you’re looking for? Various options exist to acquire lists of possible respondents. These include your subscriber list, partnership with another company, rental of a third-party list, “list on demand” in survey software, and paid access to a panel of prescreened participants.
There are also numerous ways to distribute a survey. At CMI, we predominantly send surveys by email invitation to a known audience of interest (e.g., B2B marketers who use content marketing). Other options include embedding a survey link on your website, including a link in blog posts and newsletters, running banner ads that link to your survey, or distributing a link on your social media channels.
Your choices will be based on your objectives.
Rather than getting into all the pros and cons of list options and survey distribution methods, I stress the importance of a) understanding sampling and methodology, and b) having the expertise on staff to address these issues. If you don’t, seek outside assistance.
5. What will you do with the data?
After the data has been collected, edited, cleaned, and coded, you move into the analysis and writing phase.
The methodology used will impact the analysis phase. In-depth analysis of qualitative data is different than that of quantitative data — ensure that the analyzer’s skill set is appropriate. Do you have this talent on staff? If not, who will analyze the findings for you?
It’s beneficial to have several people see the data; someone might observe something that another person missed. This analysis also may reveal findings that require further research.
Have several people review research data; one person might observe something another missed, says @LisaBeets.
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A word of caution: Your report’s text and visual presentation – as well as the way the written methodology is crafted – affect how your study is perceived in the market. Ensure that your writer and designer (in-house or external) have sufficient understanding of research to communicate it effectively – forgoing conclusions the data doesn’t support and visualizing it in a way that’s easily understood.
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6. What type of content will you create?
Before you develop the research, your goals for the project should be determined. Those goals then inform your choice of content formats.
At CMI, we often publish one main report around a research study and spin it off into other tactics. The report is housed on our website and the spin-off pieces include links to the research report. Some of the spin-off pieces focus on one aspect of the report. For example, we create the annual Content Marketing Playbook with the results from our annual research. The playbook details the tactics identified by survey respondents and includes examples of why, when, where, and how companies use them.
Types of content to consider developing around original research findings include:
- Blog posts
- E-books/white papers
- Interactive graphics/data visualizations
- Interactive assessments
- In-person events
- Twitter chats
- E-learning courses
- Training classes
When considering which types of content to develop, evaluate the resources necessary to create, distribute, and manage that content.
TIP: All content based on research undertaken for content marketing purposes should be helpful in some way to the audience. Reported data should benefit the audience, not be promotional in nature.
Reported data should benefit the audience, not be promotional in nature, says @LisaBeets. Read more >>
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7. Will you gate the research?
Based on your goals for the project – and prior to releasing the content (e.g., primary report, e-book) – decide whether you want to require recipients to provide contact or other information to receive it.
Since our first research report launched in 2010, CMI has never gated the annual B2B and B2C content marketing reports. Our goal for the research is to attract and build an audience by providing helpful information to content marketers – not to collect leads. That decision has helped us build relationships with site visitors, many of whom become subscribers of our e-newsletter.
If you need to collect leads – and you’re confident that asking for the person’s contact information won’t turn them off (especially in a first-time “meeting”) or your findings are so valuable and so novel that people will be happy to give you their contact information to receive it, then go for it. If you’re not sure, try some A/B testing and/or gate the research for a limited time to see how it performs.
8. Are you prepared for the attention?
Be sure you are ready for the questions your findings will bring. Be prepared to:
- Explain your methodology and interpretation of the results.
- Field public relations inquiries. Contact your media relations person as you’re planning your study to identify how he or she can help advance the reach of the findings. Check out these tips from my colleague Amanda Subler: A Step-by-Step Guide to Get More Eyes on Your Research.
- Respond to questions and comments on social media.
- Be open to new ideas and questions offered by people who read your research. Feedback can be useful when you plan your next research project.
- Keep your sales team in the loop. Determine what your team will do with interested prospects who learn about your products/services as a result of the content you create around the research. How will your team move these people to the next step in their relationship with your company?
TIP: Stay abreast of similar research conducted by your competitors. Review their methodology and results so you can intelligently discuss the overall research in your industry with your audience and team.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for original research and content marketing. Take your unique situation into account and think through the various scenarios even if you have the budget and resources to move forward. If you don’t have the expertise of an internal research staff to lean on, consider engaging a consultant or a research firm and start with a small project to see how it goes.
Have you conducted original research for content marketing purposes? How did it go? What did you learn? Let us know in the comments.
Author’s note: This article is based in part on a presentation CMI Research Consultant Nancy Reese and I developed and presented at Content Marketing World 2017. The presentation was called How to Create Original Research and Use the Findings for Content Marketing Purposes.
See all of CMI’s original research reports from its central hub.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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