Survey Research: 6 Do’s and Don’ts for Content Marketers

If you’ve spent a bunch of time reading things on the internet these past few years, you might have noticed the increasing prominence of the infographic.

By turning survey research into a tight, image-heavy narrative, content marketers have been capturing readers’ attention by packaging exclusive data into a format that takes advantage of people’s love for visual content. As an added bonus, many infographics have received excellent distribution by online media outlets, which are often grateful for the opportunity to generate pageviews without putting in too much of their own time.

But for all the success infographics have wrought, it’s very easy for marketers to trip up when doing survey research—regardless of whether they are creating a whitepaper, infographic, or multimedia news story.

As Patrick Kulesa, global research director at the HR consulting firm Towers Watson, puts it, “Everyone kind of thinks survey research is easy to do, but it’s easy to make a lot of mistakes.”

With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of do’s and dont’s for marketers new to research game. If you’re looking to avoid the stumbling blocks that often trip up the uninformed, you’ve come to the right place. Read on.

DO: Be specific about the answers your questions are trying to elicit.

Before you start sending out surveys to people, it’s important to think about the story you want the data to tell, and to design your survey questions in a way that teases out the answers you need to tell that story.

As you might remember from eighth-grade science class, you’ll want to start your research by developing a hypothesis or two that your questions will be able to prove or disprove. Otherwise, you’ll likely wind up writing bad questions that don’t return the information you’re looking for.

If you’re having trouble narrowing down the exact story you want your research-based content to tell, Kulesa recommends interviewing experts, conducting focus groups, and reading prior research in your topic area. This will give you a better sense of the data points that might be useful to your audience but have not already been covered elsewhere.

DON’T: Make your questions too complex.

One of the biggest flubs Kulesa sees people make is when they present respondents with overly complex inquires, known in the research industry as “double-barreled” or “triple-barreled” questions. These questions confuse people by asking them to answer multiple things at the same time, something like: “Are you happy and calm today?” It’s possible that one of your respondents will be happy but not calm, and their response will hinge not on how they actually feel but on how they interpreted your question.

Another way people get confused is when they are asked to rank a long list of things by importance. For instance, it would be pretty much impossible for me to tell you whether “trustworthiness” is the seventh or eighth most important thing I look for in a cereal brand, and I might just give up and stop doing your survey altogether.

Rather than making people’s heads explode, Kulesa suggests that marketers cut to the chase by asking people things like, “Which three of these attributes are most important to you?” or “Which of these two combinations of attributes is most appealing?”

DON’T: Be stuck to your hypothesis.

Sometimes you’re asking all the right questions, but the responses weren’t what you were expecting. If this happens, don’t panic.

You can turn lemons into lemonade by refining your survey to learn more about the surprises you found and how they apply to different segments of the market. And if you still don’t understand what’s going on, you can reach out to an expert in your field to help explain your counter-intuitive findings.

In the case that you learn something that reflects poorly about your brand, it just might be that you’ve stumbled upon a blessing in disguise.

“The truth is the bad and the ugly is actually going to be much more helpful than the good in evolving the brand to what its audience wants to hear from them,” explained Laurel Mintz, CEO of Elevate My Brand.

DO: Use incentives.

In order to do a survey, you’ll of course have to get people to fill it out. To do this, you might want to try offering them some sort of financial incentive (Mintz likes to use a $5 gift card to Starbucks). If you are polling people in your industry, you can also offer them access to the data your survey ultimately reveals.

One problem Kulesa sees people sometimes run into is an issue where a survey gets a lot of respondents early on, but then the frequency of responses drops off soon after. You can avoid these lulls by sending people a reminder email, perhaps with an additional incentive to fill it out.

DO: Create a newsworthy narrative.

Once you’ve administered your survey and received the results, it’s time to start using the data to create a story.

Since the data can sometimes be too much for a journalist to digest, Contently managing editor Nick Clunn recommends that brands first pass it over to a data analyst capable of honing in on the key findings. Once you’ve done that, it’s up to your content creator to tell a story highlighting the details that will be the most interesting or surprising to the person reading it.

Rather than getting bogged down just listing off statistics, it’s important to really think about the narrative you’re creating around those facts and figures. You’ll need to explain why we are seeing certain statistics crop up and what’s causing the trends your research is highlighting. Without this additional context, your numbers won’t mean a thing.

Keep this in mind: While you’re likely an expert in the topic you’ve researched, some members of your audience might not be, so it’s important to explains things to them they might not immediately understand.

“I think when you point out something with content that no one has picked up on yet, whether it’s published by a brand or a newspaper, people will want to read it,” Clunn said.

DON’T: Forget your brand goals.

While telling a great story or bringing interesting new information to someone’s attention is always a good thing, you can get the most out of your survey research by figuring out how it ties back to your brand.

How is your company involved in the trend you are researching? What is your company doing to enhance the technology whose adoption rate you asked people about? If you can answer these kinds of questions, you’re on the right path.

“You may find something really interesting that no one has found yet, but if it doesn’t tie back to the business, it’s probably not worth pursuing,” Clunn said.

If all else fails, you can always try to present your findings in a different manner. After all, Kulesa points out that research is an iterative process by its very nature, and there’s nothing wrong with giving things another go if they don’t work out the first time.

“Don’t be afraid to blow up your approach and build it back up again,” he said. “The data hasn’t changed, just the way that you’re presenting it has.”

Image by ArtFamily

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