How to Design a Brand Study That’s Ethical and Entertaining

Turning academic studies into content can be a minefield. One one hand, a study with flashy findings is great for PR and data visualization. On the other hand, the desire to exaggerate the results of a study for selfish interests be very a powerful urge.

Consider this faulty story about hygiene and swimming pools that broke in May. As ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman pointed out on Twitter, the study written up by several prominent news outlets, which concluded half of Americans use swimming pools in lieu of showers, was sponsored by a chlorine company.

That’s the trouble with brand-sponsored studies: the scientific method discourages the storytelling logic that powers good content marketing. Two opposing objectives—promoting a product and analyzing an industry objectively—often produce a convoluted study. When marketers distill a study into an attention-grabbing headline, they risk sacrificing academic integrity in the pursuit of clicks.

So the question becomes, can a brand sponsor a truly objective study?

The branded study conundrum

Several academic studies from the last decade have determined that drug tests and clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies are inherently problematic, but what about in other industries? In 2016, Coca Cola found itself in hot water by promoting misleading information about sugar consumption. A recent study on the “gig economy” from Uber suspiciously concluded that gig workers are largely fulfilled, happy, and supported by their freelance work. On the other hand, though, Twitter sponsored a study in 2014 that produced some truly helpful data to marketers trying to promote their products on, well, Twitter. If you review all these examples, the idea of a brand-sponsored study starts to look pretty murky.

However, there’s always the argument against plastering a brand name all over a study’s findings.

In March 2018, Pressboard Media released a study on all kinds of “sponsored content,” and they found that name-dropping the brand involved has a huge impact on user experience. “If the brand is mentioned too close to the start of a sponsored article, engagement levels will be negatively affected,” researchers concluded. “On average, readers spent 12 seconds longer reading articles when the brand was mentioned halfway through the article as opposed to when the brand was mentioned in the first 100 words.” That means a brand-sponsored study walks a very fine line between hiding their intentions and coming off as too promotional.

But pulling off a brand study is not an impossible task. If we follow the logic of contemporary thought leadership in content marketing, a publication run by a brand can (and should) retain objectivity. The goal for this kind of content is still engagement, sure, but grabbing an audience with misleading information is an obsolete practice. If a brand is practicing ethical content marketing and sticking to best practices, there’s no reason it can’t produce an ethically sourced study. In fact, a brand’s experts are arguably more qualified to draw conclusions on industry data than the average journalist, unless that journalist has been covering the subject for decades.

What does a successful brand study look like?

There are a few caveats to signing off on a brand study. Ideally, the study’s hypothesis is more complex than “our products are the best in the market.” A brand also has to commit to publishing findings that aren’t ideal for their image—they’re not just collecting data for an advertisement or a press release. Most importantly, the reasoning behind launching a study must be to help and inform a brand’s target audience.

OKCupid, a dating site that has a bit of a nerdy reputation, runs a fantastic data viz blog which, in its own words, reflects “on dating culture, told through data, stories and humor.” A recent finding from OKCupid’s partnership study with Rosetta Stone is that millennials are far more likely to want to date someone from another country than older generations.

There are findings specific to OKCupid’s product, of course, like using site data to choose your most effective profile picture, but blog posts like that are rare. Most focus on more high-level industry topics, enhancing the OKCupid brand and staking out a unique spot in the online dating industry. The company’s findings are legitimate because the studies are described in detail, but also because they’ve made a love for data analysis a part of their brand.

okcupid profile picture

OKCupid Data Blog findings

In a similar vein, the free pornography streaming site PornHub has gained a ton of great press with its data visualization blog Pornhub Insights (link SFW). The site’s team gathers anonymous user data and groups it into interesting subsections that speaks to users’ private proclivities. They’ve written blog posts on the rise of certain search terms, and they’ve even partnered with independent magazines who ask the Pornhub Insights team to answer specific questions. For instance, when women go to the website, what do they tend to watch? When adult actress Stormy Daniels went public with her story about President Donald Trump, how much did that affect her popularity on Pornhub?

The blog has also published data on pornography viewing habits in countries all over the world, including North Korea, and they’ve even launched a philanthropic arm called Pornhub Cares. There’s never any discussion comparing their site or services to their competitors, but every new piece of content drives home the idea that Pornhub takes data seriously.

What if my brand’s offerings aren’t as flashy?

In some ways, you have to treat a branded study the same way you’d treat any other piece of content. It has to be created with your audience’s questions in mind, and it has to frame any inside-baseball, jargon-riddled concepts into a story that’s palatable to laymen. Your findings also need to be presented in a visual language that’s interesting, or even interactive, if possible.

Take Adobe’s study on creativity. You can draw a tentative line between the Adobe software suite and the concept of human creativity, especially as it relates to digital design, and the results of the survey are still interesting to a group larger than Adobe’s customer base. The brand did not conduct a study on the intricate workings of design software UX—though that’s certainly interesting to a big subset of professionals, the net it casts onto the internet could be wider.

Adobe’s study focuses on professional creatives and how they see industries changing. The company enlisted Pfeiffer Consulting to keep everything above board. Both companies asked creative professionals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany questions about the rise of AI in design, robotic assistants, machine learning, and the forms of creative work they like to do. Though the data visualization easily could have found itself in the weeds, it succeeded by focusing on human reactions to technology.

Brainstorm an interesting angle for your study before you design your survey questions so your findings do the same. Your questions don’t have to be leading, but they should be evocative. Again, take Adobe for example. They didn’t ask for an essay in response to, “How do you feel about AI?” Instead, they gauged users’ to specific hypotheticals, like an AI-powered creative assistant. The more specific your questions, especially if you’re a brand promoting complicated services, the more interesting your findings will be.

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