April 29, 2024 #ContentChat Recap: Why Primary Research is a Great Content Marketing Investment

A Content Chat header image featuring an array of flowers behind a text overlay that says today’s topic is why primary research is a great content marketing investment, with guest Diane Burley.

“Look at your industry from the outside in instead of from the inside out. It shifts your perspective. And it allows you to think differently. If you are coming up with a new product and it’s going to be successful, something else is going to give. What is that something? And, what would be the behaviors out there that would make people fatigued with it? You’re building a case, and you’re asking the questions that are going to help build that case.”—Diane Burley

In this #ContentChat recap, Erika Heald is joined by Diane Burley, fractional chief content officer and co-author of The Content Entrepreneur, to explore why proprietary research is a great content marketing investment and how research can fuel your content (and business) strategy.  

Watch the entire conversation on YouTube or read through the highlights below.

Q1: What are the business benefits of commissioning research? Does this vary for B2B and B2C organizations?

[Editor’s note: Diane focuses on primary research about an industry or market, not product marketing research about buyer needs.]

“I want to make this distinction between product marketing research and primary research that’s about the industry. One, you’re trying to understand more about who your buyer is and what periodicals they might be reading. We call it the persona. That’s great, you have to do that. Primary industry research is different. It’s looking at the industry as a whole and how does your product fit into that ecosystem.”—Diane Burley 

Primary research can be highly valuable to the media (with the right planning). 

“With a high-tech company, and I’ve typically been with smaller brands looking to make a mark out there, they’d say, ‘We’ll have a PR firm say how great our product is.’ But that’s not quite how it works. What if we want to try a different approach to working with and earning the media wanting to cover us? Let’s go out there with some primary research where we know the industry.”—Diane Burley

Primary research empowers you with a holistic look at your industry, where you fit in, and how you stand out. This enables you to craft more compelling brand messages and better appeal to investors and customers.  

“And if your market is truly new and innovative, it’s going to create disruptions. How do these pieces fit in with the daily workflows that people are already experiencing? How can it be different? Why should it be different? You really have to take this macro view of the universe and try and get people to think outside the box.”—Diane Burley

“[With industry research informing] your message, you understand the industry flow a lot better. And there’s so many benefits from that. It’s not just that the media’s interested, but your investors are interested because you are speaking differently to them. You’re speaking in this broader sense of how you fit in; it’s not just a bunch of adjectives that every other tech competitor is using. Your customers appreciate it. Your partners appreciate it.”—Diane Burley

B2B companies, in general, create more content around their research. 

“The biggest difference I see between how B2B companies and B2C companies use [research]: A B2B company is a lot more likely to create a customer-facing ebook or other pieces of content that are very directly [about] the research results and what it means for you and your business. On the B2C side, the proprietary research does still get used in things like advertising and social here and there, but it seems like it’s more likely to be trickled out one message by one message.”—Erika Heald

Research provides a strong foundation for thought leadership activities

“That’s one of the things that started my company, The Quotable Leader. The idea behind it is all these companies want to have a thought leader. Somebody within your staff that goes out there and can talk to the industry. But what are they talking about? If they have nothing to talk about that’s new, why should they be asked to speak at a conference? Why should they be quoted? Why should the media want to ask your company questions?”—Diane Burley

“There’s another audience member out there. And that’s Google. Google is looking for this experience and expertise, and it’s really hard to show you’re experienced and have expertise if you’re not quoting yourself.”—Diane Burley

And it can help measure your internal success.

“Andy Crestodina annually does this blogger survey. When you’re trying to justify internally why you need to do something, I’d pull up Andy’s stats and say, ‘Benchmark us against what his findings are.’ And that always helped with internal. I’m certain that primary research can also be positioned as you’re helping your customers figure out these baselines and benchmarks. This is what others are doing, maybe we should be doing the same thing.”—Diane Burley

“One of the things Andy does so well with his blog survey is that when he solicits us, he says if you participate, I’ll send you the industry report.”—Diane Burley

Q2: What is the importance of a point of view when commissioning primary research? 

Every question you ask when conducting research should build on your key theme or story. 

“As journalists, we’re always taught to not have an opinion. And that’s great. But if you put together a piece of research that you don’t have a perspective on—you don’t have an assumption to be proven or disproven, you just have a bunch of questions together—it’s going to be really hard to have anything to say about it.”—Erika Heald

“You want to have a frame of reference, but you don’t want to lead. I think we see it now in consumer polls, especially political polling. They say, ‘How can it be? How can this result be when there’s this other narrative going on?’ It is very easy to ask a question in such a way that you’re going to get the answer you want, instead of taking a true pulse of what’s happening.”—Diane Burley

Research partners and survey companies can help keep questions fair.

“When we do our industry polls, I’ve worked with some really great surveyors. And they keep you honest. They tell you: This is not a question. You’re being too introspective here. You want to go broader. Of course, you are the product marketing team that wants to get your product marketing questions in there, but you really want to broaden it as much as you can.”—Diane Burley

Be ready to dig into the data to find your story if the research results differ from your original point of view. 

“Now, it didn’t always work. We did a consumer report. We interviewed 4,000 consumers who shop and work with computers, because we were trying to get information about the working public, as well as shoppers and their feelings about customer service. This shopping angle was just a nightmare. There was literally nothing new. We did it year-over-year, and there was nothing.”—Diane Burley

“[My colleague] taught me about cross-tabulations. Narrow the cohorts. See if there’s a pattern or an emerging pattern from a younger generation, or from a different demographic. That’s where the story was. We saw two things. Generation X was coming into their own. Boomers are retiring, Generation X is now taking the lead. What are the presumptions that Generation X have?”—Diane Burley

Q3: What does primary research involve? Is audience surveying always an element? 

Audience research is powerful for content marketing and media relations. 

“Audience research is the best. It gives you the most options.”—Diane Burley

You can conduct secondary research if needed because of budget, however, it will likely not yield the same media results. 

“You can be taking somebody else’s research and doing an analysis of it, but that’s not really primary research. That’s secondary research, where you’re overlaying your analysis on someone else’s data.”—Diane Burley

“There are people that will publish a report aggregating U.S. Labor Department data and saying, ‘We spotted this trend that nobody’s talked about.’ That’s interesting, but that’s not proprietary research. And you don’t own it. And quite frankly, you may not even get credit when people write about it, because it wasn’t your data.”—Erika Heald

Research firms can guide you through the research process.

“I use research firms. I don’t conduct them myself. I help the client frame the questions they want to ask. We work closely with PR firms to see if this is what the media is interested in.”—Diane Burley

Any large customer or community gathering is a perfect opportunity to conduct research. 

“If you’re having a user conference and you have 1,000 people there, this is a great opportunity to reach out and ask people. All you have to do is be transparent. ‘We asked 500 people at our user conference about this question, and this was the answer.’”—Diane Burley

“You have a lot of options at your disposal that don’t entail you going out and paying massive amounts of money. If you’re attending a conference, you might be able to work a sponsorship with the conference lead. Can I put out this survey at your conference? Is this something you’ll allow me to do?”—Diane Burley

Q4: How can an organization identify relevant primary research topics? 

Listen to your customers and their questions for potential research topics.

“It can be easy when you have customers coming to you with questions that you can’t answer, and you are like, ‘That would make a great research topic!’ Or you’re having those questions by the media where they’re like, ‘Do you have any data to back that up?’”—Erika Heald 

Collaborate with sales engineers to learn what questions customers ask them.

“The sales engineers get asked phenomenal questions. Find out the questions they’re being asked. What are the RFPs coming in? What are people looking for?—and hijack them. Why are they looking for this? What did they think they were looking for this? Especially if your product doesn’t do that.”—Diane Burley

Venture capital firms can suggest valuable research ideas.

“Your VC firms are another great source because they’re always asking those questions. And they’ve got it from that meta, they’re looking out there looking at the whole universe. And they’re asking the same question. Why should I invest in this company? How is it going to disrupt?”—Diane Burley

Q5: What are the steps to take when commissioning primary research? 

Set a goal for your research campaign. A large sample size is essential for driving media coverage.

“If you want to be quoted by the media, you want to have it statistically sound. That number changes. If it’s a very narrow cohort—it’s very hard to get a CIO—100 CIOs and you’ve got a really robust survey of a certain size company, etc. The more narrow you are, the less the number can be. If you’re going out with a broader survey, you’re looking at 500/600. If you’re looking at a consumer survey, you’re in the thousands.”—Diane Burley

Decide if you want to conduct quantitative research, qualitative research, or both.

“Qualitative research is hard, but not impossible. Those are when you’re doing personal interviews, but there are also other ways you can do qualitative research where you put ranges together and get people’s feelings for things. Are you less likely? More likely? How do you feel? Make people make a choice. You’re either very, sort of, sort of not, or very not. It’s a better way to know whether it skews positive or negative.”—Diane Burley

Speak with research firms to learn about their capabilities and research approaches. Understand the limitations that may come with research firms owned by media companies. 

“I would look for a research firm. [#ContentChat community members] can call me, and I can give them the names of the folks we work with. There are some really excellent ones in the high-tech industry, there are some consumer researchers I’ve worked with.”—Diane Burley

“A lot of media companies can also offer that service. The thing is, other media companies aren’t necessarily going to want to cite their data. So, be a little bit careful when doing something with a media company. It’s not a bad way to approach it. It’s usually fairly cost-effective, and you will create those data points. But it’s not likely you’ll be able to get other media company media outlets to cite your data.”—Diane Burley

“Don’t be afraid if you are considering working with a company, ask them to give you some examples of the publicly available outcomes from doing the research. Sure, there is confidentiality, and there are some things they can’t share with you. But if it was something that was shared publicly by the company that they were contracted with, then they can share it with you.”—Erika Heald

Ask each prospective research partner about how much support they provide with dissecting the data. 

“How willing are they to help you with the cross tabs. They’ll present the data to you based on the results they got. But if you’re seeing a pattern in there, they would graciously give me new pie charts with this narrowed data.”—Diane Burley

“I’ve also worked with companies where they didn’t do the cross tabs, they didn’t identify the demographics. Now it’s one of the things I always make sure it’s written in, that you’ll provide us a cross-tabulation against the demographic data and what other information we need to know.”—Diane Burley

Prepare qualifying questions to weed out irrelevant respondents.

“We also did qualifying questions. When we were doing something on enterprise search, we used the Gartner definition of enterprise search, because some of these terms are murky. It’s like, what’s a CRM? When you’re talking about something specific or a certain size market, you might want to have that dictionary definition. Do you agree with this term? And you can pre-qualify your respondents that way.”—Diane Burley

Consider partnering with another company or organization, but be clear about the roles and rights of each partner. 

“Another thing you can do is do it in conjunction with a partner. Sometimes there are big companies, research companies backed by academia, or a link to academia. Who controls the questions? Do they, or do you? If it’s their brand, chances are they’re going to want to do it their way. Look at those research reports. Is this something you want to go out with? Is it dense and scholastic and academic versus something that’s more accessible? Does it meet your brand tone? You want to do that research as well to see.”—Diane Burley

“Or is it more important to get their logo on research that also has your logo? What’s going to get your foot in the door for a sales call?”—Erika Heald

“You have to look at it like a partnership. Whoever you’re doing it with, it’s got to be a partner. When you start getting other people involved, you’ve got to compromise. What is it you’re compromising? Now you’re on the coattails of somebody else, and you want to marry your logo to them? Then that’s a great opportunity.”—Diane Burley

Q6: What pitfalls do content marketing teams often face when fielding and activating their research? 

Listen to the data. Don’t force a narrative if it doesn’t exist.

“You don’t go to the doctor and have all these diagnostics done to tell them what you want the results to be. Let the researchers pull the data. Start to see the story. If your company is way amiss from that, [such as] misalignment with the industry, that’s an issue. I guess at that point you can decide whether you’re gonna polish up your resume and ditch.”—Diane Burley

“Most people are thinking in terms of what is the industry saying, how can we better position ourselves in this pool. It’s your job, if you’re commissioning or running this project, to be able to say we’re gonna get an objective viewpoint. It might not be what we think, are we going to be OK with that? And start preparing them for what these answers might be. And position it, too, that it’s an opportunity to test a message or tack a message or whatever we need to do.”—Diane Burley

You don’t need a large marketing team to commission research. 

“I think for startup companies with very limited budgets, primary research might be a very great go to market strategy. Just do that industry report. You may not have even hired a CMO or have a marketing person on board. Get that original research. You’re going to be able to put it out and push it out to the media. Show the VC and say this is what we found, this is how our message aligns with our findings. You’re going to be able to do derivative blogs from it. You’ve got the lead gen ebook. You’ve got an entire program that you can now do for under six figures, without any other senior management yet.”—Diane Burley

Q7: How should content marketers prepare to launch or announce their research? 

A press release or blog post is the bare minimum to announce your findings. 

“Especially in a younger company, if they don’t have a CMO or an experienced content leader, the temptation can be to just publish the findings and maybe send out a press release, and then wait for something to happen. And as we know, waiting for something to happen is a great way to grow gray hair.”—Erika Heald

“I’ve got an agency that I work with, and I can do a one-off press release and pitch. The press release really should have the headline findings.”—Diane Burley

Prepare multiple content assets (which can include multiple press releases or blog posts) to showcase the many relevant angles for distinct audiences. 

“News outlets have their audience. And if they don’t have something to tell their audience, they’re going to fail. It won’t be relevant to their audience. You have to look through your media readers. That’s who you’re writing the headline for.”—Diane Burley

“It might mean multiple press releases. Nobody likes that idea, but you might have to do it. Especially if there are different cohorts or different verticals.”—Diane Burley

“We were able to get three industry reports. Meant three different press releases, and the PR team was pitching the different editors in different ways. The proof was in the pudding when we got the results back and you could see different media pick up the different headlines. Everybody had a different way of saying what was important to their readership.”—Diane Burley

“Too often, you will see PR teams say we don’t have time to do three different press releases. I’m sorry, but in this day and age, if you have three well-defined personas and you have a computer, you can have AI help you version that press release for the two other audiences, and you can edit it. It makes so much of a difference. If you’re speaking to the audience that the reporter you’re talking to serves, then they’re going to bite. But if you’re just speaking to a general boring audience and the pitch does not resonate with them immediately, they’re not going to open that email.”—Erika Heald

Make the data easy to digest and fun to read. Create derivative content to help your sales and other customer-facing teams.  

“We also made the industry reports fun. They were colorful, they were accessible, they were things you could read quickly—almost like a Slideshare or quick PowerPoint. Pie charts or bar charts and an analysis, and then sometimes we’d have our point of view on it as well. Then, we put that deck together, and we gave it to our inside salespeople as a sales enablement tool. They used it as part of their emails out to folks.”—Diane Burley

Research your competitors’ content and other survey reports to see how they announce their findings. 

Q8: What are the biggest content opportunities to amplify your research findings? 

Create content for each channel to promote your data and explore your point of view.

“If you’re writing an industry report, it has to have a point of view. You’re either going to agree with the conventional wisdom out there—but if it’s really interesting, it goes against the grain because you’re looking for a new point of view. A new point of view might be like the story I was telling you before, about the idea that you have this younger cohort that’s coming up and they’re not liking things. This is putting pressure on senior managers to do something different. It’s both pressure and opportunity to look in terms of the user interface and looking at employee satisfaction.”—Diane Burley

“There may be a couple points that don’t fit in explicitly, but they’re still interesting. So you put them in there. Maybe you shove them in the back, it doesn’t really matter. That’s the ‘Other Findings.’ But there’s a narrative, and that narrative is usually on your front cover.”—Diane Burley

Ask open-ended questions to get valuable quotes and additional perspectives. 

“Have at least one of those open-ended, qualitative places where you ask people if there is anything else they want to share on this topic. You’ll frequently get something really interesting that you can quote anonymously.”—Erika Heald

“You can also have a little box that people can check that says you can reach out to them to learn more about why they answered things the way they did. Then, when you’re doing that cross-tabulation and you find something interesting, you find who said you can contact them, and you can ask that follow-up question. And then that becomes this really powerful quote that you can put into your research because it gives insight into why that happened with that cohort.”—Erika Heald

Q9: What examples can you share of great proprietary research projects with an exceptional content marketing element? 

Diane recommends Dimensional Research and Arlington as possible research partners. 

Erika admires CMI’s and Salesforce’s approaches to using research in content marketing. 

“I always use Content Marketing Institute as a great example of having really robust use in content marketing around all of the research that they do with MarketingProfs.”—Erika Heald 

“I also always mention Salesforce, and I have to disclaim that I was actually paid to do a lot of derivative content based on their research findings. And they are a machine when it comes to taking research and the different audiences it pertains to, slicing and dicing it, and creating amazing content.”—Erika Heald

Q10: What are good types of research for B2B companies?

Qualitative surveys provide emotional feedback.

“Phone surveys, qualitative surveys, where you’re talking to people, getting feedback from one another.”—Diane Burley 

“Focus groups is another one, although I think they’re few and far between compared to consumer [marketing]. Then one-to-one interviews, small cohort.”—Diane Burley

Observe how customers interact with your product or service.

“Ethnography is really important when you’re looking at user interfaces. This is where you’re observing people. How are they with their workflow? What are they doing? A lot of user experiences, people will look at ethnography.”—Diane Burley

B2B companies can look to B2C research for inspiration. 

“It changes by subject matter, by audience you’re talking to. But a lot of the research mechanisms you might have learned in school or can do in consumer can also be done in B2B.”—Diane Burley

Commission research with recurring and topical questions to maximize your likelihood of success. 

“One of my longest-running proprietary research projects I was part of was we had a technology client that did a CFO index every quarter. A mix of the questions would stay the same so we could get that trending over time, and then they would take some of the things they saw bubbling up in media coverage for their industry. They’d add in some of those, and they would get tremendous media pickup because they became this trusted source for this very specific data set that nobody else had.”—Erika Heald

“When you have the opportunity to do media calls, ask them. What is one stat you wish you had? And if it’s in your power to add that thing to your proprietary research, you end up with a best friend.”—Erika Heald

Looking for more resources about how to commission primary research for marketing?

Read through this #ContentChat recap to learn how to write survey questions for marketing research, and check out this blog post about 11 smart data sources to strengthen your content creation

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