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The Secret to Surveys and Research: Gathering and Using Proprietary Data in Marketing

Posted by Andrea Meyer on Oct 21, 2020

In the world of journalism, there are few stories more coveted than the exclusive. The more often a publication can scoop its rivals and provide readers with information that can’t be found anywhere else, the more interest and loyalty they will generate from their audience.

This same phenomenon applies to content marketing, whose aim is to draw readers to your brand by providing them with valuable, actionable information and advice. If you can provide insight that your competitors cannot, you’ve got a meaningful competitive advantage!

Often, marketers obtain this kind of proprietary information by conducting a survey, which can be a powerful marketing and media relations asset, but only if well planned and executed. So, here are some guidelines to help your organization get the most out of your investments in surveys — because they’re not cheap and they're also not without risk.

Determine your goal

If you’re going to do a survey right, it’s going to require a significant investment, likely in the five-figure range, so before you start writing questions and talking with market research firms, make sure you know what you hope to accomplish. Do you want to position your company as an expert on a particular issue? Frame your product or solution as the ideal remedy to a big problem? Demonstrate the harm caused by an under appreciated issue?

Also, make sure the survey serves multiple purposes. For instance, surveys are often commissioned to provide an asset for the media relations team, and for good reason. So long as the results are strong, they’re powerful tools for securing earned media. But the media are fickle, and even if your findings are compelling, who knows what massive news event might occur on launch day, completely swamping the coverage you might have otherwise secured?

Survey findings can provide content for analyst-style reports, white papers, infographics, and social media cards. They can arm the salesforce with collateral that makes claims backed up by hard data. Some enterprise tech organizations rely on annual or quarterly research to power their most successful lead generation campaigns.

Additionally, don’t discount the ability of a solid survey to provide your own team with significant insights. You can learn a ton about your customers and the issues they’re facing, which can help your company make better decisions about product direction, messaging, and sales tactics.

With smart planning, hard work, and a bit of luck, you could find that your report becomes the industry standard for current data on your chosen topic. For example, the annual Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report has become the de facto source of annual data on cyberattacks, and it’s a great example of how a company can use survey research to establish itself as a big player in a new market. Before the first report came out, Verizon wasn’t often thought of as a security company. Today, thanks to the annual report, Verizon’s name is ubiquitous in cybersecurity conversations across the Internet. 

Find a strong topic

Ideally, you will find a topic that has all the following qualities:

  • Related to your product or service: It doesn’t have to directly make the case for your product or service, but it should provide insight into some aspect of your target market’s challenges. For example, if you provide disaster recovery-as-a-service (DRaaS), you might look into the top challenges organizations face when attempting to restore business operations or how often IT conducts DR testing.

    Don’t just pick a topic because it’s hot. If your company provides HR software, conducting a survey on the Internet of Things won’t do much for your business.
  • Provides provocative or counterintuitive findings: There’s no way to know for sure that your line of inquiry will unearth something surprising, but talking with sales, customers and even outside experts about their experiences can provide anecdotal evidence you can use to determine what’s most likely to give you findings that will turn heads.
  • Examines an issue that hasn’t received much attention: All too often, B2B technology companies choose the topic that’s most relevant to their solution without first researching whether other organizations have already looked into it. Backup vendors, for example, put out two or three surveys each month on the cost of downtime or average recovery time objectives (RTOs) and recovery point objectives (RPOs). There’s so much information already available about these topics, few pay attention to new studies.

Work with a professional

Certainly, you can write your own questions and use a service like SurveyMonkey to query a list of your customers and prospects. In some cases, that might be sufficient for your needs. Understand, however, that fielding the survey yourself won’t be as credible to readers — or to journalists — as one that was fielded by professional market research firms. The cost is obviously much higher than it would be to do it on your own, but the results will, on average,  be much stronger, assuming you get good findings.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A list of appropriate contacts: Many organizations rent lists of specific titles and industries, which is recommended. You can use your own internal prospect list, but you’ll introduce selection bias because these are most likely people who have already shown at least some interest in your solutions.

    Plus, the list will need to be large. If you’re doing a survey of specific organizational titles — CTOs, IT decision-makers, network admins, etc. — you’ll want to shoot for at least 300 responses, the more the better. And given that a typical response rate will be around 10%, you’ll need a list of at least 3,000 names. If you’re going after consumers, which is a much larger pool of people, you’ll need closer to 1,000 responses, but these general-purpose lists are much easier to obtain. 
  • Write good questions in an unbiased manner: Writing survey questions is tricky. Not only can the wording of the question influence responses, but so can the order of questions. We could write an entire post about how to write good survey questions, but, thankfully, there are plenty of resources on the Internet to help you out. 
  • Field the survey: These days, most surveys are conducted online rather than via telephone, and there are plenty of good platforms available. We recommend including some kind of incentives, such as a Starbucks gift card for the first 200 respondents or a larger prize that’s given to one lucky participant. 
  • Analyze the results and write the report: Don’t forget about comparing cross tabs! If you’ve got enough respondents, these “hidden” results that show differences in subgroup behavior (i.e. “women over 50” or “IT directors from small companies”) can provide some of the most interesting results.

This is just a bare-bones list of what’s required, and, as you can see, it requires a lot of time, effort, and expertise. And while you may save money doing it yourself, you’ll likely get better results and more credibility with readers if you partner with a credible research organization. Surveys are powerful marketing tools, and they can produce marketing and PR assets that not only perform well but can still generate interest months or years later. 

Want to learn more about how surveys can power your own marketing activities. Get in touch!

Topics: Marketing Automation, Inbound Marketing & Lead Generation

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