By Colleen Jones published December 1, 2013

How Surveys Can Help You Create More Effective Content Marketing

man in suit behind lightbulb sketchIf you want to assess your success at producing effective content marketing, you need useful, actionable feedback about it. That means you need to know what people think about your content. Surveys are an invaluable way to find out.

But wait.” You might be thinking. “Isn’t behavior data enough? Shouldn’t I care more about what people do than what they think?

No, and no. Let’s explore why, and what to do about it.

Why content marketers need more than just behavior data

Behavior data — data about what people do — can be measured in terms of website analytics and marketing automation analytics. It’s how many people viewed your video, how many people opened your email, how often your article was shared, and much more. This kind of data is essential, but there are limitations in what insights it can provide. For example, behavior data are often constrained in telling you:

  • Who exactly is using or viewing your content
  • How people perceive your content and your brand
  • What people expected from your content, and whether it met (or exceeded) their expectations
  • What people intended to do when visiting or using your content
  • Decisions people made as a result of engaging with your content
  • Offline behaviors people took as a result of your content

For example, one client team recently shared their frustration with me that 10 percent of their videos were driving 90 percent of their video traffic (an insight they gained based on behavior data). Why was the client frustrated? Because the data could not give them any clue as to why those particular videos succeeded, or what to do about it. As you can see, this behavior insight alone is limited in usefulness, and is not particularly actionable.

So, if you want a complete picture of your content’s effectiveness for branding and marketing, you need to know what people think about — and as a result of — your content. This is where surveys can help.

What surveys measure: Myth vs. fact

In our data-inundated culture, I sometimes joke that, “everybody’s a researcher.” Many people, from marketers to user experience professionals, know at least something about research. While I’m happy to see the widespread awareness, sometimes I find myths persist and cloud the public’s perception of research’s value.

For example, one myth I often encounter about a survey is that it’s a qualitative methodology without much statistical power and, consequently, the resulting data is inferior to behavioral data. The truth? Surveying is a strong quantitative methodology when used correctly. (See my three tips at the end of this article.)

Another myth I encounter is survey data isn’t trustworthy because what people say is often different from, or conflicts with, what they do. If you ask people in a survey what they would do and then observe what they actually do, then you might see conflict. But, an effective survey shouldn’t try to measure future behavior; rather, it should measure characteristics, perceptions, preferences, and possibly reports of current and past behavior. Specifically for content marketing, surveys can measure:

  • Roles, demographics, and preferences of your users or audience (audience analysis)
  • Perceptions, expectations, and impressions of your content and your brand
  • Impact of your content on decision making
  • Impact of your content on offline behavior when no other method to understand offline behavior is available

When you focus a survey on what it measures best, then you collect data that complements — not conflicts with — your behavior data.

When and where to use surveys

Surveys have many potential uses and are easier to implement than ever. But, it’s important to use them wisely so you don’t waste your time and resources or frustrate your customers with unnecessary questions. To create effective content marketing, I find surveys are most useful for evaluating and refining content in your core marketing funnel or buying process, such as:

  • Blogs or digital magazines
  • Product or service content, such as white papers, descriptions, comparisons, and demonstrations
  • Email newsletters or drip email campaigns

If you’re like most content marketers, then you’ll want to ensure your content is supporting your three “Rs”: reach, reputation, and results. Surveys give you insight into broad questions like these:

Reach: Is my content attracting the right potential customers? As a simple example, if you start a digital magazine about technology for mid-sized businesses, you would want to know whether the people receiving your content work for mid-sized businesses, and what roles they play.
Reputation: Is my content positioning my brand in the way I intend? You can survey potential customers to find out:

  • Do they see your brand differently than your competition, or in a more positive way? Continuing with the digital magazine example, you would want to know whether mid-sized businesses now see your brand as an expert or trusted advisor in relevant technology issues as a result of consuming your content.
  • Do they see your content as a trusted resource for useful information, rather than just brand-focused propaganda?

Results: Is my content influencing the decisions people make? Surveys can reveal if potential customers:

  • Find the content easy to understand or comprehend
  • Find the content compelling
  • Rely on the content to inform their decisions in each stage of the marketing funnel? For example, you might want to know whether your digital magazine influences mid-sized businesses to consider their lack of business intelligence capabilities as a problem to solve.

You might have more specific goals for reach, reputation, and results that can drive the specific questions you ask in a survey. But, now that you have a sense of when and where surveys will work best for content marketing, let’s cover some tips to implement them.

3 tips for more sophisticated surveying

Assuming you’re familiar with some survey foundations (if not, basic survey tools offer good training in the essentials), I’d like to share three tips to make your surveys work well for content marketing. 

1. Don’t ask people what they would or will do: If you ask questions about what people would or will do, you won’t get reliable answers. Asking someone whether they will buy a product and someone actually buying it are two different things. Instead, ask people what they did, what they decided, or what they planned.

Even though questions starting with “Would you recommend…” are popular, I’m not crazy about their reliability. Instead, I prefer the question, “Did you recommend…” It’s easy to say you would do something; it takes more effort and commitment to actually do it. 

2. Don’t ask lots of open-ended questions: To ensure your survey gives you quantitative data, stick to closed questions, such as multiple choice or matching questions, where you can set some parameters for response. For example, instead of asking “What do you think of our digital magazine?” ask questions such as “Which statement most closely matches your impression of our digital magazine?” and provide answer options.

Another benefit of closed questions? Your results are structured, so your analysis is fast. That means you or your analysts don’t have to spend hours sorting through reams of open-ended comments. And that means you get useful insights quickly. Quick analysis also makes doing surveys achievable on a more regular basis. These benefits multiply if you’re dealing with a large company or multiple brands.

For example, I recently talked with a content strategist at a multibrand enterprise that collects enormous amounts of open-ended subjective feedback about its websites, including its content. She was frustrated because distilling the piles of unstructured feedback into useful insight has to be a lengthy one-off project for the analytics team — as if the analytics team is not already slammed. With open-ended questions, the content strategist could not count on gaining useful feedback about content on a regular basis. 

3. Don’t invite people to the survey at the wrong time: People will be more likely to complete your survey — and to answer thoughtfully — if you invite them to the survey at an opportune moment. For website content, try not to invite people to a survey before they have had an ample opportunity to consume the content. For email newsletters and email drip campaigns, occasionally inviting people who have opened the emails to a survey can work well.

Another benefit of surveying at the right time? You show potential customers how much you care about content, and this can help you strengthen your positioning as a trusted source of content. 

So, the next time you want to get useful, actionable feedback about your content, use your survey savvy to find out what people think. The results will complement your data about what people do so you can refine your content marketing strategy.

Looking for more inspiration on delivering compelling social media content? Read CMI’s Content Marketing Playbook: 24 Epic Ideas for Connecting with Your Customers.

Cover image via Bigstock 

Author: Colleen Jones

Colleen is the author of Clout (New Riders) and the principal of Content Science, a boutique consulting firm in Atlanta, GA. As a pioneer of user experience and content strategy, Colleen has guided or supported strategic initiatives for a wide range of organizations including Equifax, InterContinental Hotels Group, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Cingular Wireless (now AT&T). Her upcoming eBook, "Does Your Content Work?" will be released in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @leenjones.

Other posts by Colleen Jones

  • ronellsmith

    Colleen,

    First, I really enjoy your work. (I used to live in GA, outside Atlanta.)

    As a journalist and researcher for more than a decade, I was always frustrated that readers, editors and stakeholders cared more about the what than the why. Now, as a content strategist, that frustration is magnified.

    Everywhere, it seems, content marketers are obsessed with data, behavior–the what. It’s rare that we hear marketers conceding that data does not provide the full picture, that we must look beyond numbers, page views and such.

    To provide the depth and breadth we desire to the content we create and promote, we must explore the why, and “talking” to prospects and customers is an excellent step in that direction. As Kristina Halvorson says, “Audience research isn’t just nice to have; It’s necessary.”

    Having spent most of my professional life in either a lab, a newsroom or as a magazine editor, I know those words to be true.

    In point of fact, a recent survey conducted on behalf of a client yielded information we would never been able to access from data alone.

    Thanks for sharing your insight with us, Colleen.

    RS

  • saboka38

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  • Bronster

    What a great article…I am a market research company with a content marketing focus and honestly could not have said this better myself! Very well written.

  • http://www.docalytics.com/ Steve Peck

    Agree 100% that audience surveys are an underutilized content marketing science and think you’ve done a great job in outlining many of the key points highlighting the importance of this in practice.

    One area I think you’ve missed is finding ways to capture actionable insights, not as a follow up to specific content, but within the content itself. Readers like to share their perspectives (hence this comment) and while most don’t comment, the majority would be more than willing to answer a concise poll question as they read or after reading.

    What are your thoughts on surveying WITHIN the content and any recommendations on the best approach for this type of data capture?

  • leenjones

    Bronster, thanks for the kudos. Your talents as a market researcher definitely apply to content!

    Ronell, I wish we had connected while you were in GA! You are too kind, and I appreciate your articulate account of the drawbacks to focusing only on behavioral data. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Steve, I agree asking for feedback within content itself is a useful technique. I find it especially handy for qualitative feedback. You usually can’t get enough response for it to scale to a quantitative level. But, that doesn’t mean the feedback isn’t useful, as you suggest. Comments, ratings, and polls within content are the techniques I find to be the most “tried and true.” What techniques do you find effective?

  • http://geekfree.net/ Aaron

    Which survey tool(s) do you recommend?

  • http://www.gahe.co/ Gahe

    Very useful and supportive article. I wish I can do all of that in a short period of time.

  • mokesa39

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  • http://writtent.com/ Sergey Shevtsov

    I guess it goes without saying that behavior data and survey are of the best efficiency while applied together. In this way you get all the information possible. You cannot ignore surveys, anyway. The key purpose of marketing is to get the idea of what your customers THINK, because only in this case you can start working on improving your services and products. And a great tool of how to receive this idea is survey, especially with the help of these awesome tips you’ve mentioned. I will keep those in mind, thanks a lot!

    • leenjones

      Sergey, I agree–it’s the combination of behavior data and survey data that is so powerful for understanding whether your content is meeting marketing objectives. Great point.

  • Spook SEO

    The only downside with using surveys is that they are a bit too
    time-consuming for those who want to answer it. Sometimes, you do not even get
    the most natural answers that you want to get. It is feasible but if there are
    ways to make it easier for everyone, then, the better.