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How to Conduct Research to Engage Executives

conduct research to engage executives, CMIIn my recent article Creating Content that Connects with the C-Suite, I talked about the importance of data in creating content that impresses executives. Executives value data, and companies have responded by conducting surveys. But, this “research” often falls short because it is not at the level needed for this audience. If you are creating research for executive clients and prospects, there are several elements to consider.

1. Give the “story,” not just the answers

With executives, it is particularly valuable to do more than simply report the facts and instead uncover insights that underlie the facts and outcomes. Many companies rely on online surveys to learn from prospects and customers. They ask questions that are quick and easy but only scratch the surface; or they ask lengthy questions that require concentration and determination to muscle through. Don’t get me wrong — online surveys can be useful in many situations, but you’ll have a hard time getting to deep insights from senior executives with this approach.

The challenge is getting to the story behind the answers. Companies that take their executive research seriously use the interview method, whether by phone or in person, and walk together through the questions, clarifying and following up on the answers.

Example: IBM conducts well-regarded C-suite research with thousands of CEOs, CMOs, CIOs and others to uncover industry trends, business issues and challenges that matter to that audience. This research is conducted by in-person, one-hour interviews. The researchers have the opportunity to gather enough quantitative insights to have data-driven evidence, and then capture examples and unusual stories that help the researchers analyze and understand the data, and reinforce the findings in white papers and other output.


IBM ceo study, conduct research to engage executives, CMI

2. Hear it from peers

Above all else, senior executives value the insights of their peers. A CIO would rather learn from the opinions of five CIO-peers than a survey canvassing 5,000 individuals who have little in common with them. Make sure you get the right audience to talk to — one with similar challenges, roles, and experience — to gain executive attention for your research results. 

Example:  The Center for CIO Leadership, an online executive community of more than 3,000 CIOs, produces insight papers based on interviews with eight to 10 leading CIOs from the community. The papers focus on an important business challenge facing CIOs in their role as business leaders and uncover insights on pain points, opportunities, actions and best practices to bring advantage to the business.  The papers are among the most downloaded elements on the site and considered high-value by members because of their peer advice and focus on opportunities for leadership.

c-suite, conduct research to engage executives, CMI

3. Building the case: Sample size matters … somewhat

Your next challenge: determining the right number of people to interview. One school of thought sees value in volume — the more executives you interview, the more credible the results. Another school of thought focuses on the value of depth, where a few executives provide all the insight necessary for impact.

Depending on your objectives and goals, both have a place. The IBM C-Suite studies mentioned gain respect from the peer nature of the research and the high quality of the analysis and the insights. They get attention in the first place because they interview 1,700-plus executives per study. On the other hand, a number of the well-regarded McKinsey research-driven publications referenced in my last column are based on talking to a handful of executives.

4. Choose your research methods wisely

A related question to sample size is whether the research should be quantitative or qualitative. Consider what you are trying to communicate to your executive audience, and then figure out your best research approach.

Quantitative research:

  • Quantitative research seeks to assess trends, prove cause-and-effect relationships, track bottom-line impacts, and test hypotheses through close-ended surveys, audits and other data analysis.  Use quantitative research to track trends in behavior, spending, performance metrics, financial results, or consumer sentiment.
  • Sample sizes are typically larger to provide more robust findings.
  • The approach works well if you are trying to convince your audience of the bottom line benefits of your approach, or uncover important trends to support the growing need for your product or service.  For example, if you are trying to establish credibility with a new customer base where you haven’t sold into before – say a set of Chief Marketing Officers – you might want to consider a large-scale study of their behaviors and changing needs.  This will allow you to speak compellingly about their challenges, and share insights into future opportunities from an analytical perspective. 

 Qualitative research:

  • Qualitative research explores the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a business problem through open-ended questions.  It’s used to dig into issues and questions, and uncover the stories behind an idea or a solution.
  • Questions probe for depth and subtleties and enable the researcher to learn beyond the high level answer, or the more obvious response, and respond to the learning in the next series of questions.  Without the goal of quantifying trends, sample sizes can be smaller.
  • This approach is useful for extracting insights, pulling out new or provocative ideas, and giving executives a perspective on an issue or relevant challenge in an area that matters to them and to you. For example, if you want to educate executive clients on new ways to innovate, it may be most effective to carefully analyze the stories of 10 business leaders and develop a point of view on what works and how to take action.

Whichever way you get there, the research findings should result in meaty, useful recommendations that lead to action.

5. Connecting to outcomes

Tangible outcomes matter to executives. As I said in my last column, there has to be a “so what” that comes out of the data. Insights connected to outcomes make the case much more compelling and give a line of sight for actions to take. Outcomes can be tangible or intangible; they can be highly or partly measurable; they can be simple or complex. The more tangible, measurable and clearly defined your results, the more they resonate with the C-suite.

In building your research questions, think through how to link responses to outcomes:

  • For qualitative research, probe your interview subjects to identify outcomes they achieved and specifics on how they got there. Ask what can be done differently and where there are levers for improvement. As an example, the Center for CIO Leadership insight papers referenced above leverage this approach to extract best practices and benefits.
  • For quantitative research, look for causal links and craft your questions to try to uncover and prove the connections to  identifiable outcomes and results. Self-reported impacts are good; links to verified financial outcomes are better.  For example, the IBM C-Suite research studies referenced earlier take the step to map the research results from the input of C-suite participants to company financial performance, to understand the behaviors and trends attributable to high performing companies.

6. It’s OK to partner

Not all marketing departments have the capabilities or interest to get into the research game. Partnering is a useful approach to gather input to give your content credibility. Whether you work with a market research vendor that conducts research for a living, or you team up with another firm that has complimentary and non-competing‑offerings, sharing the load yields research dividends. Marketers don’t have to be research experts to build effective executive-worthy research if they look for creative ways to get the job done.

Just Get Started

Many marketers are daunted by the prospect of conducting research designed to engage executives. After all, getting it wrong wastes time, money and opportunity. But taking the step to talk to your customers and find out what is on their minds is always valuable. You might learn something interesting, and better yet, uncover a compelling story that others find interesting as well. And don’t be afraid to ask those same executives for advice on what they would like to hear about if you take the research plunge. Whether you partner or go it on your own, it is well worth the investment in getting research right to get to executive engagement.

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