When you look at the library of content you publish, is it a string of somewhat-related blog posts, videos and more — or do all the pieces work together to tell a better, broader story?
Of course (to poorly paraphrase Robert Rose), you want your editorial to tell one story instead of each piece being disconnected from the rest.
While there are many ways to do this, one approach that works well is to use a survey-based research project to bring focus to all of your editorial. That research can serve as your keystone from which spring many assets and related stories.
This article walks you through the steps of designing and publishing survey-based original research to make it the cornerstone for your editorial plan.
But, before I begin, an important note: The goal of your research is to be able to tell a compelling story validated with data. The quality of your data is, of course, important, but it needs to relate to a broader story. Constantly ask yourself: Why will someone care?
Step 1: Choose a topic
Spending time deciding on the area of focus is even more important when you plan to use your survey as your editorial glue.
The best research topics check three boxes. They need to:
- Interest your audience (Note: This, of course, requires you to define your audience. Customer? Prospects? Media or influencers?)
- Align with your brand story
- Focus on an area not yet covered with research
If you are in a new space or trying to create a new category, an original research project on the state of the industry could be ideal. YOU become the source of authority and you are what people link to because you have the stats — especially if you repeat this study annually to show trends.
If you are in a crowded industry, such as, ahem, content marketing, focus on a niche. What is that thing you want to be known for?
This is a challenge Brody Dorland and team faced when embarking on their research project in 2017. Their tool, Divvy HQ, helps content marketers, but as Brody explains:
We did not want to do a state of content marketing report because others had already done so. Instead, we decided to focus specifically on content planning, which is something that had not been covered – and it’s something our business directly helps marketers with. This research was a way for us to better understand the challenges our customers face, validate the direction of our product roadmap, and provide insights that marketers can use to benchmark their own content planning process.
TIP: Answer this question: How do you want your audience to think or act differently as a result of reading this research?
Do you want to validate current thinking? Challenge a belief or assumption? Reveal an opportunity? Keep your reasoning top of mind.
Example: Let’s say you work for a workflow software company, and you want more content marketing teams using your platform. Studying team productivity is too broad, so you focus your research on how content marketing teams operate and whether their processes are working.
Step 2: Pinpoint the survey ‘dimensions’
Once you know your general topic, identify the specific topics you want your research to cover. I call these areas of focus “dimensions” — the key categories you want the research to study. Think of these dimensions as a table of contents. You can see how CMI’s annual content marketing research easily falls into a table-of-contents format.Think about a table of contents when you structure your #research dimensions, says @MicheleLinn. Click To Tweet
Dimensions serve as a way to organize your thinking, prioritize the questions you want to ask, and provide structure for your data analysis. (I’ll explain all of these steps in more detail as we go through the process.)
Example: Continuing the workflow platform solution company example, to study content marketing teams, you choose these dimensions:
- Team composition: Which people and skills do people have on their teams? Are people in-house or outsourced?
- Communication: How are teams communicating with each other — and what’s working?
TIP: The example only looks at a subset of topics. As a rule of thumb, identify three to five dimensions.
Step 3: Hypothesize your story for each dimension
Once you know the key dimensions, hypothesize what the results will tell you.
Now, this is important: You aren’t designing the research to end up with a specific angle. You are using your research to test your hypothesis.
If the results differ from what you expect, that’s OK. In fact, that may be a story.It’s OK if your #research findings differ from your hypotheses. That could even be a story, says @MicheleLinn. Click To Tweet
CoSchedule embraced this hypothesis vs. results idea in its State of Marketing Strategy in 2018. I love how the team details what it expected the data to show and the actual findings.
Example: The chart illustrates the hypotheses for each dimension established for the workflow software company.
Step 4: Draft questions to test your hypotheses
Next, draft the questions for each dimension to test your hypotheses.
How the questions are asked is incredibly important. (If you are unfamiliar with survey design, consider getting help with this step of the process, including these pointers.)
Example: Add a column to the table for “possible questions.” As you see, the questions you ask will help you determine whether your hypothesis is correct.
TIP: Ask only questions that will provide insight. Continually ask, “How will I use the data from this question?” If you are uncertain, chances are you don’t need to ask the question.
Step 5: Identify key segments for comparison
If you want to do comparisons, looking at the data through that lens will offer more opportunities to tell the story in a nuanced and useful way. Salesforce does a great job comparing segments in its research, as you can see in State of Service.
TIP: Any segment you report on needs to have an adequate sample size. While there is no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes an adequate sample, aim for at least 100 participants.
Example: With the workflow software company research, the segmenting goal is to understand the differences between marketers who consider themselves productive versus those who do not. You also could compare the habits between those who use a workflow management tool versus those who rely on email.
Step 6: Analyze the findings by dimension and segment
Once you have the data, your goal is to identify the story. As Rachel Haberman, content marketing manager at Skyword, told me:
Find the story behind your data – that’s what’s meaningful, says Rachel Haberman @Skyword. Click To Tweet
Don’t fall into the trap of simply presenting your data as is. Find the story behind your data – that’s what’s meaningful. Numbers alone are forgettable, but when you use them to tell a story, they reinforce an emotional appeal with data-driven evidence. It’s the best of both worlds.
Because you have gone through these steps, it will be easier to identify what your story is. Go back to your dimensions and organize the results in these categories. Does the data support your hypothesis or were you surprised?
Keep a list of the insights and ideas you uncover, looking at the dimensions as a whole and through individual questions. You can use these later.
Step 7: Create a home base for your findings
When it’s time to publish your findings, decide on one spot on your website where you will consistently point all traffic from your research. Not only does this keep things simple, but it is key to help get backlinks, which is a huge benefit of using your research in multiple ways. (In fact, as Aleh Barysevich uncovered in the study SEO PowerSuite’s Link Building in 2017, SEO professionals consider research to be the most efficient type of content for getting backlinks.)Publish findings in a dedicated spot on your website & consistently point all traffic to it. @MicheleLinn Click To Tweet
If you aren’t familiar with backlinks, understand this: the more backlinks to a page, the more authority it will have and the more likely it is to rank in search engines. Yet, our research with BuzzSumo found only 49% of marketers earn backlinks from their research — a missed opportunity.
Your research home base can take any number of forms, but if you’re getting started, create a blog post that details your findings, such as this one from Orbit Media’s 4th Annual Blogger Study or this one from Buffer covering The State of Remote Work. Alternatively, consider a landing page like this one from Upwork.
Step 8: Brainstorm the type of content you can create
You can create many types of content from your research findings, including:
Doing more with your research is a substantial opportunity. Not only will this help you get backlinks (remember to point to your home base), but it also helps you tell a more cohesive story.
If you are at a loss of what to do with your research, consider these 13 examples. I’ll get specific in the next step, but it’s helpful to understand the general type of content you can create:
- SlideShare presentations
- Blog posts on your website
- Articles on other websites
- Additional reports
- Webinars and presentations
- Standalone data graphics
- Video of high-level findings
- Video series digging into findings
- Online assessment
- Twitter chat
- Gated guides and e-books
Step 9: Track your story ideas
Armed with the general ideas of the type of content you can create as well as the insights you documented when you were analyzing your results (see Step 6), it’s time to get specific.
I use this template to track my brainstorming and story ideas from a research study.
Of course, the template can be customized, but I track:
- Content type: Blog post, guest post, webinar, etc. (See ideas in Step 8.)
- Content idea: What is the basic idea? Briefly explain why someone will care about this.
- Data point: What stat(s) does this story relate to?
- Notes: What else would you or someone reviewing this benefit from knowing?
- Publication/platform: Where will you publish?
- Priority: As your ideas grow, which ones do you want to execute first?
- Owner/responsibility: Who will oversee this?
- Attachments: What links or files do I need?
As part of this process, you also can include a list of content to be updated with a link to your research. For example, have you published any blog posts that would benefit from one of the stats?
TIP: I use Airtable for this, but you can use a spreadsheet or other format to capture your thoughts. In Airtable, you can create a tab that stores all the stats. You can link the stat to the story — and in turn, when you view all stats, you’ll see the stories using them.
Step 10: Incorporate your ideas into your editorial calendar
As DivvyHQ uncovered in its annual content planning survey, only a quarter of marketers plan several months in advance. You may feel overwhelmed by the idea of planning out a year’s worth of content with one survey.
While your process and cadence will vary, consider these ideas to make it manageable:
- Focus in depth on one dimension each quarter. (You could even consider each dimension as a topic cluster.)
- Determine a regular cadence to publish blog posts that delve into research findings, such as one article per month.
- Have a library of data graphics to share on social. When possible, link to content that talks about the story behind the data.
- Look at the presentations in the coming year and see if any of them can incorporate a tie-in to your data.
Even if you are an ad-hoc planner (is that an oxymoron?), your idea tracker will still be incredibly valuable for your content planning. Continually refer to it as you decide which content to tackle next.
HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT:
By using the system above, your research can become the glue that holds together your editorial. Remember, if you plan well, you can create a survey from which you can tell many stories in many ways.
I’d love to hear from you. Do you have any examples of brands who are using their research to tell rich, continual stories? Share in the comments.
Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).
You can learn more about how research is the unsung hero in content marketing from Michele Linn during her presentation at Content Marketing World Sept. 4-7 in Cleveland, Ohio. Register today and use the code BLOG100 to save $100.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute