Twenty years ago, plenty of companies were publishing thought leadership pieces—long before it was called content marketing. The most prolific publishers were global management consulting firms and financial service firms. These corporate giants regularly pushed out expertly written reports, interviews and articles. And they published a lot of original research. An excellent example of this is PwC’s Global CEO study. Now in its 22nd year, the research is a fantastic example of a weighty, influential piece of content for the C-suite.
Yet over the last decade, as content marketing roared onto the scene, most companies embraced pretty much all other types of content except research. With so many digital tactics and channels to choose from, research seemed a pretty buttoned-up (read: boring) option. In 2019, the tide seems to be shifting again. And that’s because research performs so well. At a time when content marketers are struggling to get attention in a vastly overcrowded field, original research is a tactic that delivers results. (Plus marketers are learning that research does not have to be boring—I promise to provide examples that prove my point.)
Why Does Research Perform So Well?
- Research wins backlinks. A study from BuzzSumo last year found half of all content published in 2017 got zero inbound links. While the findings may be troubling, Buzzsumo’s founder Steve Rayson has this advice: “Authoritative research and reference content are the exception. These two types of content consistently get links and shares.” (And to prove his point, that particular piece of original, data-driven analysis by Buzzsumo earned 284 backlinks.)
- Journalists love research. If you conduct your study with rigor, paying attention to methodology, journalists will pay attention too. Extra points if you package it up in a way that makes it easy for journalists to synthesize and explain to their audiences.
- Research powers your editorial calendar. A well-crafted study or analysis generates a wealth of content for your editorial and social media engines. We have worked with clients on surveys that generate dozens of blog posts, eBooks, tool kits, videos, etc.
- Research is visual. By its very nature, original research is visually appealing. If done well, your research can produce beautiful and engaging data visualizations that are perfect for sharing on social media.
What Is Research as Content?
Before going any further, let’s talk first about what we mean by research. When I say original research, I’m not talking about market research, customer research or competitive research. Rather, original research as content marketing means hosting an original study and publishing the results of that effort. The types of research we often talk to audiences about fall into one of the following four categories:
1. Traditional benchmarking survey: Most marketers think of benchmark surveys when they think of publishing research—and there are many good examples to point to... from Skyword’s Content Marketing Continuum research, to the Content Marketing Institute’s annual Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends report. And MarketingProf’s latest Marketing Happiness Report is a great example of a more fun approach to a benchmark survey. (Disclosure: Skyword and MarketingProfs are both clients of Mantis Research.)
2. Short-form surveys & polling: Want to go even shorter? Why not ask just a few questions on a very limited subject? LendEDU, a loan refinancing company, publishes extremely short-form studies on narrow and entertaining topics, such as: “What would Americans do for a 10% raise?”
3. Analyzing owned data: Many companies have access to anonymized user data to report interesting insights (tech companies are sitting on data treasure troves). For example, Compare.com recently analyzed its user base to understand the impact of lapsed insurance on auto insurance premiums (hint: don’t ever let your car insurance lapse). I’m also a big fan of Track Maven’s work with owned data. Someone recently pointed me to Track Maven’s analysis of the panel of presidential candidates back in 2016, which ended up being a rather prescient look at the then upcoming election.
4. Analyzing 3rd-party data: Orbit Media, a web design and development company, wanted to improve its share of backlinks by publishing original research based on third-party data. It used the analytics tools it has at its disposal to analyze data and publish fresh insights to its audience of marketing mavens. Orbit Media chose the Top 50 marketing and advertising companies in the world (by size per Alexa), and then analyzed each company’s website, examining how they performed on 10 pre-selected web design standards. It published the results in a blog post called the 10 Best Practices on the Top 50 Websites. That one post has generated hundreds of sought-after backlinks since 2015.
Before Investing, Define Your “Why”
It’s tempting to go full speed ahead and start designing a survey or analyzing internal data, but we caution marketers to first understand why they’re embarking on research in the first place. Early in the process, you need to figure out:
- What type of research makes sense given your marketing goals? There are many different types of research you can publish, but some types are better for specific goals than others. Define your goals and then match the research type to the goal you want to achieve. (See Table 1)
- What is your story landscape? We often find marketers want to undertake research that answers all the questions! It’s much more interesting to focus on one storyline or theme, and then probe more deeply in that single area. Research that takes an “inventory” approach (i.e., let’s learn a bit about everything) is often boring to read. Keep your focus narrow to make your story more interesting.
- How will you amplify your research? Another important consideration: how will you give your research its wings? How will it be packaged? Distributed? Promoted? Amplified? All of these questions have an impact on the types of projects you undertake and early design considerations. Document all of this early on so that it can inform your decision-making along the way.
- Where will you require an expert? Some companies have great success taking a DIY approach to research, but only if they have a particular set of skills in-house. Take inventory of what parts of the process your team can handle, and what parts of the process make sense to outsource. The areas where marketing teams most often need help are: research strategy, survey design, data analysis and data visualization.
Table 1: Relationship Between Research Goals & Research Type [Examples]
|Research Goal||Research Type|
|Marketing Qualified Leads||A traditional, “meaty” benchmark survey and report that’s gated behind a form|
|Backlinks||A short survey or poll and newsworthy article about a trending topic|
|Content for Blog or Social Media||An “owned data” research series that analyzes internal data and publishes findings to a blog|
My company conducted research with BuzzSumo in 2018 to understand whether marketers are investing in original research and what benefits they are gaining from it—and we found that among those marketers who are publishing research, 92% say they will invest again in the next 12 months. That’s a huge vote of confidence for a content marketing tactic that’s been around long before this thing called content marketing.