How to Make Sure Your Surveys Generate Awareness and Leads
Surveys have become one of the most important items in a B2B marketer’s toolkit. When done right, surveys provide valuable content for marketing programs that helps companies demonstrate their insights on important business topics and generate awareness of the company overall. Yet many companies struggle to create surveys that provide sufficient return on investment. Some firms can’t get enough responses to their survey despite having the research in the field for months. Others can generate volumes of survey data but have trouble finding anything compelling in the research. Still others believe their surveys provide interesting insights but are roundly ignored by the media, clients, and prospects. What separates surveys that are powerful lead and awareness generators and those that fall flat? In our experience, the answer lies in several key areas of survey design, execution, analysis and promotion.
In today’s world of content overload, B2B companies face a familiar and increasingly difficult challenge: how to generate awareness and demand. Surveys can be an excellent way to cut through the marketplace clutter and attract the attention of prospects and the media. A top-notch survey can provide not only the content for a variety of marketing activities showcasing the company’s knowledge and insights, but also substantive grist for the media relations and social media mills.
Many B2B companies recognize the value of surveys—that’s evident in the fact that so many are produced. But quantity doesn’t necessarily translate into quality. We have seen many examples of an organization investing months of time and a lot of money in survey research, only to have it generate little interest in the marketplace. Sometimes, this disappointing outcome can be attributed to a single and rather obvious factor—such as simply not dedicating enough effort to marketing the survey results. However, in other cases, surveys fail to hit the mark because of a combination of more subtle shortcomings across survey design, execution, analysis and promotion.
In this paper, we draw upon our extensive work on surveys during the past 25 years to explore the common pitfalls in survey projects and how B2B companies can avoid them to get the biggest return on their survey investment. We review best practices in five key areas (see Figure 1):
- Scoping the research
- Designing the research
- Identifying, reaching and motivating respondents
- Analyzing the data and writing the report
- Marketing the research
Scoping the Research
The first step in any survey project is choosing a relevant topic to research and effectively scoping the study. With so many surveys being done, you need to select a research topic that’s both important and highly relevant to its prospects, as well as not well covered by other surveys and research studies.
There are several ways to find an issue that will win your target audience’s attention. In some cases, no “process” is required: If you know your prospects’ businesses and challenges well, you may be able to hone in on an appropriate angle. However, sometimes you need a more rigorous approach—especially if you’re looking to research a popular topic. This typically encompasses two principal exercises.
The first exercise is exploring potential survey topics in a workshop with your key subject-matter experts. The most successful research projects we’ve seen have benefited from early and strong participation from the head of the part of the business sponsoring the effort, appropriate subject-matter experts (who can provide their insights on the issue drawn from their extensive work in the field), and account managers and business developers (who can provide their perspective on what they hear prospects are looking for during sales conversations).
In this session, participants create a high-level list of potential topics to research under a single umbrella theme. For instance, for a supply chain consulting practice, an umbrella theme might be “supply chain improvement,” under which myriad potential research topics could fall (such as supply chain process reengineering, hiring and retaining better supply chain talent, using new supply chain technologies, etc.). After creating the larger list, the workshop team then should whittle the list down to one topic to pursue.
The second exercise is focusing the research through appropriate secondary research. After the workshop, the research team should conduct a comprehensive review of business and trade publications, relevant industry research reports, and publicly available materials published by other companies to identify research that already has been conducted on the broad research topic selected in the workshop. This step is necessary for two reasons: to hone in on an aspect of the topic that can be sufficiently covered in a survey; and to identify the “white space,” which enables the organization to avoid duplicating what others already are talking about.
Assume that, in the preceding example, the workshop team settled on the “using new supply chain technologies” topic. Through its secondary research, the team may find that much has been written about the topic, but one important aspect had been insufficiently covered: the opportunity to use emerging digital tools to design, develop and implement much more collaborative supply chains. Such a topic would meet the dual requirements of being the subject of a lot of hype and lacking in clarity, while being narrow enough to probe in a survey.
Before moving to research design, however, you must appoint a program manager who can provide strong oversight throughout the initiative and serve as the point person for any questions about it. A survey can be very ambitious and time-consuming, with many opportunities for the initiative to go astray. Having someone—generally a marketing person—“riding herd” can help ensure the project stays on plan and within budget.
Designing the Research
With the research topic fully vetted and scoped, you then must address the challenging task of designing the research, which begins with developing a set of hypotheses about the topic.
Hypotheses are absolutely vital. They serve as formal guideposts to help ensure the research activities remain focused, and they force the research team to think about the logic of the research by presenting a preliminary story about the topic the team believes to be true (with the veracity of the story eventually supported or refuted by the research). Each hypothesis should not be so broad that it can’t be covered adequately by a survey while, at the same time, not so narrow that it makes it difficult to make any new discovery. For a typical survey, we’ve found five or six hypotheses per research topic to be sufficient.
The second step in research design is crafting the survey questionnaire, devising four or five questions to probe each hypothesis. (If a hypothesis needs more than five questions to probe it, it is probably too broad and should be narrowed in scope.) When crafting the questionnaire, make sure it won’t take more than 20 minutes to complete and it is presented clearly in a sequence that flows logically from one question to another.
To encourage respondents to answer all the questions in the survey, aim for mostly closed-end ones (although a few open-ended queries are useful if they are easily answered). In addition, avoid using questions that make the respondent do a lot thinking or calculation. Similarly, make sure the target participant can answer all the questions. Respondents who can’t answer a question or have to turn to others to do so will likely abandon the effort. And, if you’re conducting the survey across multiple countries, make sure the questionnaire is available in the appropriate native languages.
It’s also helpful to embed a key question or two that will provide irresistible fodder for media outlets—such as those that will lead to a counter-intuitive finding or touch on a particularly timely topic. Having someone from your media relations team review the questionnaire can help ensure you’ve included questions that will be especially intriguing to relevant media and, thus, enhance the chance that reporters and bloggers will write about the findings.
Identifying, Reaching and Motivating Respondents
Regardless of the topic you’re covering, all companies face a common challenge: getting enough of the right people to take the survey. This is especially true today, as surveys have become pervasive and business professionals and consumers alike often suffer from survey fatigue. As a result, selecting the right target respondents and motivating them to participate with the right incentives are more critical than ever.
Who is the “right” target? At the most basic level, it’s a person who is inherently interested in the research topic, is qualified to answer the questions, and can provide the insights at the desired level of detail. In our experience, the right target for a business survey is not always the most senior executives. We see many companies fall into the “C-level trap”: trying (and often failing) to target an organization’s top executives in the misguided belief that the perspectives of chief executives are always the most valued by the media and prospect. In fact, most of the time, surveys on business or management topics often are best taken by professionals at the manager, director or vice president level—those who are intimately involved with addressing the issue on a day-to-day basis and, thus, can provide the most accurate insights. Beyond these advantages, such professionals can be easier to reach than C-level executives.
As important as determining the type of person to target for the survey is identifying the source of prospective participants—your own customer or prospect lists; a rented list from a business or trade publication or relevant association; a list sourced by a research partner; social media sites; panels operated by research firms; or some combination of these. Each source has its pros and cons. Your own list likely would have targets most predisposed to participate because they already have some relationship with your company. However, few companies’ lists are large enough to generate sufficient results on their own. On the other hand, rented lists can provide an ample supply of names, but the titles can be suspect and the people on those lists may not be as receptive to a survey invitation because they don’t have an existing relationship with your company. Social media sites, especially LinkedIn, can be useful sources of prospective participants, particularly the “special interest groups” that are geared toward the survey’s target audience.
Finding the right source of potential respondents is only half the battle. The other half is getting people to participate in the survey—especially today, when most executives have little time to devote to responding to surveys and are bombarded with requests to do so. Therefore, a strong incentive is generally required to encourage participation. Typically effective is a combination of personal appeal (a chance to win something, such as a new iPad or gift certificate to Amazon.com) and business relevance (providing participants with an early access to the survey findings or a personalized report benchmarking their responses against the overall sample).
The vehicle used to conduct the survey—telephone or online—also influences whether executives respond. The best method depends on many factors, including the type and length of the questionnaire, the target participants, and the research project’s budget. Phone surveys are most effective when dealing with very senior executives generally, while in Japan it’s customary for surveys to be conducted in person with the participating executives. Online surveys are the least expensive to conduct, but come with a number of possible tradeoffs—such as difficulty reaching intended recipients due to spam filters and ensuring the intended person actually completes the survey.
Teaming with a complementary partner—for example, a trade magazine or association—also can boost participation. Such partners bring to the research a large subscriber or membership base of people with whom the magazine or association already has a strong connection. Thus, they’re typically more inclined to participate in the survey. Such collaboration also enhances the credibility of the research and visibility for the company among an audience of potential buyers.
Here’s an example of how this sort of teaming would work between a consulting firm and a trade magazine. The consulting firm would be responsible for designing and executing the survey, analyzing the results and writing the research report (bearing all the costs to do so). The magazine, in turn, would promote participation in the survey and distribute the final research report to its subscribers. Done right, this arrangement is mutually beneficial for the two organizations: The firm reinforces its thought leadership position among its desired audience and the magazine gets high-quality, no-cost editorial (and a new stream of advertising revenue if it chooses to sell ads in the report that’s sent to subscribers).
Analyzing the Data and Writing the Report
After ending data collection, it’s time to use the initial hypotheses as a guide to analyzing the survey findings—to determine whether the hypotheses have been supported or refuted and identify the strongest storylines emerging from the data.
We can’t stress enough how important analysis is to the strength of the ultimate report. Many times, companies have spent a lot of time, money and effort designing the research and conducting the survey, only to become impatient and too eager to rush the findings to market. In doing so, they compromised the analysis process and, thus, their ability to find the most compelling storylines in the data. You should dedicate at least as much time on analysis as you do on research design and data collection.
When analyzing data, we’ve found a three-stage approach to be highly effective. The first round of analysis should be focused on presenting top-line data: the aggregate responses to each major survey question. From here, you can move on to the second level of analysis, which involves conducting various cross-tabs to probe the data further to find potentially interesting threads to pursue or storylines that may not have been considered during research design. A simple example: The data may contain very interesting differences in responses between large and small companies, different industries, or companies that are determined to be leaders in a particular practice and those that are deemed laggards.
The final stage of analysis typically is done in a series of telephone calls or online meetings. During these sessions, you review the findings of the second level of analysis with your subject-matter experts to get their insights on the findings—i.e., the “why” behind the numbers. This is the time to tease out the implications of the findings for your prospects and to identify any opportunities for further analysis.
At the end of the three rounds of analysis, you’ll reach consensus on the main storyline emerging from the findings. Building on this storyline, you’ll develop a detailed outline and ultimately the prose draft of the final research report that explores your findings and point of view on them in detail. The format and length of the report can vary based on a number of factors. But typically, the more in-depth and substantive the report, the more content you’ll have to fuel subsequent marketing activities.
Marketing the Research
A research initiative is only as valuable as the attention it generates in the marketplace. That’s why, once the final report has been written, you should aggressively bring the research findings and accompanying point of view to market through a set of integrated, tightly synchronized activities.
At the outset, you should appoint a few spokespeople for the research and give them the appropriate training and background on the findings. This helps prepare the spokespeople to discuss the research with the media as well as with current clients or customers and prospects. Training should include documents that outline the key research findings, communicate the company’s point of view on the findings, and cover the basic details of the survey (such as methodology, who was surveyed, how many participated, and why you conducted the survey).
To help ensure you consistently communicate the research findings externally, you also should educate all relevant personnel—not just the “official” spokespeople—on the initiative. Make sure these employees understand and can communicate the linkage between the research findings, the implications for executives, and the products or services you offer. Doing so not only enhances the research’s impact on your business-development activities, it also helps minimize the chance a professional is put in an awkward situation when a client, customer or prospect asks him a question about the research he can’t answer.
While you’re preparing spokespeople, you should develop the core materials you need to aggressively promote the research to the media. These include a news release on the overall survey findings, as well as separate news releases tailored by industry sector, geography or other demographic; and bylined articles based on the most interesting slices of the survey findings to be pitched for prospective publication.
Beyond these PR activities, you should promote the research findings directly to clients and prospects using the full range of marketing tools at your disposal. Some of the most important ones are:
- Speaking slots at conferences and other events
- Your own webinars
- Direct marketing campaigns
- Your own publications such as company newsletters or magazines
- Standard presentation on the research findings and implications for executives that can be delivered by any account executive to his or her contacts
One of the best ways to leverage the research findings is to prepare and deliver tailored presentations on the survey to the management teams of select companies that participated in the research (i.e., ones that are particularly attractive from a business development standpoint). Executives often see such presentations as providing added value and “free insights,” and the presentations give your professionals the chance to have meaningful conversations with prospects on a business issue important to them.
Your website should play a major role in promoting the study. In fact, a number of firms we’ve worked with have created dedicated microsites to house the research and ancillary content such as related case studies and service offerings. The most effective microsites are not simply an electronic repository for a PDF version of the report. They also enable visitors to interact with the company in some way—for example, by hosting a version of the original questionnaire used in the survey that visitors can take themselves. This not only engages people and gives them a reason to visit the site, it also provides ongoing, fresh data you can use to update your findings.
Of course, surveys also provide ample fodder to feed the social media beast. Survey results can form the basis of a steady stream of tweets and status updates (for many weeks, if the findings warrant), thus expanding the universe of people exposed to it and driving traffic to your website.
Finally, firms that have maximized their investments in surveys typically have “institutionalized” the research—that is, they have made the research an annual, semi-annual or quarterly initiative. In doing so, they have created anticipation for the research among target executives and enabled them to provide year-over-year comparisons that executives (and the media) find valuable.
Executed well, surveys enable companies to generate interesting and useful content that attracts executive attention while demonstrating that the company understands the challenges these executives face. Many of the world’s leading B2B companies—especially, professional services firms—have multiple surveys in the field at once, and many of those surveys recur year after year, with a loyal and engaged audience looking forward to both participating in and learning from the research.
A rigorous approach to survey research can increase the odds your survey makes an impact in your target market. High-quality surveys provide a platform from which your company can demonstrate its knowledge and expertise, and a basis for meaningful discussions between your professionals and their most important contacts. They also help your company establish and maintain a voice of authority on the topics it wants to own. And arguably most important, they bring many more people to your doorstep in the form of leads.
A rigorous approach to survey research can increase the odds your survey makes an impact in your target market. High-quality surveys provide a platform from which your company can demonstrate its knowledge and expertise, helping the company to establish and maintain a voice of authority on the topics it wants to own. They also bring many more people to your doorstep in the form of leads, and can serve as a basis for meaningful discussions between your professionals and their most important contacts.
Survey research is one of the most potent tools B2B companies have to help them rise above today’s content marketing din. If it’s not already an important part of your marketing strategy, it should be.