Planning a Year’s Worth of Content with One Original Research Survey


When you look at the plethora 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, you want your editorial to tell one story instead of each piece being disconnected from the rest.

While there are many methods to do this, one approach that works well is to use a survey-based research project to bring focus to all of your editorials.

That research can serve as your foundation 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 foundation for your editorial plan.

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 plaster.

The best research topics need to check three boxes which are:

  • Interest your audience
  • 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 statistics especially if you repeat this study annually to show trends.

If you are in a crowded industry, such as 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 starting on their research project in 2017.

Their tool, Divvy HQ, helps content marketers, but as Brody later explained:

“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. The above 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 as a result of reading this research?

Do you want to certify current thinking?

Challenge a belief or assumption?

Reveal an opportunity?

Keep your reasoning top of mind.

Example: Let’s say you are working for a workflow software company, and you want more content marketing teams to start using your platform.

Studying team productivity is too extensive, 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 are aware of your general topic, identify the specific topics you want your research to cover.

The author calls 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.

table of contents
Source: Content Marketing Institute

Dimensions serve as a way to organize one’s thinking, prioritize the questions the person wants to ask and provide structure for data analysis.

Example: Continuing the workflow platform solution company example, to study content marketing teams, you choose the below dimensions:

  • Team composition
  • Communication

TIP: The example only looks at a subset of topics. As a rule, identify three to five such dimensions.

Step 3: Hypothesize your story for each dimension

Once you know the essential 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.

CoSchedule accepted this hypothesis vs. results idea in its State of Marketing Strategy in 2018.

The author loves how the team details what it expected the data to show and the actual findings.

Source: CoSchedule

Example: The chart demonstrates the hypotheses for each dimension established for the workflow software company.


Step 4: Draft questions to test your hypotheses

Next, outline the questions for each dimension to test your hypotheses.

How the questions are asked is incredibly important.

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 perform comparisons, looking at the data through that lens will offer more opportunities to tell the story in a refined and useful way.

Salesforce does a good job comparing segments in its research, as you can see in State of Service.

Source: Salesforce

TIP: Any segment you reveal on needs to have an adequate sample size.

While there is no particular 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 do not.


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