One aspect of my day job that is booming right now is conducting research studies to help companies gain exposure through thought leadership, like this wonderful, two-year collaboration we've had with Oracle on Holiday Shopping. It's something we know a little bit about, since that's exactly how Edison itself has built its own business over the last 20+ years. We've also been the sole providers of U.S. Election Exit Polling for the past twelve years, which is the largest research project for content marketing in the world, among other things.
Having your company or brand attached to a significant piece of research that actually reveals new, useful information is one of the best ways to show your prospects that you are not just trying to sell your stuff, but also trying to contribute to the field. These days, however, it can be a bit tricky to get your studies and research findings out there, since the Internets are lousy with quick stats, infographics, and other ephemera. When everyone is doing the same thing, and no one is standing out, there is only one thing to do--you need to do what others will not do. Here are five ways to do just that.
1. Answer the Question on Everyone's Lips
Often, the best way to determine what your brand could study is simply to listen to your customers, or your competitors' customers, to see the most common types of inquiries. What you are looking for are what the poet Rumsfeld might call "Knowable Unknowns": things we do not know, but are knowable through proper study. Last year, for instance, Netbase contacted us to get to the bottom of the true impact of social media on fashion buying decisions. Anyone with web analytics facility can tell you that a link or impression led to an online purchase, but what the vertical they were trying to serve really wondered was this: how much does what your friends say on Facebook or show on Instagram affect your decisions when you buy something offline? (We love researching the things you can't click.)
This was a "knowable unknown," and led to a very successful series of white papers and mainstream trade press placements for Netbase, and taught me a little bit more about shoes than I wanted to know.
Questions like this are everywhere, by the way. On a past episode of The Beancast (Bob Knorpp's wonderful and well-produced marketing podcast) we discussed the fact that most people who view YouTube ads skip the ads just as soon as they can, five seconds in. Clickstream analytics can tell you that a potentially appallingly low number of ads are watched in their entirety, but they can't tell you want the impact of those five seconds are in terms of branding. Good question, eh?
2. Answer the Hard Questions
For the past few years, Edison has put out a study that not only met criterion #1 in spades, but also had an added bonus: it wasn't an easy question to answer! We have put out research on the online radio space for years, but one question kept popping up from media buyers, agencies, and investment analysts alike: how much of the total time spent with audio goes to online radio, compared to terrestrial? How much time is spent listening to "owned music" (your own CDs or MP3 files) versus podcasts, or satellite radio?
We were asked this question enough to know that it was worth finding the answer. Turns out, it wasn't an easy question to answer, but it was, in fact, a "knowable unknown." We saw the fact that it was a hard question as our opportunity to answer it--again, to do what others will not, in order to cut through the din. So we answered it, in what has become a very successful research series for us called Share of Ear® (covered here in Billboard.)
3. Know How to Reach your Audience
For us, getting a gazillion hits on Buzzfeed is gratifying, but ultimately does not put food on our table, in terms of our specific prospects. For example, part of our business is election research, so it is far more important for us to produce the kind of quality work that will get covered by Huffington Post's Pollster column or Politico than to get hundreds of irrelevant placements. And we love getting picked up by the print editions of things like The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. Not only do our prospective clients read those publications, they also tend to respect and acknowledge the level of scrutiny those resources place on research they cover.
So, when we are working with clients to produce research studies that will motivate action with a desired target, we learn as much about that target as we possibly can (yes, by doing some research--we drink our own champagne here at Edison). This helps us to work with a brand's PR agency or their internal communications department to ensure that our research isn't just "interesting" (the damnable faint praise of the Internet) but useful and well-targeted to the kinds of placements that matter.
4. Don't be Known. Be Known for Something.
Here is a little secret: getting your research-based content marketing shared a million times or featured on Mashable and Techcrunch could be wonderful on the surface, but devastating to your brand if you didn't do the work right. The initial venues that post your work will do so if it sounds interesting, or has a slick, well-designed infographic, or addresses a hot topic. This will put your pie charts in front of a lot of eyeballs, and your vanity metrics will soar. This is good, if you get paid with eyeballs. If, however, you get paid with cash, there is a very real danger here: if your work won't hold up to scrutiny, was shoddily conducted, mis-reported or otherwise will not stand the test of time or numeracy, all you have done is get famous amongst those who will not buy, and infamous to those who might.
I see this all the time--a prospect will reach out to me asking me if I have seen (famously shared study X), and then proceed to tell me how awful it is. Essentially, you've had a grand opening for your store, but left the shelves dirty and bare. Doing your study quickly and cheaply is the best way to maximize your eyeballs to dollars ratio. But doing it right is the best way to be known for doing things right, and for the quiet minority--the brand managers, the B2B customers, the Agencies--to recognize that your company cares about actually advancing the field. People notice.
5. Illustrate your Findings Simply, Clearly and Accurately
This is as much as I will say about actually presenting and illustrating your data: just be clear. We don't use 3D graphs, pie charts with dozens of slices, or tiny-fonted footnotes about the sample. We want our audience (and your audience) to see exactly what the point is of even displaying the data in a graph in the first place. Ultimately, we want our data to live, both on and off the screen. What we have found, over and over, is that if we do the work right (#4, again) and present it in the clearest, simplest way possible, our data gets more uptake to reputable sources and curators of data. Period.
For us, this means we don't have to have the shiniest graphs, or the most vividly illustrated infographics. If we have done our job right, it is the data, and its usefulness, that will live on. Indeed, it's the only thing that truly does. We LOVE it when reputable sources for research like Statista (below) and eMarketer not only cover our data, but regraph it (with attribution, of course :) ) Again, that gets it not only shared more widely, but also lends more credence to the work. If a sharp, clear graph like the one below from Statista can't be drawn from your data, you're doing it wrong.
There has been a lot of talk about the flood of content that overwhelms us (my friend Mark Schaefer calls it content shock) and there is no question that it is harder than ever to stand out with research studies or any other kind of content. Certainly one way to do so is to establish genuine expertise, and to be known for not just quantity, but unimpeachable quality. When 80% of the players at the poker table are similarly skilled, the only way to win even marginal gains is to do what others will not. In the case of fielding and publishing research data for the purposes of content marketing, we've been holding to the last full measure of research devotion for two decades now. Take these five principles to heart, do the work, and you'll do more than create content, you'll create value.
(This is an updated version of a post I first published on the Edison Research blog.)