Eric Van Susteren
Table of contents
74% of readers find content that contains data to be more trustworthy than content without data. (Source: A SurveyMonkey Audience survey of 1,054 U.S. adults aged 18-65.)
For writers, practically nothing is as powerful as good data.
A simple statistic can do wonders: It can lend credibility to your writing, strengthen your arguments, and succinctly make a point in a way that nothing else can. There’s no more perfect remedy for times when you’ve got a great idea to write about but nothing to support it.
Strong statistics can be the backbone of any well-researched article—whether you’re a student, a marketer, or a journalist.
Even legendary American author Mark Twain believed in their power, though maybe not their capacity for good.
There are three types of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.
It’s true that not all statistics are trustworthy. In fact, it can be downright tricky to decide which sources you can trust and which you can’t. Is it peer-reviewed? Does it come from a representative sample size? Who’s funding the study? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.
Here’s a different strategy: Make your own statistics. We’re not talking about fabricating data, here—anyone can just make something up. We’re talking about conducting primary research: capturing, synthesizing, and reporting on people’s voices and opinions in a way that’s fair and responsible.
How do you do that? Why, with surveys, of course.
A well-designed survey that’s sent to a representative sample of the population, with results that are reported upon fairly is the best way to get the perfect data for any article, blog, or report.
That might sound difficult, and we’ll be honest: If you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be. But with the right know-how, anyone can use surveys to get statistics and data that support any type of content. But don’t take our word for it; ask these companies:
Netflix twice captured headlines everywhere by surveying Americans about their habits—both positive and negative—when it comes to streaming content with loved ones. First, by measuring how many people “Netflix cheat” on significant others by watching their favorite shows when they’re not around, then again by measuring how many people watch streaming shows with their pets.
FiveThirtyEight’s celebrated pollsters are famous for interpreting other organizations’ data, but they also made their own survey to get to ask a truly tough question: Who hates the New England Patriots the most?
Time Magazine used a survey to articulate the voices of women who feel squeezed by the emotional weight and pressure society places on new mothers.
Wrike’s merry band of workflow optimization pros looked at how our personal habits affect how we get work done, making the content they created from their surveys a core part of their marketing strategy. They started with a headline-grabbing study on cursing in the workplace, then made a lead-generating report on whether people truly unplug on vacation any more.
Anyone can get this type of data for themselves, from the most decorated journalistic institutions to tech startups. In this guide, we’ll explain every step of how to create, send, and analyze surveys that deliver high-quality data—and what to do with it once you get it.
By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be able to get data on any subject you want to create your own interesting articles, valuable assets, or compelling pitches to media.
Planning is easily the most-ignored step of the survey creation process, which is a real shame. If there’s one surefire way to make a bad content marketing survey, it’s by failing to plan.
Take the time to choose the perfect topic, develop a well-defined thesis, and target a goal that’s actually valuable for your company. When you do, everything else will fall into place. Luckily, it’s a relatively simple process with a few important rules.
It doesn’t matter how big your sample size is or how carefully you’ve designed your survey—a survey isn’t necessarily going to tell you the truth. Even the biggest national political polls get it wrong sometimes. Why?
Keep this lesson in mind when you’re designing your survey: People are unpredictable. Surveys are great for measuring sentiments, opinions, and habits but unless you’re a professional, extrapolating your results to indicate people’s exact actions is risky. Instead, think about questions that get at general attitudes, aren’t emotionally loaded, and give people space to say what’s on their mind. Be ready to apply some healthy skepticism when you get your results.
Newspapers and magazines have the luxury of writing about lots of different subjects. But even they know where their purview starts and ends. The Economist isn’t likely to write about the Kardashians, unless it’s about their business acumen. ESPN isn’t likely to write about motherhood, unless it’s related to sports.
It’s important to consider which issues are relevant to your brand when you’re choosing which topic your content marketing survey will focus on, so that people understand why you have authority to write about it. Take Netflix as an example.
Their surveys check off all the boxes you should consider. They chose to ask about:
As a result, dozens of media outlets picked up Netflix’s story because everyone knows what it feels like to be tempted—or be betrayed—by the subtle siren of a cliffhanger in a Netflix special.
Netflix showed people how similar they are to each other (spoiler alert: We’re all monsters), and in the process, showcased how popular their product is (in case there was any doubt). The result was way more valuable than a little extra brand awareness.
Without saying it outright, they showed why Netflix is so popular to begin with: They make content that’s so good that you’d betray your spouse over it.
When Wrike used a survey to write about the death of summer vacation, they also gave a subtle nod to the importance of what they offer as a company: efficiency and productivity.
Here’s the implication: If more people are still working even though they’ve taken time off, maybe they need help with productivity while they’re at work. That way, they wouldn’t have to worry about it while they’re away. Hey—maybe they should buy productivity software!
A survey that isn’t relevant to your brand won’t deliver any payoff or brand association. On the other hand, it’s best not to get too literal either. People don’t like feeling marketed to, so you have to find something that they actually want to read—like, for fun.
Wrike didn’t ask people about how they use project management software; they asked about something with more mass appeal that still relates to what they do.
We can’t overstate how important this step is. Choosing the right topic is the most important part of making successful data-backed content. The topics that will ultimately be most successful for you and your brand must be relevant, interesting, and broadly applicable. If you do it right, you might end up with a story that goes viral.
You’ll be spending a significant amount of time—and possibly money—to design your survey, write content about it, try to syndicate it, and more. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. It’s important to set a goal for your survey content that will actually help you.
Some common goals for survey content are:
Your goal will almost certainly have an effect on how you approach your content marketing project. For example, when Wrike did its first survey, it used a subject and distribution strategy that focused entirely on getting attention and awareness.
Cursing in the workplace is only tangentially related to what Wrike does as a company, but they knew that it would be a subject that many people would be interested in—and maybe even relate to. The result was over 100 media mentions including a segment on the Today Show, which isn’t just another day at the office for a project management software startup.
“Cursing was a completely different direction and a risk on our part … It was really successful in PR and media and brought us into a new light, a bit edgier, sexier, successful on that end.”-Brianna Miller, Content Marketing Manager, Wrike
The second time Wrike did a content marketing survey project, they had a different goal in mind: generating business leads. The death of vacation may be a slightly less attention-grabbing subject, but as we’ve already mentioned, it’s deeply linked to what Wrike does.
Wrike approached syndication differently, too. Instead of giving their content away to everyone, Wrike chose to “gate” the report, requiring readers to fill out a contact form before reading. The form flags the person interested in the report as a potential lead and gives salespeople contact information to follow up with.
Whatever you goal is—attention, business needs, traffic—make sure you’re creating the assets you need to support it in parallel with your survey.
Hoping to generate business leads? Make sure you’re creating and designing a flashy infographic or report, plus a gated landing page with a marketing automation tool set up to track signups for your content. (SurveyMonkey likes to use Marketo, but there are several other high-quality options, too).
Want to get media mentions? Work with your PR team ahead of time to develop a list of media outlets that would be interested in a story like the one you’re producing. Remember, the more widely relatable your angle is—within the bounds of your brand, of course—the more media outlets it will apply to.
Looking for site traffic? Target a search term that a lot of people search for and write a robust, SEO-optimized article that delivers unique, valuable information that’s related to your company or industry. Link to it from your site, write articles for other sites that will let you link to it from their site, and set up a social media plan for every relevant channel you can think of: Twitter, Linkedin, Medium, Quora—even Reddit, if it’s not too promotional.
Here’s an example: Andy Crestodina, co-founder and CMO at Orbit Media Studios, has been doing a “Blogging Statistics and Trends” survey for the past 5 years running. He uses SurveyMonkey to create the survey and then sends it out to his network (and his network’s) of bloggers via social media. Andy’s cracked the code on SEO-optimized research-backed content.
It’s been a hit, year after year.
“Combined, the surveys have been linked to by 1600+ websites and shared 4000+ times. I feel like I’m cheating because it works so well.”- Andy Crestodina, Chief Marketing Officer, Orbit Media
It takes a team to make a successful piece of content. Make sure all the pieces and players are aligned before you start writing a single question.
Who needs to be involved? Content writers and designers, certainly. Possibly someone with a data science background to help you interpret the data. The social media team? Check. PR? Absolutely, if you intend to publicize your content. Definitely plan on including your marketing technology folks if you want to collect and track leads to a gated asset. Before you even start your project, it’s best to keep everyone informed about your plans so there are no surprises.
What’s the timeline? Timing can be a huge component of whether a data announcement is successful or not. Don’t release your findings during a dead time like the holidays or a competitive news time (like during Dreamforce, if you’re in Enterprise sales). On the other hand, you can get a boost if you release relevant results on the same day as a small holiday or event—National Marketers Day, for instance. Maybe your content supports a larger campaign in a few months. Maybe you need to deliver some leads by the end of the quarter. Whatever the case may be, make sure you’re working backward from your deadline to give yourself enough cushion (we recommend at least a month for more involved projects) to make sure everyone can get their piece of the work done.
Centralize your plans: Once you’ve gathered all the information you need from everyone involved, write everything down in a document that anyone can reference. Make sure to note when each person can begin their piece of the project. Writing and publicizing really effective survey content is deceptively difficult, but if you plan correctly, it will all go smoothly.
So you’ve developed the perfect idea for an article that fits your brand, meets your goals, and works for other initiatives and campaigns you’re pursuing. It’s relevant, it’s interesting, you’ve even got a clicky headline in mind for it. Time to jump in and start writing questions, right?
The key to any good survey, content marketing surveys included, is focus. The best surveys address a single, clear research question, around which all the other questions are structured. Surveys that try to answer several unique questions will often deliver weak results. The surveys with no research question behind them at all are usually the weakest. These are usually the ones that wade into a topic with no initial direction at all, but instead with a general interest in “exploring” the topic with the survey.
It’s best to deeply research your survey topic before you ever start writing questions. If you’re thinking “let’s see what we can find out about this topic” when you’re writing your survey, the outcome will often be a lot of disparate, unfocused, or superficial data.
Imagine what the end result of your survey will be. You’re going to write an article exploring a thesis (your main research question) with a body that’s filled out with a few key points that support that thesis. The data from your survey questions should support those key points.
Here’s an example from SurveyMonkey’s own survey about marketers that we’ve simplified to fit this guide:
Thesis: Creating attention-grabbing marketing campaigns is a difficult, high-stakes process and many people may doubt its efficacy.
We’re not suggesting that you should lead your audience to say what you want them to stay. Under no circumstances should you sacrifice the validity of your results to make punchier data points. Instead, we’re suggesting that you structure your questions in a way that will get you definitive answers, instead of scattered results.
Balancing objectivity and direction can be tough. If you’re new to writing surveys, it’s worth reviewing the five most common pitfalls beginners face.
Now that you know what information you need to support your key points, it’s time to start writing the questions that will help you get that data. Not every question type is equal. Each have pros and cons that make them better for some things than others.
Likert scale questions, which ask you to rate something from one extreme to another—strongly agree to strongly disagree, for example—are the most focused type of closed-ended question.
How likely are you to click on ads online?
Likert questions are your best bet for getting strong, focused answers from your respondents about a single issue. Use Likert scale questions if you want to get a simple standalone data point, like “40% of people say they sometimes click on ads online.”
Likert scale questions may be relatively dry, but they’re clear and consistent, which makes them perfect for avoiding bias. If you want to ask a controversial or important question, it’s best to use this type of question.
It’s a good idea to use at least one Likert scale question for each of the major supporting points of your article to get a firm, trustworthy answer on it.
Tip: SurveyMonkey Genius can help you choose which scale fits your question best and will automatically estimate how successful your survey will be before you send it.
These are questions with answer options that are written by the survey creator. In other words, instead of using a predetermined structure for the answer options, the way Likert scale questions do, you get to make up your own answer options.
Which type of marketing or advertising theme is most likely to catch your attention?
Since you get to write your own answer options, custom answer option questions can often provide choices that are a lot more colorful than their Likert cousins. But they also carry a few concerns.
By writing answer options for respondents, you’re forcing them to play by your rules. What if they wanted to choose an option that’s not on the list? They’ll usually choose something that doesn’t exactly match their views. In this way, you can accidentally bias your results by imposing your answer options on respondents.
You can reduce this type of bias in three ways:
These types of questions are still very useful and will probably make up the majority of your survey. But it’s best to use Likert scale questions to address your most important points. Once you’ve gotten a solid answer, custom answer option questions are great for “supporting questions” or questions that add color to your answers.
Letting respondents choose more than one answer option per question makes a bigger difference on your data than you’d think.
These question types allow respondents to select multiple answer choices, and are sometimes referred to as “select all that apply” questions. Since respondents can give as many answers as they want, they tend to select several. This generally affects your data in two ways:
This means multiple-answer questions can often present bigger standalone data points but aren’t normally the best for comparing and contrasting the options.
Which of the following words would you use to describe your company’s marketing team? (Select all that apply)
Some respondents might select all four answer options in the example above. You’ll be able to get good standalone data points like “60% of people say their company’s marketing team is creative,” but the differences between each answer option will usually be muddied by the extra noise.
Tip: The fewer the answer options, the more likely it is that respondents will select the options you want to make a statement about. Try to limit extraneous or unimportant answer options.
These question types force respondents to select a single answer option instead of multiple. Since respondents can only choose one answer option, the effect on your data will usually be the opposite of multiple-answer questions:
This makes these question types ideal for comparing and contrasting responses to different answer options but since each answer option will have lower response rates, the standalone data points will be less impressive. Take the following for example:
Which of the following words would you use to describe your company’s marketing team? (Select one)
With only a single answer option to choose from, our standalone data point might not be as punchy as the previous example (i.e. now only 25% of people say their company’s marketing team is creative). However, we’re now able to more accurately compare answer options, like “25% of people say their company’s marketing team is creative, while 18% say they’re ineffective.”
Open-ended questions can be really valuable because they allow respondents to answer in their own words. While closed-ended questions let respondents choose the answer option they agree with the most, open-ended questions let them say exactly what they mean. There are some downsides, though.
For these reasons, it’s often better to limit the number of open-ended questions you ask when you’re writing a content marketing survey. When you do use them, they can be pretty effective in two ways:
Word clouds are great tools for distilling the essence of your respondents’ answers to your open-ended questions into a readable format. If you’re not already familiar with them, word clouds take the most commonly used words and phrases from your open-ended question responses and make a collage of words, where the most popular ones appear biggest. They usually look something like this:
If you’re only asking an open-ended question so that you can make a word cloud, we recommend you do as much work for respondents as possible, and ask for as little as possible.
You can also ask them to answer in a complete sentence and, if you’re asking in SurveyMonkey, the software will automatically filter out words that aren’t “keywords.” But regardless of whether you decide to use a word cloud, it’s always best to make things as easy for your respondents if you can, so you end up with more responses.
Sometimes a respondent will say something that perfectly encapsulates your point, and articulates it better than any statistic or data point ever could. Of course, getting “the perfect quote” from your respondents won’t happen every time, but when they do, they can be a fantastic asset. Either way, you can usually find some interesting tidbits, but they won’t always be presentable, so they might serve better as background for you, rather than a polished quote.
Finally, don’t forget to consider your own effort. The best surveys will have north of 500 responses, which means you’ll have to read through a minimum of 500 responses to find a good one. Only ask for answers you’re willing to do the legwork for.
Sometimes you want to narrow down your respondents so you’re only hearing from one type of person (for example—millennials with cars). Most survey panels like SurveyMonkey Audience have targeting parameters that allow you to choose who gets your survey. But if you’re sampling from a random sample, or want to get more specific than your targeting parameters allow, screening questions can be a good way to weed out opinions you don’t care about.
Screening questions are usually at the beginning of your survey and they allow you to disqualify respondents who you aren’t interested in surveying.