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.