Be more systematic in your content marketing surveys

Compelling content marketing tells a story that accomplishes three objectives. First, the teaser content used in digital marketing campaigns makes the target audience want to learn more. Second, it prompts the reader to think about their own situation and wonder if they should consider a change. And third, it links the need for change to your solutions.

While the above is the goal, many content marketing pieces are simply a collection of profiling metrics: What solutions does the market use? How many people work in the department? What information sources do they rely on?

No content marketing team sets out to create a hodgepodge of firmographic infographics. So how does this happen? While the specifics of every situation are unique, based on our two decades of research, a common root cause of this phenomenon is hoping that a story will emerge from the data instead of systematically identifying the data needed to tell a pre-defined story.

This post provides two frameworks you can use to help develop more compelling marketing content. However, before outlining the frameworks, it is helpful to review the pitfalls that often befall the content development process.

Common Pitfalls

Serving too many stakeholders: One common challenge is that too many cooks end up in the kitchen. The content marketing team wants to ensure that the data and content are useful to key internal audiences, so they solicit feedback from multiple internal stakeholders. Unfortunately, internal stakeholders can lose sight of the purpose of the final output – content that contributes to lead generation. Instead, they want to use the survey to help them understand the aspects of the market that they don’t understand. The product team wants to add a few questions about the features that are important. The strategy team wants to know what vendors are used and why. Sales wants to know who the decision-makers are. The few questions from each stakeholder group add up quickly, leaving little room for more strategic topics in the survey.

Starting with survey questions instead of a story: Is it easy for the content marketing team to put the cart before the horse and start writing survey questions before developing possible storylines and marketing themes. When a content marketing project kicks off, the project typically comes with a sense of urgency – things need to happen fast. The team feels pressure to start getting something down on paper that stakeholders can react to. Creating survey questions feels more like progress against the project timeline than brainstorming storylines and themes. And the questions that come easiest to mind are descriptive demographics and firmographics.

Fishing expedition: The two dynamics described above can result in a disjointed set of data and insights that lack a coherent theme. This puts the content writers in the position of trying to figure out what story they can tell with the data they have and chasing the elusive “Aha” stat that can be the lead in their content.

Better approach: When the content marketing team has time and internal support, a better approach to content generation is to have a story in mind and use the research data to support that story. This is more likely to garner interest and clicks from the target audience.

Identifying Stories & Themes

The process starts with the content marketing team working with internal stakeholders to develop 3-4 stories the company would like to tell. These should connect to the themes the company uses in its other marketing and product marketing efforts.

It can be helpful to break themes and stories into the four components outlined in the following example for an IT support services company.

1. Broad Story: What is the problem? Why is it relevant?

Younger remote workers don’t turn to their corporate IT support function when they have a problem, and this pattern of behavior creates a range of potentially serious problems for IT.

2. Market Dynamics: What causes the problem?

Younger employees expect an immediate response and feel the helpdesk is too slow. As digital natives, they can’t tolerate being down for any length of time. So their first instinct is to try to fix the problem using their own resources instead of going to the corporate IT department.

3. What are the consequences/implications?

Younger employees find a “solution” online that introduces malware or worsens the problem, which takes longer for the helpdesk to fix, puts company data at risk, etc.

4. Connection to Offering

Our solution helps address these challenges in direct and indirect ways, which…

Once a rough storyline is in place, the team can develop survey questions that will provide supporting data. Using the example above, the survey can explore the difference in perceptions between employees and the helpdesk regarding wait time. It can collect data on how often employees try to fix their computers themselves. It can explore the potential negative consequences of employee behavior.

In the process of developing storylines, one may emerge as a clear winner. However, in other cases, there may be differences of opinion about which theme would resonate best with the target market.

Ranking Stories & Themes

When it is unclear which story to pursue, content marketing teams can use another framework to rank the possible stories. Even if there is a clear winner, it’s worth going through the exercise to see if the team needs to develop a more compelling story.

The process scores each story on the seven dimensions. Tallying the scores on each dimension for each storyline identifies the one most likely to engage the target audience.

1. Relevance to the target audience: How likely is the audience to find this topic interesting? Do they talk about it today? Do they have questions about it? Will they recognize it as relevant to them? A common mistake when generating content is overestimating how compelling the audience will find benchmarking information.

2. Value to Your Organization: To what extent does the story support your company’s overall marketing themes. Is it consistent with the stories and themes that sales and product marketing already use? Will it fit naturally into the sales and marketing mix?

3. Differentiated: To what extent has this story been told by competitors, analysts, and other information sources? For example, after two years of the pandemic, remote work and the great resignation are exhausted topics: There is very little to say that hasn’t already been said.

4. Leading, but not cutting, edge: Is it something organizations are starting to think about and struggle with without being too far ahead of where they are today? Themes that get the most attention are those that the mainstream is on the verge of adopting. Most companies are more concerned with being left behind than with being out in front.

5. Alternative stories: How many different stories and POVs can be generated from the data? If the data doesn’t fully support the core hypothesis of the story, are there ways to pivot and apply the data to a different (yet still compelling) narrative?

6. Work within limitations: What is the likelihood that a survey can provide the data you need based on the practical realities and constraints related to budget availability, response rates, etc.?

7. Gestalt: Like most things, themes are more than the sum of their parts. To what degree do you feel this is a good direction for content marketing and thought leadership?

Systematic Stories

We present the above frameworks as conceptual strategies for identifying and evaluating potential themes for your next content marketing campaign. The most important takeaway is to use a systematic approach to identifying what to include in your survey to avoid the common pitfalls encountered when developing survey-generated content.

If you’d like to learn more about how Isurus help clients design and collect content marketing, you can reach out to us here.

The following posts provide additional thoughts on marketing and communications.

Advice for using survey data to show solution effectiveness

When to use ROI in messaging

Are you messaging to threshold conditions