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Using surveys for PR and content marketing: a 5-step plan

How do you develop surveys that generate compelling PR and marketing content?

PRs and marketers have always known the value of surveys for awareness and thought leadership campaigns. And it’s never been easier (or more cost-effective) to run surveys using easy-to-use, self-service online platforms.

But with so much survey-based content being churned out daily, how do you ensure your surveys produce insights that cut through the noise and generate content that will deliver quality PR results?

To be successful, your survey findings usually need to either surprise or educate. They should make the audience do a double-take by revealing insights they never expected (or sometimes confirming what they suspected all the time but weren’t sure of).

Presenting results that go against what is currently perceived wisdom can also be extremely powerful.

Another useful tactic is to try to generate data that helps your target audience better understand a trend or challenge they’re facing. This is an opportunity to build ongoing trust by showing them your brand is on their side and is focused on their pain-points.

Success with survey-based PR and content marketing is far from guaranteed. So, here’s our tried and tested 5-step approach to developing surveys that will get your brand noticed:

Step 1 – Come up with a list of issues or problems that are relevant to your audience

You may already know what your audience’s burning issues and hot buttons are. If not, question sales or customer facing staff to see what people are talking to them about. Attend a trade show to gauge the mood of the industry, or review what analysts are focusing on. You could even pick the brains of a friendly journalist.

From here, choose two or three themes that are the most interesting and briefly define your company’s position on them. How does your organisation touch or relate to the issue? Is the subject good or bad for the industry? If it’s a problem faced by your audience, how can you use a survey to increase their understanding of it?

For our client, Nosto, which supplies a personalisation platform for the online fashion retail sector, the big hot topic we focused on in a recent survey was consumer attitudes to sustainable fashion. For Kenshoo, which helps marketers manage and track online ads, it was the growth of Amazon as a channel for advertising. Both of these linked to the audiences’ pain points or industry issues, without being obvious sales messages for the brands’ products and services.

Step 2 – Review existing media and social on the potential topics 

Next, do some Google and social media searches. What are people saying about the themes you’re considering? Are there obvious gaps in the knowledge that a survey could help clarify? Have other brands already released data or surveys – what are the findings, and could you build on them?

For example, for customer experience platform, Eptica, we combined research on how often consumers contacted brands with government statistics on the UK population and analyst data on the cost of particular channels. The result was impressive headline figures on the volume of contacts UK brands had to deal with (nearly half a billion per month!) and their cost – an eye-watering £1.2 billion.

Step 3 – Create some sample headlines and survey news story ideas

Step back and imagine you have already run your survey. In an ideal world how would you want the findings written up in the media? Create a compelling headline and first paragraph that highlights the key aspects of the story based on your gut feeling of what the research might reveal

For example, working with Nosto on the recent research project mentioned above, we had a feeling that concerns over fashion sustainability were now cross-generational, rather than restricted to the likes of Gen Z and millennials. And for the Kenshoo survey we suspected that shoppers in physical stores were comparing what they could buy on Amazon with what was available in-store before making a purchase decision, impacting the online brands that Kenshoo was targeting.

Obviously be realistic when constructing your hypothetical story angles. Are the findings you are expecting really likely? Don’t be tempted to use leading questions to try and get the results to back up the arguments you want to make; journalists are pitched survey stories all the time and know how to filter out attempts to generate self-serving data.

Next, review your sample headline and story ideas and decide which one has the potential to create the strongest news hook (is the most surprising on interesting) while still being believable. Which story would highlight things you think the audience will be intrigued by? Obviously make sure that the findings will tie in with your positioning on the themes but are not too obviously ‘salesy’.

Step 4 – Generate and test your questions

Now take that strongest theme and generate questions that will identify the issues you’d like to bring out. Some tips here:

  • Keep questions short and easy to understand. We find about 3 questions can be enough to generate interesting insights.
  • Try to use one of your question to generate a list, such as the top 5 challenges or 3 biggest dislikes, related to your theme. These play out well and can make interesting visuals as well
  • Avoid leading questions – if you are doing this solely for PR purposes journalists will spot your approach and you’ll damage your reputation as well as not getting results.
  • Look at a question with multiple statements that respondents can agree/disagree with – this gives a lot of depth that can then support your wider argument.
  • Test your survey – such as with on friends/colleagues or even a friendly customer, simply to see if it’s easy to understand before doing a wider test with a larger audience.

Your full survey should have a sample size of a minimum of 1,000 respondents for consumer surveys – 100 if it’s a poll of a specialist business audience (for example IT or marketing directors).

It’s worth considering running a test survey on a small sample just to see the types of results you might end up with. In a consumer survey, even a small sample of 100 respondents can give you a very good idea of the results from a larger sample of 1,000. This will allow you to make any tweaks to your questions to ensure they are being understood and answered in the way you envisaged.

Step 5 – Run the full survey and analyse results

Run the survey and then take time over analysing the results. You might not get exactly what you were expecting. Don’t be deterred – if you look deeply you should be able to find something interesting to talk about.

When doing this analysis, obviously look for findings that go against the grain, bring fresh perspective or link to breaking news. Does the data provide insight on a burning question that is currently in the news?

Drill down into demographic differences – most survey platforms can now break down data into a very granular level, so you can analyse differences between Men v Women and young v old. This can add an extra dimension to stories, especially if they go against commonly perceived stereotypes.

Again, it is now relatively straightforward to filter results by how questions were answered. So, in the Nosto story mentioned above we could see whether those who said they wanted the fashion industry to be sustainable would be willing to pay more for sustainable fashion items.

PR surveys take effort, but are worth it

While they have the potential to deliver valuable PR and marketing results, surveys are now an over-used tactic. That means you need to work harder to guarantee success from your survey campaigns – simply ‘knocking together’ some interesting questions and hoping for something you can use is not enough. It takes takes careful thought and planning. And if you get it right, it can still produce great results (check out this content marketing case study which describes how we use a survey to create a piece of compelling content that supported a variety of a client’s marketing initiatives, including a series of webinars, an on-stand giveaway and panel debate at a key industry show, a PR campaign that generated high profile media coverage and a sales prospecting conversation starter).

Following the above 5 stage process can be a helpful way to structure your approach.

For more on PR surveys check out our PR advice article on using research to boost your profile. Or check out our technology PR case studies, many of which describe how we’ve successfully used data and surveys in tech PR campaigns for our clients.