Surveys have become one of the most important items in a professional services marketers’ toolkit. When done right, they can help companies demonstrate their insights on important business topics and generate awareness of the company overall. Yet many marketers struggle to create surveys that provide sufficient return on investment.
What separates companies whose surveys are powerful lead and awareness generators from those whose surveys fall flat? In our experience, 10 key practices make the difference:
- Get all key stakeholders involved early in the process—especially in the identification of the research topic and design of the research. The most successful research projects have strong participation from the head of the sponsoring practice or company, appropriate subject-matter experts, account managers and business developers, and marketers throughout design, analysis and communication of the findings.
- Conduct comprehensive secondary research on the broad research topic before designing the research. Doing so enables you to both identify material already published on the topic (and, thus, differentiate your research) as well as pinpoint aspects of the topic that have not been adequately covered by other organizations (and, thus, provide fresh new insights your audience will value).
- Always use hypotheses to ensure the research generates useful data. They’re absolutely vital to ensuring you understand what you hope to prove with the research and keeping research execution activities focused on that goal. Hypotheses should not be so broad that they can’t be covered adequately by a survey and not so narrow that new discoveries are difficult.
- In crafting the survey questionnaire, devise four or five questions to probe each hypothesis. If a hypothesis needs more than five questions to probe it, it is probably too broad and should be narrowed in scope. Questions should be easy for targets to answer and well within their professional purview. Nothing turns off prospective participants faster than overly complex questions that take a lot of time to answer or those that are irrelevant to their area of expertise.
- Avoid the “C-level trap”: Trying and failing to target the most senior executives possible. Many companies mistakenly think that the results of their surveys will be credible only if top-level executives participated in it. In fact, surveys on business or management topics often are best taken by professionals at the manager, director or vice president level because these individuals have the most intimate knowledge of the topic at hand and are more likely to engage with the survey.
- Create incentives for participation that provide both business and personal value. Topical incentives such as early access to research findings or a personalized benchmark report can be paired with items such as drawings for iPods or gift certificates to most effectively drive participation. One would be surprised to find that even highly compensated executives still are attracted to incentives they find personally valuable.
- Don’t simply report interesting answers to questions: Take sufficient time in analysis (and use the hypotheses as a guide) to determine the most compelling story (or stories) the data is telling and use that storyline as the basis of a compelling, well-written research report. This is where we find surveys typically fail most frequently. Many companies spend considerable time and money collecting data, but then skimp on analysis—which can compromise the strength of the findings and squander the investments made in data collection.
- To help ensure that the research findings are consistently communicated externally, sufficiently train all relevant personnel on the findings and methodology—including marketing and media relations professionals, as well as any client-facing professionals. Make sure these employees understand and can communicate the linkage between the research findings, the implications for clients, and the services your company can offer to help.
- Create and execute a full marketing plan around the findings. Within this plan, maximize the marketing opportunity the survey provides by releasing different sections of the results (such as specific industry or functional findings) in addition to marketing the overall findings. Use social media channels to broadcast the most interesting findings, and consider online channels and discussion groups as mechanisms to continue the dialog on the research topic and further engage clients and prospects. Offer to prepare and deliver tailored presentations on the survey findings to the management teams of each of the companies that participated in the research and to key target accounts.
- “Institutionalize” the research: make it an annual, semi-annual or quarterly initiative. In doing so, your company ultimately will increase brand awareness, create anticipation for the research among target executives and be able to provide longitudinal comparisons. This will help cement your company’s reputation as the “voice of authority” on the topic in the eyes of customers, prospects and the media LI Posts.
Survey research should play a central role in any professional services company’s marketing strategy. Executed well, surveys enable companies to generate interesting and useful content that attracts prospective buyers’ attention while demonstrating that the company understands the challenges these executives face. Many of the world’s leading professional services companies have multiple surveys in the field at once, and many of those surveys recur year after year, with a loyal and engaged audience looking forward to both participating in and learning from the research. A simple, yet rigorous approach to survey research can increase the odds that a company’s survey makes an impact in its chosen market by providing a platform from which a company can demonstrate its expertise, as well as a basis for meaningful discussions between a company’s client-facing professionals and their most important contacts.