Survey-Based Research Projects

Survey-based research podcast

I had a great conversation about survey-based research projects with Jane Portman on Better Done Than Perfect, a podcast for SaaS founders and product people.

Here are the show notes and you can listen to the episode here – Survey-Based Research Projects.

Key Learnings 💡

Becky Lawlor, founder of Sparkifico, specializes in doing survey-based research for content writing. In her early days as a freelance writer, Becky took on content marketing projects. When a friend, who owned an agency, brought her on to work with tech clients, she found that the B2B technology niche was a great fit for her.

Over time, clients gave her the opportunity to do survey-based research. With a background in narrative storytelling, Becky says she loved using the data from original research in her articles:

“When I discovered original survey-based research as a way to do this, it lit me up. And I was surprised at how much I also liked using data as a way to figure out the story. So instead of coming at it like: ‘here’s our content angle’. It’s more like, ‘what’s the story in the data?'”

She wanted to become more involved in her clients’ research process so she reached out to Michele Linn and asked if she could be Michele’s mentee. With her training and a pilot project to practice on, Becky was able to build her skills and offer this service to more clients.

Becky launched Sparkifico to differentiate herself from the many freelance writers out there. Her agency produces survey-based research specifically for content production.

Benefits of doing research for content

When we think of SEO, the go-to strategy is to create SEO articles to help your content rank on the pages. But Becky says doing research content also helps with SEO — because of its value and the backlinks you can get from being an original source of data:

“Even when you’re talking about SEO, research content can really help with that. I see a lot of companies that do original research. You get picked up by other people that are creating their white papers or their blogs, and you get linked. So you get all these backlinks that drive traffic to your site, to your content, to your research.”

She also shares that it’s getting harder to get users to share their email addresses or any other data in exchange for white papers and ebooks. Survey-based research content is only among the few remaining ways to have people consent to give their data to you:

“I personally believe in what I’ve seen in the marketplace is that these survey-based original research pieces of content are one of the few pieces that people will give their email address and be willing to hand over their data just to get access to the content.”

So what does a typical research project look like?

Step 1. Identify your research goals

Before thinking about the survey questions, you first have to identify your research goals. This will guide you in the proceeding steps of the research project, even in what the written content would look like:

“What theme or angle do you want to take in your research? What hypothesis do you have that is driving this research?”

Similar to any other scientific research, Becky says doing this research project is about seeing if your hypothesis is correct or incorrect. She recommends having at least three hypotheses around a theme that you want to test.

Becky also recommends exploring myths as an angle for your research:

“Is there a myth in your industry or around a topic that you think you might be able to bust? That can be a really interesting angle.”

Aside from thinking about angles, you also need to identify how you’re going to use the data, and what outcomes you’re hoping to get:

“Is it for a lead generation piece? Is it for brand awareness? I work with a lot of startups, smaller ones, and sometimes they want to bridge a little bit of product development knowledge or some internal data as well as data points that can help them with content marketing.”

Step 2. Identify your audience

Where to find respondents

The next step would be to find the demographic you are going to survey and where to find them. One option is to make use of your email list but expect only a small number to respond to your survey:

“If you have an email list, you can go that route but I will say you have to have a pretty big and active email list. It’s hard to get the amount of responses you might want. Usually, the response rate is 1 to 2%. Maybe 5% if you have a really active, engaged list.”

Another option is to partner up with another person or company that has an active email list that fits the characteristics of the audience that you are looking for:

“You could both benefit from co-branding the research at the end. So that may be another way to do it, or combining your list together might get you a big enough audience.”

And if the email list route is not enough, you can work with panel companies like Pollfish and SurveyMonkey that specializes in looking for respondents.

Jane asks about using popular PR platforms like HARO and Help a B2B writer in looking for survey respondents and provide a backlink as an incentive. While you can technically do this, Becky says this might be impractical during the research stage:

“What I usually do is after I get the research, when I’m writing the report, I like to get industry experts to weigh in on the research. So that would be a point where I might look at HARO and try to source some interviews with people who have the right expertise to maybe look at it like: ‘This was really interesting in the data. What does your experience say about this? What do you think about this?’ and then quote them and provide a backlink that way.”

Sample size

In terms of sample size, Becky recommends around 150 to 250 if you are in the B2B niche looking to survey a professional audience. This will also depend on the budget you’re working with and other factors:

“Depending on your budget and depending if it’s really niche, you may not even be able to get 250 responses. There may not be anybody who can service that many responses. But I think it does need to be around that number for a qualitative survey.

If you’re doing interviews, that’s a different type of research and you can have a smaller set. But for this kind of survey-based collection, I think we should aim for at least above a hundred.”

Setting qualifiers for your audience

Especially if you plan to work with panel companies, it’s important to get specific on the qualifiers for your audience:

“You may say initially that you want to survey IT professionals, but you want to get a little bit more specific than that for your survey. So you may want only managers and above for what you’re doing, or you may only want the C-suite.”

But Becky cautions that the more qualifiers you set, the panel company will be charging you at a higher price. She recommends to at least have one or two qualifiers.

Ensure the respondents’ anonymity

If you’re planning to conduct the survey on your own (without the help of a panel company), you must still ensure your respondents’ anonymity. If you would like to provide an incentive for their participation, Becky says their survey answers shouldn’t be connected to the email that they provided for the incentive:

“Even when you’re sending out an email that this survey should be anonymous, you can ask at the end: ‘if you want to be considered for the incentive, put in your email.’ or ‘if you’d like us to send you the report when it’s done, put in your email.’

But those should be disconnected from like their responses. You shouldn’t be kind of looking back to connect the two. Even when you do the emails and you collect those, the users should feel like you’re not gonna assign their responses to them publicly in any way – it should be anonymous. That should be made clear at the front of the survey.”

Step 3. Write your survey

Avoid bias

When framing questions for your survey, make sure that you’re not asking biased and/or leading questions. Becky shares that another reason she works with panel companies is to avoid bias from the audience:

“Depending on what you’re trying to get from the data, maybe having your own customers would just validate your ideas. Because you’re all on the same mindset and they’re already your customers. Sometimes it’s good to have an audience that isn’t already bought into whatever you’re doing.”

Have a narrative flow

The survey design often starts with demographic questions. This can help you look at the difference in the answers between the different segments of your respondents.

Aside from the typical questions, Becky advises putting in questions for quality checking to make sure that your respondents are not rushing through the survey and are reading the questions carefully:

“Sometimes I might do something as simple as: ‘If you read this question, please select none of the above. If they don’t select none of the above, they’re instantly disqualified from the survey, because obviously, they’re not reading the questions.”

Becky also puts in questions for knowledge checking to make sure that the audiences used by the panel companies are really fit with their criteria:

“For the marketing audience, I might put: ‘What is the definition of SEO?’ Anybody in marketing should know what SEO means, but if they’re not truly a marketer that might trip them up. So if they can’t answer it correctly, they would be disqualified.”

On using open-ended questions

If you need to use open-ended questions in your survey, Becky advises to strictly use only one or two:

“An open-ended question takes more cognitive thinking. People have to stop and think, they have to respond. If you use it too much, some people will just skip them, or they write gibberish. You’re not really getting thoughtful answers in there so you want to really only use them where it makes sense in a limited scope.”

Step 4. Program your survey

Tools like Alchemer, Typeform, Google Forms, Qualtrics are typically used for survey-based research. But when choosing your tool, it’s important to check if it fits with your survey design:

“As your survey design gets more complex, you can use what’s called skip logic. You might say, ‘okay, I’m gonna ask this question if they answer yes. I want to send them onto this question. But if the answer is no, I want to send them to another question.

As you get more complex in how you’re designing the survey and how you’re funneling people, those free tools aren’t gonna be able to do that.”

Another thing to consider when choosing tools is to look at its robustness, how much it can do in terms of logic, what various survey formats does it have, among other things.

Consider your tools when selecting a panel company, because what they use should be compatible with yours.

Step 5. Quality control testing

Before launching the survey, it’s important to do quality control testing. Make sure that it makes sense. This is usually done with the help of someone or several people outside the survey design team:

“I get three to four people to review the survey and leave comments like, ‘hey, this question didn’t really make sense to me.’ or ‘I didn’t understand what you were asking here.'”

After the testing, Becky and her team gathers the feedback and integrates changes to improve the survey.

Step 6. Launch the survey

During the initial stages of the launch, Becky does what she calls a soft launch. This is when they wait for about 10 to 15% of the responses to come in and they look at the responses.

“You want to take a look at those responses and again validate: does everything align? Is there anything that just really seems like ‘whoa, people are answering this way and that seems really off’, is the question not clear?

Take a moment to look at everything and make sure it looks good and it’s making sense. If you don’t see any red flags, then from there you would release it and finish collecting the rest of your responses.”

Step 7. Analyze your data

Depending on the resources available, you can do the analysis on the same survey platform, or export and analyze it on a different tool. Becky collaborates with data analysts to make it easier to look for angles and stories in the data:

“I have my data analysts clean the data, and then I will go through all the data and look at what I think is interesting, what I want to cross tab. So I relay back to my data analyst: ‘here’s what I want you to look for in the data. Here’s what I’d like you to cross tab.’ and then she does that for me. I feel better about having an expert in that spot.”

Final advice

Do try survey-based research for your content.

“Even if you’re running a really lean operation, and you don’t have the budget or expertise, just give it a try.”

Don’t be self-serving with your data.

“Don’t create your whole survey and your research to back up that your product or service is great. You need to go beyond that. Your research should really be thinking about something that can serve your audience.”

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