99% of those surveyed said good research is dying*

Don’t you just hate it when a headline lures you with the promise of evidence-based analysis – only for the full article to leave you disappointed by lightweight data masquerading as quantitative research?

Guy Washer, Founding, Managing Partner at Sapio Research, explores the link between high quality market research and effective content marketing.

In a world of ‘infobesity’ – where digital media means we’re all getting fat on information – clickbait can often leave us feeling intellectually undernourished. Good content is about much more than generating page views to stimulate ad revenues – it emotionally connects with its audience in ways that challenge thinking and change behaviours. And more often than not, it uses data as a fuel for creative storytelling to capture the hearts and minds of readers.

So, here’s the thing… We know that audiences have a penchant for statistics and that data-rich content has a depth and credibility that cuts through the noise. So why does so much content marketing rely on statistically unsound research that props up an argument but does not withstand scrutiny? Moreover, in a saturated marketplace where the war for eyeballs is intensifying, why do many B2B marketers depend on quick-fix ‘DIY’ research to hook their readers?

High quality research insight not only enhances storytelling, it can make the difference between your content being seen, shared or simply ignored. If Content is King, good research is the power behind the throne. It’s time to make the most of it – before the monarchy is overthrown.

First off, in the spirit of practising and preaching, let’s nourish you with some data. Content Marketing is firmly established as a primary tool of B2B marketing; 87% of UK marketers now use content marketing with companies investing, on average, 36% of their total marketing budget in the activity. More than half of UK marketers plan to increase their content marketing spend in the next 12 months. The evidence is clear: content is the new black. That’s the good news. The bad news is that with so much content being produced, consumers are drowning in the stuff. There’s an inherent risk that marketing investment is wasted unless content is relevant, engaging and ‘sticky’.

The key determinants of sticky content are numerous and subjective. However, one characteristic commonly stands out: readers like data. For example, a recent Sapio study into the information preferences of senior executives in large businesses concluded that data-rich content was the most favoured; 56% of respondents were most interested in articles that included research and statistics. It’s really no surprise: we all find safety in numbers.

Naturally, content creators know this and typically pack their prose with ‘facts’ and figures to augment their arguments. In B2B environments, that information is often supplied by marketers who have generated data to fuel helpful hooks to propel their stories. The evolution of market research techniques certainly helps their cause. Self-serve online technologies are giving marketers and journalists simple tools to conduct basic market research. These tools are increasingly being used to poll audiences, canvas opinion and generate the data firewood that ignites the flames of content marketing. In turn, content creatives are leveraging the findings to feed their audiences’ hunger for numbers. The question is: can we be certain that the outputs of DIY research offer statistically valid insights, or are they borderline ‘fake news’? For sure, the increased use of self-serve tools is in danger of contributing to a dumbing-down of market research and an erosion in the value of more rigorous techniques.

DIY-oh-why?

A growing percentage of research is now a tick-box exercise – led by DIY methodologies that typically yield simplistic results. In many cases the self-serve approach has become, well, self-serving – crudely contrived to manufacture data that reinforces a brand’s messaging rather than seeking out genuine insight. The outcomes have limited value.

Good research – the kind that empowers storytelling and intrigues audiences – relies on a rigour that’s too often a casualty of the self-serve model. An effective research partner will understand the science of market research – and, in contrast to insular DIY approaches, they’ll take a consultative approach to the development of programmes that drive actionable insight. The most successful programmes start with clear objectives and a strategic brief that outlines the scope and size of a study, as well as the appropriate methodology to meet its goals. Quick-fix, self-serve research seldom scales such depths.

Furthermore, a good research agency knows how to design survey questionnaires so that they’re structured, focused and concise – and applies proven questioning techniques to solicit specific and meaningful outcomes. A study questionnaire is itself a piece of content – and merits the same focus as all other content outputs. Sadly, this is rarely the case. In the rush to DIY, questionnaire architecture is becoming a lost science.

Self-serve models also have limitations in the crucial arena of survey demographics. An experienced partner will understand the importance of audience and how the size and credibility of the sample will influence the value of the findings. They’ll design studies that target the right people while intrinsically weeding out false participants. Finally, once polling is complete, they’ll subject the data to robust and sophisticated analysis that goes beyond headline percentages and finds hidden nuances. These nuances are the DNA of exciting content and unique stories that only you can tell. The challenge is to unearth them.

The growth of self-serve technologies has been a positive development for marketers looking for quick answers to simple questions. But DIY tech can never replace the rigour and sophistication of specialist market research. Yet the worry is that, as marketers look for efficient and apparently cost-effective ways of generating ‘insight’, robust research techniques are becoming a dying art. In reality, as consumers become more savvy in how they view brands, high quality data is more important than ever.

It’s a misconception that self-serve research is cheaper than specialist agency support;  good research is not a cost, it’s a value-add. And it’s nowhere near as expensive as poorly-conceived research that, when used inappropriately, can damage brand credibility. Fundamentally, in a B2B environment that’s increasingly deploying content marketing, the quality of your content is intrinsically linked to the quality of your research.

And so, to the epilogue. A US poet once wrote: “the universe is not made of atoms, it’s made up of tiny stories.” Good research can help you unearth those stories and tell them in ways that engage and excite. To get there, however, it pays to collaborate – because DIY research is just a recipe for more unfulfilling clickbait in a world of infobesity. If we’re going to get fat, we might as well sink our teeth into something worthwhile.

* No research effort was made in the development of this headline. The data is not the result of a genuine research study. But it makes for perfect clickbait…

Picture credit: William Iven

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