A marketing research process isn’t just a leisurely trip through Wikipedia, nor is it tripping and falling into the Google search bar and emerging with whatever was closest to the top.
Research is you, carrying reluctant readers, up and over the highest mountains of data, statistics, testing, theory, and ideas, getting them to the other side safely and sated.
You are the detective, the interpreter, the nurse. “Here is my theory. Here is the proof. Now go and do likewise.”
It’s easier to use what’s easiest, using what other marketers and bloggers have dug up, repackaging it with your own twist. I’ve done it, too. We’re under a time crunch sometimes, and that is why we grab at low-hanging fruit.
But if you’re using an editorial calendar and are working several weeks in advance, you have the time to dig a bit deeper.
So where should you start your content marketing research process? You just need to know how to do great research, and it starts with being good with questions.
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1. Start With Good Questions
Your content has the end goal of providing your reader with new information. The first step in creating that content is to start with the questions you yourself have.
This is actually the trickiest part of the content marketing research process.
Once you have the right questions, finding the information isn't difficult. So how do you find the right questions?
- Go where questions thrive. Why not go where other people ask questions, like Quora? If you know the general category, you can find the questions people are asking within that topic. You'll probably find the terms and phrases you need to do additional research on your own.
- Start with your own curiosity. What questions come to mind? When faced with something we don't know, most of us are curious and have a natural tendency to ask foundational questions (e.g. What is it? How does it work? Who made it? Is it dangerous?). These are the kind of introductory questions that give you the next level of understanding which helps spur on better questions.
- Confront your assumptions. What do you assume about a topic? Even when we don't know a topic well, we still form assumptions about it. Use those assumptions, create questions that challenge them, and honestly look for the answer.
Asking the right question is a kind of Catch 22.
If you know nothing about a subject, you have to ask questions to get enough information to finally ask the right question.
We don't like doing that. It's where the "there are no dumb questions" mantra comes to mind. We feel foolish asking such obvious questions.
Find the data that makes sense to you by asking yourself a question, or look to your readers' comments for a question they've asked. (We do that often.) Hit the search engines. Head over to Google Scholar.
Then, answer questions with questions. Remember to ask questions that contradict your idea. You'll find yourself asking the same questions your readers might as you're doing research, and those questions will lead you to find more answers.
Let's say you've shared a recipe of a gourmet tater tot hotdish on your blog, and a reader commented that her kids won't touch tater tot hotdish because of a food poisoning incident one Christmas (a true story in my family). The reader then asks what can she do to get them to eat tater tot hotdish, because she'd sure like to try this recipe.
You decide you want to harness the convincing power of data in your response, and so you do some research on the psychology of why we associate a bad incident with food and never eat that food again.
You look for those numbers and percentages and summarizing statements, extrapolating and interpreting based on your own stories to support your conclusions. You offer up the suggestion on how to change their memory of the last tater tot hotdish experience so that they associate it with positive memories.
Note: I hope I never see a blog post which encourages psychological memory alteration to get a child to eat food. That would be terrible.
Curiosity spurs research, especially when your questions are specific. Consider these examples of questions you could ask and the fascinating data you could find for your content:
- Book Blog: How far do most people read in a Kindle ebook? What kind of books don't get read very far?
- Tech Blog: Where do most Android phone users live? Is there a regional or economic connection to Android use?
- Writing Blog: How many self-published ebook authors have cracked the top 100 list on Amazon? Have the most successful gone on to use traditional publishers?
After delving into even a surface level of research online to satisfy my own curiosity, I've found it fun. You don't have to be able to comprehend brain scans to give data a try.
Just start by answering your own questions doing basic searches.
2. Research Around Your Questions And Keywords
Start with your keywords, and do a basic search on them. If you search using Google, pay attention to the suggestions provided as you type in the search bar.
Google will also provide related searches others have made similar to yours at the bottom of the initial results page.
This helps you in three ways:
- You'll find out the common phrases surrounding your keywords. You'll find the questions people want answered.
- You'll find content others have written. Other bloggers are doing the same exact thing as they researched their own posts. Follow their tracks, see what they came up with, and maybe get ideas of your own.
- You'll find a new angle to approach your topic. People are searching for the same thing, but asking different questions. Their approach might lead you to useful information.
Don't fear the "peripheral" information that surrounds your focused topic. You don't want to go off topic, but you do want to get the most complete picture you can during your marketing research process.
Google search is more than just a simple search bar. It can help you fine tune your online searching according to the type of source. You can specify videos, news, books, blogs, and discussions (forums and groups).
Google defaults your search to return private results, but you can hide the private results for a more global search.
Private results put more weight on search results from people in your Google+ circles, returning webpages, photos, and posts from those people, as well as your own Gmail and Google Calendar events.
You can permanently turn this option off, or you can simply click the global button for that specific search to turn it off.
Even using some of Google's most basic features can make that search bar much more powerful. Knowing how to formulate your Google search query will help narrow down what you're looking for and save you time.
3. Tweak Your Search Terms To Bring Up Better Results
With the addition of a word or two, you can drastically change the kind of results you'll get back in a search. Great words to use when searching for meaty data research for your content marketing blog might include:
For example, if you're writing a post on productivity in the office, you might search "productivity in the office." Here are a few sample results:
Those results are fine, but maybe not as deep or data-filled as you wanted for your post. Now try searching on "psychology of productivity in the office" and see what you find.
I can already see that the results from adding "psychology" to the search are a bit more exciting and intriguing.
These results are going to be concrete and research-based posts as opposed to a post that merely lists productivity tips. They are also giving me some new ideas for posts.
There is nothing wrong with the latter type of post, but I want data and science, and possible discovery of studies that these writers have found.
Note: By using research-based words, I've found several blogs that I regularly read to see what research they've dug up and shared. A few of my favorites include the Nielsen Norman Group or Gregory Ciotti's Sparring Mind blog. Psychology Today has a site I've visited often, too.
Adding these kinds of words to your searches will lead you to sources that regularly put out the kind of content you are looking for.
4. Use Something Other Than A Common Search
The quickest and easiest way to find something is to toss a phrase into a search engine and mine data from the first few pages of results. Which is what everyone else is doing, too.
There are two ways to counteract this lazy habit of ours.
Search Specific Resources
Finding a great set of go-to research tools (besides that basic search) will help you not only research specific topics but get ideas for new posts.
Where might you look to find the data you need for your research?
- Google Trends. This free service shows you trends in search activity all over the world. With access to maps, charts, and other tools, it can be a useful research tool as long as you remember that correlation does not equal causation.
- Google Scholar. This tool allows you to search scholarly articles, books, abstracts, court opinions, theses, and more from academic publishers, professional organizations, universities, etc. When searching on Scholar, you will have to try several times and observe the language you're seeing in the results. Often, it takes half of the time to learn what the keywords you should be searching on are before you start finding the best results. This is where Wikipedia can help in providing you with terminology.
- Google Books. You can search a large selection of books online, customizing your search to only show free books to read, books that have a preview, or no preview at all. Similar sites include Bartleby.com and Project Gutenberg, which specialize in classic literature and public domain sources.
- Google Public Data. With this site, Google says they make "large public-interest datasets easy to explore, visualize, and communicate." Looking for popular first names, crime statistics, or current oil prices? You can find it here.
- The Internet Archive. It's more than the Wayback Machine. This site has a massive archive of data, media, and material from across the web from days past. Just because the information isn't "new" doesn't mean it isn't relevant.
- U.S. Government. The USA.gov site is a simple way to start digging for information provided by the U.S. government. If you're looking for official data and statistics, you might be interested in the (rather ugly) FedStats website or (much prettier) Data.gov, which provide you with publicly available information from government agencies.
- Public Records. Niche blogs have different requirements for the kinds of research they need. Public records search, including court cases, might be something your blog would use in a post.
Back To That Example...
Let's try that "productivity in the office" example over in Google Scholar as an example of using advanced search techniques to get more targeted results. First, I do a search.
The results were wide-ranging, from air quality to telecommuting to a discussion on agrarian cultures and productivity.
But what if I tweak it a bit and search on "psychology of productivity in the office"?
Again, just as with a basic search engine search, the results are a bit more fine-tuned. I can see several in this list that are interesting (and have just gotten a couple of ideas for new blog posts).
Adding in these terms is an extremely basic and simple way to tweak your results, but any little bit helps.
This method, particularly in Google Scholar, is a great way for "accidental research" (which we'll talk about in a bit). You may even want to combine this with those custom search operators or Google Advanced Search.
The goal is to find sources that have fascinating research available. Keep in mind that what is fascinating doesn't necessarily have to be "brand new." There are studies and research that are still relevant and useful that aren't "new." A source doesn't have to be something from the past week. It could be in the past 20 years, or more.
Use Different Search Engines
We all have our favorite search engine, but sometimes you need to use something other than Google or Bing if you want to find research no one else has already found.
One thing I've noticed over the years is that a lot of the smaller search engines, meta search engines, and "deep web" search sites are closing down. That's a shame; when everyone uses the same search engines, we get the same results. Nevertheless, here are a few to try.
- Boardreader. Looking for questions from your audience or ideas from the industry? Boardreader searches forums to show you what people are saying about your topic.
- DuckDuckGo. This search engine doesn't track you like Google. Why does that matter? I have an Android phone and I don't want my Google serving up recommendations based on the topic I was searching about for a blog post. (e.g. I must have read an article about Gwyneth Paltrow once, because for several weeks Google was sure I wanted to read every article about her. I finally purged the topic from my account. DuckDuckGo helps reduce that.)
- Dogpile. The interesting name seems to suit the results it will show you since it searches a variety of engines and removes ads.
- Vimeo. Like YouTube, you can use Vimeo to search for videos on nearly any topic. It's a great way to curate awesome visual content to help you demonstrate a complex idea since you can embed those videos into your content.
- The WWW Virtual Library. This is a throw-back to the early web, listing links and resources based on categories. Definitely not "web 2.0" but who cares? There are a lot of great resources here, and you will find sites with information you might not have found otherwise.
- Yippy. This search engine uses "clustering" and gives you a search that can be sub-divided into the related clusters surrounding the terms you're searching on. You can fine-tune your search by topic groupings associated with your search term.
Once you've found a few sites that routinely turn up the great research, things get easier.
Do take the time to go beyond a basic Google search when searching for information. Or, if you prefer Google, try using custom search operators or Google Advanced Search to find specific content and research. It takes more time and trial and error, but it's worth it.
Searching Within Social Media Networks
Some networks are closed gardens, and they don't easily let Google in.
Don't let your only search effort stop with Google (or another large search engine). Go to each individual network and search there, too.
Do customized searches on Quora, use search operators on Twitter, ask questions in LinkedIn groups... the places where people are sharing their knowledge is far more extensive than what you'll find in a Google search.
These networks have people, they have experts, they have wonderful resources.
Google+ results do show up in your regular Google searches, but visiting the network directly will bring up more results than you would through the main search effort.
The nice thing about the Google+ network is that many people have been treating it like a blogging platform. Posts tend to be long, contain decent content, and share a useful link.
Use What You Know
So you think you don't know anything about your topic, that you have to approach your research from the starting line.
The books and magazines you're reading, even if not on the "topic" of the post, provide you with a way of thinking. The ideas found in good books will connect with what you're writing about if you allow them to.
For example, you've just read a book about the American "Wild West" in the late 1800s. You've just been assigned to write the blog post "5 Requirements Of A Successful Startup." There's a pretty good chance you can use some of what you read in that book in relation to your blog post.
The best thing about this approach?
It can turn a dry post full of dry statements ("...startups should be willing to take risks") into a good read ("...a startup is the modern-day Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.")
You might not know the specifics of the topic, but if you've made reading and learning new things a regular part of your life, it's all going to come together when you write. The ideas are already floating around in there; they just need to latch onto each other. A 2,400-word post with a looming due date has a way of encouraging them to do that.
Use Wikipedia In Your Content Marketing Research Process Cautiously
It's the online version of the kid who did his term paper the night before using his family's set of encyclopedias. Shallow, sketchy, unreliable.
Even Wikipedia itself warns against misunderstanding how to use its site for research, providing you with guidelines on how to approach the use of Wikipedia.
However, as with all reference works, not everything in Wikipedia is accurate, comprehensive, or unbiased.
While you, as a blogger or content marketer, aren't under the academic constraints that many researchers are, it is still valid to consider Wikipedia as a secondary source and not your main source of research. It is a good rule of thumb to at least verify and back up anything you find in Wikipedia with a non-Wikipedia related source.
Wikipedia can still be a valuable tool for research, however.
- Extended dictionary. I often link to Wikipedia when introducing terms or concepts. If the reader would like to find out more, Wikipedia offers more than a mere dictionary definition. I let the reader do research on the basics of the term if they want to.
- Finding new sources. At the bottom of Wikipedia entries, you'll see the sections "See Also", "External Links", and "References". Click through to these outside sources and see if you don't find additional research or links that can lead you further into the rabbit hole of research.
- Finding correct terminology. One of the best uses I've found for Wikipedia is picking up the correct keyword or words to use in searching. I often find a Wikipedia entry using "common" language in a Google search. The article will provide me with scientific, industry, or technical terms that I can then use for deeper searches in scholarly sources.
- Understanding concepts. Wikipedia is a great place to learn about a complicated subject. I often use it in conjunction with studies and abstracts I've found from scholarly sources. While it isn't great as a source, it is a fine place to go to get a better understanding so that you can actually interpret the study you've found.
5. Gather Data Within Your Content Niche
You have the ability to create your own data if you aren't finding or understanding the research available.
I can guarantee you that if you start discovering and publishing your own data, you are going to attract others in your niche who are looking for data to reference. It's a great way to get links, traffic, and attention.
Testing is a great way to create content that gives your readers comparisons and helps them come to conclusions on their own. Every niche blog can do this.
Let's set up an example using a fictional food blog. What kind of data would your food-loving audience be interested in?
- I Baked 10 Different Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipes. Here's What I Learned.
- Should You Choose Room Temperature Butter Or Not?
- Glass vs. Metal: Choosing The Best Pan, Backed By Research
I was a pastry chef once. Believe me, these are topics that will be of interest to serious bakers. And they are all topics you can test in your own kitchen, document, and write about easily because food is what you write best about.
Testing and coming up with data is completely within your grasp!
Ask your readers questions and create surveys. Learn the basics of general trends and preferences from your own readers to really understand your niche audience.
While it's true that readers don't always tell the truth (remember Vegas and that free lunch...), it is an attempt to gather some data. Present it as the results of your survey, and not the end-all results of all time.
Your survey shouldn't be about how to make your site better (that's of interest to you), but on the topics in your niche blog's content core.
Let's say you write a blog about healthy living. You might create reader surveys on:
- The diets they adhere to, and why.
- How they track their diet and exercise, and which methods work for them.
- Exercise habits.
- Sleep habits, and how they compare to other sleep data.
We are all curious about what others like us are thinking. Surveys provide that answer and also let readers have a part in building your content.
In an interview, Tim Ferris revealed a technique he used in creating a cookbook. He started by asking his readers to list two of their favorite cookbooks. From there, he went on Amazon and pared down that list based on cookbooks that had an average of 4.5 stars or higher.
Here's where it gets interesting:
[...] I looked at the 3-star most helpful reviews, or most critical/most helpful, and looked for the things that they identified as missing in those best books. Then I made a running list of all the things that were missing from even the best books. Like in barbecue, they neglect brisket a lot. I was like, “Okay, great. We’re going to do short ribs, brisket. It’s going to be my book.” I made like a hit list, because I knew the market was there.
Data is everywhere. It's just waiting for someone to come along and gather it together.
Amazon.com is a great place to both find data and repackage data. Study complaints against your competitors' books or products, or the complaints against products that are relevant to readers in your niche. Read the poor reviews and see what people are saying is lacking or is a problem.
In Amazon (and similiar) reviews, people are telling you what they want by telling you what was missing from a product. That's useful data that you can use to create content in general, and that you can document for others in your niche to use.
You might also use this information to help you craft reader surveys to see if what these reviewers are saying holds true for your readership. That comparison (your readers' tastes vs. the reviewers' tastes) would be an interesting blog post in and of itself.
Track Results And Create Content From That
What you discover from research, testing, surveys, and reviews must be turned into consumable content for your readers.
You can track your results on Google Spreadsheets, and use those results to generate a chart.
As a bit of a joke, I wrote a post about the psychology of the sayings on the wrappers of Dove chocolates. No one in the world needed that data, but it was a fun challenge. I carefully tracked my testing results on a Google Spreadsheet, and then generated charts.
We later designed this to add our personal touch and brand, but you get the idea....
Immediately something as ridiculous as chocolate wrappers became... data. It became available for someone else to reference should they ever talk about chocolate and psychology.
And after eating all of the chocolate required to compile this data, I will never eat Dove chocolates again.
Simple Tips For Using Online Research In Your Content Marketing
Understand The Research, And Be Able To Interpret It
I'm not a numbers person, and I'm not ashamed to admit that. That's why having peer reviews of blog posts helps when I write a post that has research and data.
It's good to get another set of eyes on the content and interpretation. I want to be sure I've understood it accurately, and presented it to readers in a way that makes sense.
It is frustrating when, as a reader, I find myself neck-deep in a blog post that had a promising title and realize that the blogger didn't know how to interpret the data and chose, instead, to merely share complicated charts and graphs and not bother to translate it into "human" language.
If you want to write researched content, you must be able to:
- Read and understand data.
- Interpret that data for your readers on a level they can understand.
- Package it for your readers (via examples) so that they can make use of the data now.
You aren't writing a scientific journal article, filled with jargon and dry numbers. You are writing a compelling blog post (as usual) that just happens to have great data and research to back up your points.
Your reader should feel as if they learned something new that applies to them, but not that they were hit over the head with a pile of charts and numbers.
When you're in a time crunch—or you find your head swimming in the statistics and math in a study you found in Google Scholar—stick to the introduction, results, or discussion sections of a full study. They should provide a summary that is more understandable.
I'll often use Wikipedia, in these cases, if I'm having a hard time understanding a concept. If I absolutely can't wrap my head around a study, I don't use it. I would rather not use it if I can't explain it to my reader.
Welcome Accidental Research Into Your Marketing Research Process
Accidental research happens to be my favorite.
By accidental research, I'm referring to the idea that you stumble across ideas and data that you don't have plans to use, but that you sock away for the future. Research arrives before the idea, instead of the idea instigating the research.
That's mainly how I work. Maybe it means I'm lazy and don't know how to write an assigned research post; I'd like to think it means I'm constantly on the prowl for something new to learn.
We have repeatedly harped our readers on the need to read books and outside materials. Not just for specific posts, but to read in general. I have found bizarre ways to connect outside reading to blog posts on content marketing.
If you want to be excellent at accidental research, you'll need:
- To be a librarian. All the information in the world won't help you if you can't find it. The library is a fascinating place, with its organized system of numbers that helps you find every resource you need based on title, author, or subject searches. What's your plan for storing your own research? Are you just scribbling it down and hoping you'll find it when you need it, or do you have a system in place? I'm big on systems, and I use CoSchedule heavily in storing and stockpiling the research that I'll eventually turn into a blog post someday.
- To read outside your niche. You're writing a business blog? Please read more than just business books. Read fiction. Read poetry. Read blogs that have nothing to do with business. Reading outside of your realm keeps you prone to richer "accidents" and makes it possible for you to connect seemingly disparate ideas.
Apply Your Research To Original Ideas
Research is using the knowledge of someone else, combining it with other information you learned, formulating your own ideas, and writing your own unique content as a product of that effort.
At most, you might quote a few sentences or a short paragraph, give complete citation (including the name of the blog or blogger) with a link. This should be a small part of your overall content. Your blog post should be 95% your content. Your words do the work, not someone else's.
The same goes for images.
Be sure you have permission, or are using them according to their Creative Commons license. In early blogging days, it was a bit of a wild west, with people borrowing or embedding any image they wanted to without any reference to where it was found. Google Images and Pinterest have made orphaned images particularly common.
Bear in mind that it is easy to find if someone has used your image with the Google Image Checker, so yes, your "borrowing" of an image improperly can be discovered.
The Structure Of The Research Post
Even though you're writing a blog post based on research, you still must follow the standard format of showing your reader why the topic matters, and then wrap it in some kind of story or narrative that they can relate to, all while presenting the facts.
The inverted triangle that journalists use works particularly well for research blog posts, where you load your conclusion at the beginning, and proceed to prove its veracity in the rest of the post.
Why use the inverted triangle method?
Not everyone will finish your article. And with a research post, more than any other kind of post you write, you want to present facts and a resolved theory to readers.
You need write so that your theory is clearly stated at the beginning. Whether they read the rest of post and see that you have supporting facts or not, at least they will know what the overall gist of your theory is.
- Show your reader why this matters to them.
- Tell them what your end results were.
- Share the research, interpreting and showing readers how it applies to their life.
- Conclude again.
This also carries over into how you create your headline.
Clear headlines that don't play games with the reader are especially important for research posts. This is not the time for "150 Users Took A Survey And You Won't Believe What They Did Next."
What Does Your Content Marketing Research Process Look Like?
Research posts take time; it's a deep dive into studies, searching, reading, and taking notes. It's always best to get started a few weeks ahead.
The end result of a great research post, though, is a reader armed with knowledge and excited about your content.
Content marketing research is often done under deadline pressures on topics we don't normally write about in our comfort zone. The more you flex your research skills and learn how to ask questions and determine which answers you're willing to put your name to, the easier it becomes.