Research. It's a tried and true component of many a content strategy. Well-crafted, informational, and analytical research is a solid lead-gen tool. It can created publicity, awareness, and has the potential to be amplified in shared media channels including social and news media.
Research can be sliced and diced into numerous shareable, reusable artifacts: a PDF report, a webinar, speech, PowerPoint deck. Resultant frameworks and infographics are highly shareable in snackable social channels. And finally, research can be built upon year after year, updated and refined.
As a research analyst, I've conducted a good deal of research and have also authored research for clients ranging from brands (Facebook) to trade organizations (the IAB). In discussing more and more potential projects with clients, it's become clear that research requirements, and processes, are somewhat opaque to many in the marketing department who want to commission research but don't know where to start.
So let's unpack what's required for a solid and credible research report, whether independent or commissioned.
Research report elements
The hypothesis is the idea a research report sets out to test. It's the Big Idea, e.g., CPG brands should invest more in mobile advertising; digital media can drive in-store traffic; or as ad effectiveness diminishes, content becomes more important.
Like the outline of those papers you wrote in school, this document maps the story the research will tell.
Will the research be qualitative? Quantitative? Or a combination of both? Qualitative research is based largely on interviews and observation, e.g., case examples or case studies. Quantitative research tends to be survey-based. In either case, determinations must be made as to who and how many people meeting which qualifications (title, job function, tenure, industry, etc.) are required to make the study legitimate.
Research process requirements
Lots of confusion exists as to the difference between a researcher and an analyst. The best analogy might be that of professor and grad student. The researcher is highly trained and qualified, likely almost a PhD. The researcher is the grad student. They conduct a lot of the leg work, for example: finding case studies, obtaining permissions for materials to be used, ensuring process is adhered to and act as liaison between all parties contributing to the research project. The analyst is the author of the research. It's their analysis of the results that determines the findings. Analysts and reearchers share the balance of work differently, but in all cases the analyst enjoys "final cut."
If a researcher is part of the project, an initial job is to construct the project timeline. This is basic project management.
Interview and survey questions
Arguably the most important component of a research project other than the hypothesis are the questions asked of stakeholder. Research is based on findings and analysis of those findings, not opinions. So if you don't ask, you won't have answers. Questions must be thorough and address the hypothesis completely. At the same time, they must respect interviewees' time, so questions must also be concise.
Survey tool and/or company
For quantitative research, support is needed. It may be a simple and free or low cost tool such as SurveyMonkey, or must more substantial support in the form of a research firm might be called for. A report I'm about to publish required a survey of more than 100 retail executives with very strict and selective parameters -- respondents' title had to be VP or higher, their role had to be in marketing, the retailer had to have at least 200 physical stores in the U.S., etc. Qualifying questions had to be crafted in addition to the interview questions to ensure respondents conformed to our requirements. This creates much more statistically sound and valid research, but these criteria come at a cost, often of tens of thousands of dollars.
Everyone needs an editor. Even editors need editors. Research reports require a supervising editor to keep tabs on the big picture, the validity of the analysis, the flow of the writing, and the overall quality of the document. A copy editor is also required to dot the i's, cross the t's, and take care of overall quality and often, fact-checking (attribution, titles, footnotes, etc.)
Design and production
Research will almost invariably involve frameworks, charts, graphs, and other forms of visual information and storytelling. You'll also want a handsomely designed final artifact (usually a PDF). Daughter artifacts might include infographics and slide decks. Design matters, as does bringing in the appropriate talent and allotting ample time for design and revisions.
This list of research report requirements and elements is by no means exhaustive, but certainly covers the basics. It's also intended to give marketers a sense of "How much does a research report cost?" Like building a website, or a house, there are many, many dependencies. Smart scoping is everything.
Rebecca Lieb is a strategic advisor.
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