By Bernie Thiel and Susan Buddenbaum
Marketers, business developers and practice leaders at consulting firms face a familiar and increasingly difficult task: how to generate awareness of and demand for their services. Surveys can be an excellent way to address this challenge. A well-designed and well-executed survey can provide not only the content for a variety of marketing activities showcasing professionals’ knowledge and insights to prospective buyers but also substantive grist for the media relations mill to entice influential reporters and bloggers to write about the organization conducting the research.
Many consulting organizations know the valuable role surveys can play in their overall marketing programs. In fact, the plethora of surveys currently produced by consulting firms speaks to their popularity. However, quantity doesn’t necessarily translate into quality. There are many examples of an organization investing months of time and a lot of money in survey research, only to have it generate little interest in the marketplace.
What separates consulting firms whose surveys are powerful lead and awareness generators from those whose surveys fall flat? In our extensive work on surveys during the past 15 years, we have identified a number of key practices across the survey design, execution, analysis and promotion process that are critical to creating surveys that deliver superior return on investment.
Scoping the Research
The proliferation of surveys means firms must dig much deeper in their studies to capture audiences’ attention. As a result, it’s critical that a firm ultimately selects a research topic for its survey that is both important and highly relevant to its clients and prospects, as well as insufficiently covered by other surveys and research studies. There are several ways of finding an issue that will win the attention of a firm’s target audience. In some cases, no “process” is required: A firm that knows its clients’ businesses well may be able to identify the top challenges those clients face based on their work and on informal conversations and hone in on an appropriate angle. However, other times a more rigorous approach is required.
This typically involves a combination of a “scoping” workshop with key subject-matter experts and business development professionals (who can provide their insights drawn from extensive client work and sales conversations) and in-depth secondary research (which enables the firm to identify an aspect of the research topic that can be sufficiently covered in a survey and has not already
been addressed by other organizations).
Designing the Research
Once the research topic has been fully vetted and scoped, a firm then must address the challenging task of designing the research, which begins with developing a set of hypotheses about the topic.
Hypotheses serve as formal guideposts to help ensure the research activities remain focused, and they force the research team to think about the logic of the research by presenting a preliminary story about the topic the team believes to be true (with the veracity of the story eventually supported or refuted by the research). It’s important that each hypothesis is not too broad that it can’t be covered adequately by a survey while, at the same time, is not so narrow that it makes it difficult for any new discovery to be made. In our experience, hypotheses are absolutely critical, as they help a firm avoid the “kitchen sink” approach to questionnaire development and make data analysis much more efficient and effective.
The hypotheses should be used to drive questionnaire development to ensure that only appropriate questions—i.e., those that will help prove or disprove the hypotheses—are included. When crafting the questionnaire, a firm should present the questions clearly in a sequence that flows logically, and ensure the end result takes no more than 20 minutes to complete. To encourage respondents to answer all the questions in the survey, a firm should create predominantly closed-end questions, avoid using questions that require a significant amount of thinking or calculation on the part of the survey respondent, and be sure that all questions can be answered by the target participant.
Identifying, Reaching and Motivating Respondents
Regardless of the topic being covered, all companies face a common challenge: getting enough of the right people to take the survey. This is especially true today, as surveys have become pervasive and business professionals and consumers alike often suffer from survey fatigue. As a result, selecting the right target respondents and motivating them to participate with the right incentives are more critical than ever.
What is the “right” target? At the most basic level, it is a person who is inherently interested in the research topic, is qualified to answer the questions, and can provide the insights at the desired level of detail. It is not necessarily the most senior executives. In fact, most of the time, surveys on business or management topics often are best taken by professionals at the manager, director or vice president level—those who are intimately involved with addressing the issue on a day-to-day basis and, thus, can provide the most accurate insights.
As important as determining the type of person to target for the survey is getting people to participate in the survey. A combination of personal appeal (such as a chance to win a gift certificate) and business relevance (for example, providing participants with early access to the findings) tends to elicit the strongest response.
Furthermore, understanding how target respondents prefer to be surveyed—for instance, by telephone, mail, in person or online—is key to generating a higher response rate.
Analyzing the Data and Writing the Report
After closing the survey, a firm should use the initial hypotheses as a guide to analyzing the survey findings. We can’t stress enough how important analysis is to the strength of the ultimate research report and the amount of attention it garners. We have seen firms spend considerable time, money and effort designing and conducting the survey, only to become impatient and too eager to rush the findings to market. In doing so, they compromised the analysis process and, thus, their ability to find the most compelling storylines in the data. In our experience, three iterations of analysis tend to generate the best results and strongest storylines.
Once analysis is complete and consensus is reached on the main storyline emerging from the findings, a firm should build out the storyline with a very detailed outline which, ultimately, it turns into a prose draft of the final research report that explores the firm’s findings and point of view in detail. The format and length of the report can vary based on a number of factors. However, typically, the more in-depth and substantive the report, the more content the firm has to fuel subsequent marketing activities that help communicate the firm’s expertise and insights on the research topic.
Marketing the Research
A research initiative is only as valuable as the attention it generates for the firm in the marketplace. Thus, once the final report has been written, a firm should aggressively bring the research findings and its point of view to market via a set of integrated, tightly synchronized activities that include the full range of marketing tools at its disposal—including news releases, byline articles, presentations for conferences and sales discussions, firm-sponsored Webinars, and direct dissemination via land mail and digital channels (which includes a microsite dedicated to the research).
It’s also critical to appoint a few spokespeople for the research and provide these people with the appropriate training on the findings. And to help ensure that the research findings are consistently communicated internally and externally, firms also should educate all relevant personnel—not just the “official” spokespeople—on the initiative.
One of the best ways to leverage the research findings is to prepare and deliver tailored presentations on the survey to the management teams of select companies that participated in the research (i.e., ones that are particularly attractive to the firm from a business development standpoint), provided these companies were not guaranteed anonymity to secure their participation. Such presentations often are viewed by executives as providing added value and “free insights,” and they give the firm’s professionals
a chance to have meaningful conversations with prospects on a business issue important to them.
Survey research should play a central role in any consulting company’s marketing strategy. Executed well, surveys enable firms to generate interesting and useful content that attracts executive attention while demonstrating that the firm understands the challenges these executives face. Many of the world’s leading consulting companies have several 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 that incorporates the preceding best practices can increase the odds that a firm’s survey makes an impact in its chosen market and spurs meaningful discussions between a firm’s client-facing professionals and their most important contacts.
Bernie Thiel and Susan Buddenbaum are founding partners of Alterra Group, a thought leadership firm based in Cleveland.