I love how illuminating research can be, provided it has some scientific merit (whether you’re doing a simple pulse check for your brand, or you want to be published in an academic journal, you’ll need to think through things like sampling, methodology and data analysis).
On the flip side, though I have a deep understanding and appreciation of research frameworks that encourage both divergent and convergent thinking, I do get frustrated with how time consuming and costly the work can be.
There’s no doubt this love-hate tension is a common feeling shared by all content marketers. It often leads us to avoid research altogether and jump in feet first. At face value you could argue this is embracing an agile mindset. But in the long term, you’ll get caught out. Not doing your due diligence is one of the main reasons content marketing – and brand and customer marketing more broadly – can miss the mark, or come across as unoriginal and completely tone deaf.
Content marketing strategy must balance short and long-term planning
Call me controversial, but I think digital marketing has a lot to answer for – especially the ecommerce and lead generation kind. It’s the enemy of more strategic marketing planning as it generally perpetuates a short-term tactical view.
Digital marketing absolutely has its place in the marketing toolkit but in a world where it dominates, we have access to what feels like infinite sources – web analytics, online advertising data, social media analytics, email and CRM data – making it easy to get distracted by huge volumes of information that don’t tell us the full story.
While this sort of behavioural data is crucial to benchmark performance marketing, or power predictive models and personalised experiences, it has a limited capacity to reveal what people are thinking – why they’re thinking it; what they desire or need; how they might react to an idea; how they view the category, your brand or communications; or what the category norms are and where your brand fits within the market context and culture.
There is one camp that promotes the idea that you can trust your gut and learn about what really matters by putting something in the market, observing what happens, and adapting, as people will vote with their wallets.
But the thing is, brands aren’t built in the short term and they don’t neatly equal the cumulative sum of small, disconnected bursts of activity. Brands grow over the long term with a commitment to a central idea and collection of strategic pillars executed in a consistent way. So you want to be pretty sure you’ve nailed your position, proposition and messaging framework before you start investing too much time, effort and money. Especially if your business or organisation is ready to lean into content marketing and truly embrace a publishing mindset.
Content marketing is a long-term commitment, just like brand
At Hardie Grant Media the idea of long-term brand building philosophically underpins our view on what makes great content marketing and publishing. And this is why we think it’s incredibly important to take the time to look left and right.
In fact, we’d even say there are some scenarios where it is absolutely essential to conduct research to power your content marketing operation and inform any strategic planning. Those situations include:
Developing your content strategy and proposition Why are you publishing and what should you create that helps position and build your brand?
Reviewing the market landscape and identifying category trends What is the market view and who are your competitors? How do they operate? What are the category conventions? Where are the gaps?
Audience research, persona development and customer journey mapping Who are you talking to? What do they need? Are any needs unmet? What keywords are important? How are they talking about the category and brand? How do different touchpoints and channels play a role in their journey?
Content audits and gap analysis What is the current state of any existing content hubs and publishing activity? What’s working? What can be improved? Are there any obvious gaps?
Revealing best practice principles and processes What is the difference between good and great? What are the channel and category benchmarks? How do you structure your team and organise technology to drive efficiencies?
RESEARCH BRIEF TEMPLATE
To get cracking on a research project, no matter how large or small, it pays to be clear about what you don’t know and what you plan to do with the information once you have access to it. This briefing template could be a useful guide to step through your thinking. If you’re after some advice or more support, feel free to complete it as best you can and email me to see how we can help.
Research approaches you can use in content marketing
If you’re still reading this, you’re probably in the camp that agrees with a lot of what I’m saying.
But there is a high chance all these questions are also making you feel overwhelmed about where to start and how much effort it could require.
There are some reasonably simple and effective ways to inform your content marketing that won’t cost an arm and a leg, but they will need your time or the support of an agency partner.
Let’s explore a couple of other common tactics we rely on and recommend when conducting research.
Interviews and focus groups
No one knows a brand better than its employees. So get out there and talk to them. It’s good to speak to people one-on-one but you can also bring groups together for a discussion or workshop. Your primary aim is to unearth all the things that enable the brand to deliver its promise and differentiate it from competitors. This insight could help with content creation and story ideas or inform experience design and solutions that are powered by in-house experts or technology.
Brand tracking studies are fantastic but a listening tool will reveal more unfiltered insights because it tunes into the public conversation. Once you calibrate the software to identify relevant mentions it can be very revealing to understand how a brand is perceived and diagnose any barriers or issues. Product review sites are also very handy. One thing to be mindful of is that social media tends to capture outliers – both very positive and negative perspectives.
When it comes to market and category research I rely on case studies, reports, articles and opinion pieces from industry databases, global consultancies and category leaders. I also dip into professional groups and membership organisations to tap my network and see what people are aware of, happy to share and can point me to.
Some common places I find interesting insights include the Content Marketing Institute, Content Marketing Association, ADMA, IAB Australia, and WARC. I also leverage the University of Melbourne library (as an alumni member) quite frequently but that’s probably more for academic papers and consumer research. Don’t overlook a simple Google search as it will also turn up a lot of relevant news articles, but make sure you filter for the more timely content.
Whether you build something simple using a cost-effective platform like Typeform or you have access to powerful enterprise software like Qualtrics, the best way to know what your target market (customers and potential customers) think, feel or need, is to ask them. A survey is a form of primary research that is quite easy to develop in-house but make sure you’ve considered your research question and any hypotheses to inform your survey design and questions. You will also want to be clear about data collection and analysis.
Keyword and topic research
We like to use SEMrush and Buzzsumo to understand what people are searching for and what they engage with or share for any given topic. These tools enable you to integrate Google tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console too, which adds an extra dimension of insight. Keyword research is both art and science and if you are the kind of content marketer that prioritises SEO it’s probably the sort of research you will do regularly to inform your content marketing strategy and optimise your editorial plan.
There are countless other research tactics and methodologies you could adopt. My one takeaway from all of this is that you shouldn’t devalue the role of research in content marketing – especially if you’re just starting out or are pressing reset on your brand.
Kate Thompson, strategy director