The term “thought leader” is bandied about so much these days that it runs the risk of being relegated to the “jargon graveyard.” Just look at some of the recent headlines:
- Financial Times: Stop thought leaders from turning useful ideas into pap
- Inc.: Here’s How to Build a New Career as a Thought Leader
- Nasdaq: How to Position Yourself as a Thought Leader in the ETF Space
Maybe we should start by being completely transparent. When I see these headlines, I also vomit a little bit in my mouth… But don’t lose hope!
The explosion in content marketing shops, online tools and events would make you think creating insightful content was something new. But the reality is that sharing business insights is a long-standing tradition—with no signs of abating. In fact, thoughtful content that helps improve our understanding of the world is arguably even more important today than ever before.
Having been involved in developing reports for the likes of Standard & Poor’s, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, etc., and creating Fortune’s first thought leadership business, I figured I’d take a minute to share my thoughts about thought leadership (no pun intended) and, more specifically, survey-based studies.
No, It’s Not That Simple
With cheap, online survey vendors at your disposal, creating a survey can seem simple—so much so that even a grade schooler can do it. After all, how much effort goes into creating a five-question survey that makes you think you’ll win a new iPhone X?
My goal today is to dispel the notion that creating thought leadership surveys is just as simple. And below is a primer to help you think through creating your next (or very first) thought leadership study.
Understanding the Difference between Market Research and Thought Leadership
First, I cannot emphasize enough that there’s a distinct difference between consumer/market research studies and thought leadership studies. Does your company create flavored water, for example? If you want to conduct a study about consumer preferences, that’s absolutely fine. Generally, with such studies, people are compensated for their time and the purpose is clearly stated. Further, under these circumstances, it’s quite acceptable to ask people questions about your product or service.
On the other hand, a thought leadership study is generally directed to senior-level executives about their perspectives on issues affecting their business. Their time is valuable; and they aren’t participating because they want to talk about your business. Instead, the issue that you’re exploring should resonate with the particular demographic you’re surveying.
The takeaway: Please fight the temptation to create a self-serving survey.
This can be challenging when marketing dollars are tight, and you’re pressured to quickly demonstrate the ROI of a survey or white paper. And that’s why conducting thought leadership studies might not be the right fit for every organization.
Does your organization value thought leadership (as opposed to consumer studies/market research)? If you’re more focused on clicks, likes and re-tweets, then thought leadership studies may not be the right choice for your business. You can certainly get a lot of exposure via social media for your work. But the survey should be part of your broader strategy to engage business executives within your industry. Please know that I’m not saying this to sound boorish. I want to set you up for success, not failure. The fact of the matter is that surveys can be more time-consuming and expensive than your boss may realize. That’s why it’s important to manage expectations from the outset
Here’s another reason you want to avoid a survey that’s too self-serving: What if the respondents don’t like your product or service? Is that a finding that you really want to broadcast? Or how will the higher ups feel about spending all that time and money, only to be left with findings that they’d rather not see the light of day?
Granted, some companies will conduct market research for their own products, and then pass it off as thought leadership. It may get a little attention – but people who are serious about their work will recognize the difference.
Finding Your Focus
When developing a survey, how do you focus on what matters to your audience? One way to approach this may be to think about a hypothesis. In other words, what do we want to test? Let’s say your business supports financial services firms. Your hypothesis may be that more mature companies are better at navigating regulatory minefields. Consequently, you may want to explore how companies of differing sizes and maturity levels are dealing with regulatory complexity.
Why would you chose a topic like this? For starters, you’re helping firms benchmark themselves against industry peers. Also, you’re demonstrating that you understand and care about how regulatory complexity can affect firms. And when you’re talking to subject matter experts, what do you think will resonate more?
“Here’s a study about how great we are.”
“Here’s a forecast about the future of our industry.”
Over the years, we’ve done surveys on risk management (for management consulting firms), cross-border M&A (for law firms), pharmaceuticals in China (for a healthcare CRO), IT-related reputational risk (for a tech firm), and the list goes on… As you see, these topics were related to the sponsor’s business—BUT they were not about the sponsor’s business. Do you see the difference?
Now that we’ve sorted out the topic, let’s look at the actual survey design. This can be a tricky process, as there’s often the tendency to throw everything—including the kitchen sink—into the survey. I once worked with an organization that wanted to ask over 60 questions. Are you interested in filling out a 60-question survey? Most of us would rather have our teeth cleaned. (I actually like my dentist, but that’s beside the point.)
I know this also requires restraint, but for your own sake, fight the temptation to boil the ocean with your survey. Your respondents will appreciate a concise, thought-provoking survey more than a meandering one that wastes their time. And by “appreciate,” I mean “finish.” (Note: In most survey platforms, if the respondent doesn’t hit the submit button at the end, their responses aren’t recorded.)
To help you become a lean, mean survey machine, there are some best practices when it comes to design—most of which will help you avoid respondent drop off (i.e., someone starts and decides they don’t want to finish) and to get quality responses (i.e., survey takers provide honest and informed responses rather than random feedback).
For surveys of executives, we generally want to limit the length to 25 questions—including five demographic questions (e.g., company size, industry, level of seniority, etc.). You may also find it helpful to think about dividing your survey into sections—which can help you cover more territory. For example, you can ask about “today’s challenges,” “future opportunities,” “potential roadblocks,” etc.
The actual questions should be easy to answer as well. This may sound self-evident, but I’ve seen companies pose some questions that were problematic, such as asking respondents to rank their “top three” out of 20 choices. On the face of it, this looks like a straightforward question. But the fact of the matter is that not only are you asking a busy executive to wade through 20 different options for one question, you’re also asking her or him to rank them. These types of questions only increase the cognitive burden on your respondents and the likelihood of drop-off, while not providing you with any real benefit. (Note: Once you aggregate the responses and begin analyzing the results, you’ll see which answer choices were selected most—but not necessarily which ranked as #1, #2, or #3.) There’s so much more to say about the actual questions, but I’ll save that for another time.
Executing Your Survey
If you have a simple survey, online platforms like SurveyMonkey may do the trick. However, if your survey is more elaborate and you need to reach a specific demographic because you’re publishing the results, we suggest working with a survey vendor. The benefit here is that you can select the survey demographics – such as number of respondents, industries, titles, etc., and the survey vendor will access the appropriate panels to ensure they get the responses for you. Or firms like the Economist Intelligence Unit, The Economist’s business intelligence unit, have their own proprietary panels. So rather than you asking people you know to take the survey (which really doesn’t work), the survey vendor will ensure that you get the responses you need in approximately two to three weeks.
O.k., your survey is complete. Now what? This is where the magic happens. Analyzing a well-designed survey is really fun, particularly when you can unearth surprising trends. To get the most out of your survey, you should have someone help you who is familiar with analyzing the data. You may be good with numbers, but you’ll want someone who is familiar with conducting cross-tab analysis and working with programs like Tableu.
For example, you may want to explore how CEOs answered a particular question relative to director-level executives. Or perhaps you’ll want to compare responses across regions. How do executives in Asia think about the future of their business versus North America? And of those in North America who are bullish on the economy, what percentage are also concerned about a decline in revenue? You get the picture…
Lastly, one of the most important considerations: Costs. The more senior and idiosyncratic the audience you’re looking to reach, the higher the costs. To illustrate, I once did a survey of executives who were director-level and above, and whose companies were involved in cross-border mergers & acquisitions. They also had to be domiciled in one of the following countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Turkey. Suffice it to say, this was a low six-figure survey.
Conversely, I did a digital marketing study purely as a lead gen tool when we didn’t have much of a budget. I decided to poll executives who had “been involved in the marketing of their companies,” regardless of title or industry. This opened up the playing field and kept the costs to under $10,000.
Now You’re on Your Way
Surveys can be fun (coming from someone who once thought they were stupid). But they can also be a complicated undertaking. With myriad stakeholders wanting to provide input (while not fully appreciating the complexities), it’s easy to see how an organization can get lost in the minutiae—and ultimately undermine its efforts to launch a successful survey. Hopefully, the above helps you avoid some landmines. And of course, if you want to chat about this in more detail, just let me know—I’m easy to track down.
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