Surveys are most often used to predict election outcomes, figure out where people stand on issues like minimum wage hikes and determine the impact of new products like electronic cigarettes. But surveys and other studies can also be powerful tools for positioning you or your business as a thought leader, generating publicity and, of special importance in today’s media marketplace, creating social media buzz.
“Surveys and studies travel well across the Internet, because they can be shared over Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook very easily,” says Richard Phillips, president of Phillips & Co., an Austin, Texas-based PR and business development consulting firm. “By investing in a study, you not only have a better shot at getting the press to pay attention to you, but you've created an extraordinarily valuable tool for social media.”
In addition to drawing attention from bloggers and reporters and stirring up likes and shares on social media, survey results can pair with search engine optimization to direct traffic to your company's website. A survey can be a powerful tool to differentiate a company from competitors, boost credibility, bolster a brand or image, and create demand for new products and services.
Survey Says ...
The basic technique for using surveys to position your company as a buzz-worthy leader is to commission a poll that seeks to answer a question that's relevant to your prospects and customers. For instance, Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago executive outplacement firm, conducts regular surveys on such topics as employers’ plans for holiday bonuses and which industries are having layoffs. The steady stream of topical results has generated countless news stories for the company, which celebrated its 50th year in business in 2012 and positioned CEO John Challenger as a go-to source for staffing reporters and bloggers.
The first step for a would-be surveyor is to find a topic that supports your brand, says David Herrick, COO of New York City-based PR and marketing firm MWW. For example, Herrick says, a restaurant that wants to be known for its healthy menu items might ask consumers about health-food purchasing habits. “It should always link back to the story we’re trying to tell to the world," Herrick says, "and how we can identity our company and brand with that.”
Crafting the actual survey requires a bit of both art and science. While anyone who can ask clear questions can create a survey, subtle changes in the wording and the order of questions can influence people's answers and make results unreliable, says Carll Frye, founder and managing director of Information Solutions Group, a Bellevue, Washington, research firm. “For the average novice who’s never conducted a survey," Frye says, "there are a lot of tricks and traps you have to watch out for.” That can be one reason you might want to hire a firm to help with your survey.
Survey users also have a range of options and costs for collecting data. Hiring a PR or marketing firm to commission a research company to do a custom national telephone survey of a representative sample of 1,000 or more people can cost $10,000 or more. At the other end of the scale, do-it-yourselfers can use free online survey tools like SurveyMonkey to create and implement small surveys. In the middle, $2,000 can get you a half-dozen questions inserted into an omnibus survey in which a polling firm gathers information for several clients with a single phone call.
Hiring professionals obviously costs more, as does targeting specific groups. Frye says a broad-based Internet panel survey—which involves people who've volunteered to fill out online surveys in exchange for small payments—costs about $4 per respondent. Tightly defining those respondents can cause your costs to skyrocket. As Frye explains, “If you say you want only [people] involved in cancer research, it could be $300 or $400 per interview.”
Putting the Information to Work
After the data's been gathered, it must be analyzed, packaged and presented to the public. All of these are areas where common sense can get you a long way, but expertise is also valuable. For instance, survey professionals are likely to recommend and facilitate partnering with a reputable third party, such as a university, to add weight and an appearance of objectivity to your survey results. You could also outsource your study's marketing campaign to a PR or marketing firm, which would include polling, analysis and publicity efforts, though that can cost $25,000 and up, a sizable outlay for many small businesses.
And just because you've got the survey results in hand doesn't mean you'll get the results you want—bad things can happen with your study's marketing, too. One possibility is that it will be ignored and fail to generate buzz or affect your brand equity. Worse, a survey seen as self-serving or unreliable can do more harm than good by damaging your brand.
“It can definitely boomerang on you,” Frye says. “We’ve seen that in a number of situations.” In a 2007 case, for example, the National Dairy Council had to back off claims that three servings of dairy products daily would help people lose weight after nutritionists questioned the study supporting the claim.
Surveys and studies aren't ideal for all businesses. Consumer products companies don’t typically need to be seen as trusted experts, for instance, Phillips notes. Many do, however, such as private security firms or makers of mission-critical business software.
“If the customer has to think about whether they want to do business with you and buy your product," Phillips says, "studies and surveys can help customers more likely to purchase.”
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