The average journalist is bombarded with over 200 emails per day from startups and PR firms hoping to catch their eye and land a story.
Nearly 3 million blog posts are published every single day by companies who understand that “content is king,” as Bill Gates famously predicted in a 1996 essay.
All this means it’s harder than ever for a company to break through the noise and get recognized.
As a founder, you must find a way to separate your company from all the other companies in your space. You need your target audience to know you exist. Then you need them to trust that you have a solution that can solve their problems.
The fastest way to establish trust? It’s by demonstrating that you are a subject matter expert who can lead your customers into the future.
In this post, we’ll walk you through the most effective tactic we’ve seen in our 5+ years of helping disruptive companies break through the noise by building thought leadership.
This tactic is known as original research.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Ready to go? Let’s dive in!
Original research is research that is conducted with the primary intention of identifying unique data-driven findings that will be shared publicly with your target customers, journalists, and industry.
Original research combines data, storytelling, and your unique expertise to create interesting content that stands out.
Annual “State of” reports are one of the most commonly used types of original research.
For example, every year for the past six years, Salesforce has published its “State of Marketing” report based on survey data from 7000 market leaders.
Original research impacts nearly every area of your business.
Original research can:
Original research shouldn’t be viewed as a one-off tactic.
Instead, it’s a big picture tactic you should adopt and leverage as a core driver for all your marketing, PR, and thought leadership initiatives.
You aren’t doing an original research project one time. You should view it as you are building a research department and will continue to publish unique and compelling research on a regular basis.
When done properly, it can impact nearly every area of your business, but here we’ll focus on two core areas: media and marketing.
Original research gives you the ability to create interesting news that journalists will care about on-demand.
It solves the problem that you and nearly every other startup faces: unless you’re Apple or Google, the media does not give a shit about your company news.
They don’t care that a startup they’ve never heard of has moved out of beta or hired a new VP of Sales from a Fortune 500 company. What they care about is that their readers are informed, inspired, and educated.
The majority of startups get this wrong. They “fly under the radar” and every now and then, pop up with a “big announcement.” Then they release the news to journalists who ignore them and they wonder why they can’t seem to ever get the media’s attention.
Instead, you must find a way to consistently be top-of-mind with journalists. You must slowly build up relationships by proving you are a reliable source that they can trust. The more you do this, the more you can increase your chances of getting your “big news” covered when you do release it.
Original research is the ultimate tactic to maintain visibility and momentum in between newsworthy announcements because you’re still putting out valuable content into the world.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways original research can drive your media strategy.
Press Releases: When you conduct research, you have something to release. While many say the press release is dead, it really depends on what your expectations are. Can you push out a press release on a Newswire and expect media coverage to come pouring in? No. But a press release can help build your digital footprint and serve as a piece of collateral to include when you do your outreach to the media.
Guest Posting: We call these “Founder Insights” internally but it’s content written under the founder’s name that is published on a media site. Most media sites accept content from experts, but because of so much saturation, it’s becoming increasingly harder to catch an editor’s attention. Instead of offering to write a piece of content that’s already been said elsewhere dozens of times, you are able to offer something unique and of value: data! This helps separate you from the crowd and can help you secure more opportunities to write guest posts.
Podcast Interviews: Podcasting is one of the most effective tactics for building thought leadership and getting your brand in front of your target audience. Unlike a traditional media interview that may take a 30-minute call and reduce it down to one small quote or soundbite, when you are a guest on a podcast, you have a captive, interested audience for an extended period of time. But because of its value, podcast hosts and producers are overwhelmed with pitches from hopeful guests. By having unique data to share and discuss, you separate yourself from all the others.
Proactive News Creation: All companies face the same problem: they just don’t have that much newsworthy activity to share. They hire a PR firm that sits around waiting for them to have news (and collects their retainer as they do), then grow frustrated when they aren’t getting consistent coverage. We believe you can’t wait for news. You must create it. And creating original research is the best way to do that. Your research report becomes the news, and you are the expert sharing the findings.
Let’s take a look at the different areas of marketing and the impact original research can have.
Blog Content: Creating interesting and unique content is becoming more of a challenge in such a saturated digital world. Original research can power your entire content strategy, so instead of just having opinions, you can use data to support your views. One research project can be used to create dozens of pieces of content.
Gated Content: No one is going to exchange their email address for a fluffy ebook titled “5 Ways to be Better at Marketing.” But if you create a piece of content that offers unique data that your audience cannot find anywhere else — like a summary of findings from a survey of 1000 of their target customers — your chances of capturing an email address can increase dramatically.
SEO: You can typically expect to see a boost in backlinks when you release a report, but the real value comes over the long term. Marketers and journalists love to cite relevant data in their content. We often see reports that we create get consistent backlinks for months and even years.
Example: FirstRound Review — State of Startups
For the past five years VC firm FirstRound has surveyed founders, then used those findings to create content that’s unique, helpful, and most importantly, backed by data.
The surveys’ findings and analysis are published in their annual State of Startups report. Each finding includes data and summaries based on founders’ true experiences.
For example, one of the key findings they discussed in the report is about mental health for founders (a topic we’re very passionate about too!):
FirstRound isn’t just telling readers they think there’s a gap when it comes to the mental health of founders. They are using the data from what the founders who were surveyed told them combined with their expert insights to tell a story.
Now, let’s look at some of those benefits mentioned above in action.
One of the many outlets that covered the findings was Forbes. In the article titled “Startup Founder Mental Health: Why It Matters And How To Boost It,” the writer used the data from the report to tell her own unique story.
According to Ahrefs, the URL where they released the findings received over 1,000 backlinks. Both marketers and journalists love data.
Across dozens of communities like Reddit, the findings were discussed, debated, and used to drive conversations in the startup community. This is one of the most important benefits that comes from original research because it puts the company releasing the findings at the center of an important and relevant conversation.
Engaging their target audience
Of all the benefits, engaging your target audience is the most important one.
Founders are the target audience for FirstRound. Their research and findings here demonstrate that they know founders at a deep level. This in turn builds their trust and credibility in the startup community and the founders they hope to invest in.
If you are ready to dive in and create your own original research, you can find a copy of our project planner HERE. Feel free to make a copy and use it — no email required!
Your goal in the planning phase will be to answer the following questions:
#1: What is the core topic? What are the subtopics?
Dig into your industry’s top media outlets and communities to see what they are interested in. You will want to have a core topic followed by several subtopics.
#2: What is your hypothesis?
Your research should center around the desire to test a theory that you or your target audience may be curious about. The key here is to make sure the research project you do isn’t going to generate findings that’s obvious. For example, we once did a survey of consumers to see how they perceived the pharma industry. It was not a major surprise to find that 90+% of respondents thought the pharma industry was “evil”.
#3: What are the top five questions your research project will address?
Looking back at FirstRound’s State of Startups report, you can clearly see the questions they set out to answer. How optimistic are founders about fundraising? Are founders really prioritizing diversity? Do founders trust Glassdoor reviews? These were a few of the many questions their report answered. In the planning phase, these questions should be high-level and used to guide the overall direction of the report. These, however, do not need to be the individual questions you ask if you do a survey or focus group interview.
#4: What are three dream media headlines you hope to create?
You need to begin your project with the end in mind. The best way to do that is to think through the media headlines you hope to see come from the report. For example, “70% of Americans Believe ___________ .”
#5: Where will the data come from?
Here are some ideas of where your data can come from:
In our experience, surveys are the best option because they can be done quickly and for relatively cheap.
#5: What value does this add to your target audience?
This is the most important question of all. Your research should add value to your audience. Once they read it, they should walk away feeling informed, smarter, and better off. It should challenge them to think differently and open them up to changing their behavior.
Original research, when incorporated into your marketing and media strategy, is a highly effective plan of attack, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull off. As you go about planning and eventually executing your own original research projects, it’s important to remember to keep the big picture in mind. Maybe you release a report and the media doesn’t pick it up. That’s okay! You still can use it to drive marketing initiatives and secure media opportunities like podcast interviews and guest posting.
Your primary objective to keep in mind is the goal of establishing your brand as the leading subject matter expert for your niche.