The One Question You Need to Ask Before Starting a Research Project

The most important question you must ask yourself before you begin your research project is this: “How do I want this research to impact my business?”

This may seem like “check-the-box” kind of question, but there are real implications based on your answer.

If you have limited time or budget, your top goal for your research project will help you prioritize how to spend your time and money.

Specifically, understanding your primary goal(s) will help you to determine:

  • The type of research you should create
  • The topic of your research
  • How to launch your research
  • If you want to gate your research
  • The ways you should amplify your research
  • How you measure the effectiveness of your research

The #1 question you must ask yourself before you begin your #originalresearch project: “How do I want this research to impact my business?”. Share on X

The most common research goals

Before we look at how your goal(s) impacts the decisions you need, let’s consider the top goals for your research. If you are like other marketers I talk to, you likely have your sights set on one or more of the following outcomes:

  • Thought leadership: Contributing to the conversation in a meaningful (and new) way; establishing your brand, etc.
  • Media mentions: Getting pick-up from trade and traditional press
  • Backlinks: Creating something that people (especially those from high authority websites) will link to
  • Leads: Generating names of people who may be interested in your product or service
  • Subscribers: Using research as a way to build your audience (often via email)

Goals impact the TYPE of research you want to create

Should you invest in a large benchmark study or would a series of mini polls be a better bet? Or should you mine internal data or look at secondary data in a new way? Your primary goal will help you determine which path makes the most sense.

Thought Leadership

Your best bet: A large, annual benchmark study

You can’t establish yourself as the leader in your space if you only publish one thing – even if that one thing is amazing. Instead, you need to tell a cohesive story over time — and a benchmark survey can help you do exactly this.

Your benchmark survey can serve as the editorial rock from which many other assets and stories spring. In fact, you can use this one survey to fuel a year’s worth of content. Think: one survey, repurposed into many stories and related assets.

Example: CMI publishes annual content marketing research with many spin-off reports and related stories. As their founder (and my former boss), Joe Pulizzi explains:

“One key reason we were able to build an audience for CMI so quickly and successfully is because of our annual research on the state of the content marketing industry. If you want to make more of an impact with your content marketing, consider publishing your own original research.”

Even better, repeat your research annually to share year-over-year trends and build your authority. This strategy creates anticipation by your audience because they want to observe the year-over-year changes.  A great example of this is the Orbit Media Annual Blogger Survey done by Andy Crestodina and his team.

Media mentions

Your best best: A series of short polls or analysis of secondary data

Getting media mentions can be tricky, but to increase your chances of success, focus on a topic that is timely and interesting to the media. Publishing a series of polls can work really well. Not only are shorter polls relatively quick to execute — so they can be timed to current events — but this approach gives you multiple opportunities to hit on the right topics and build on your relationship with journalists.

Example: Rentcafe is a wonderful site to study if you want to create a consistent flow of research that is of interest to to the media. For instance, their article, Renters Became the Majority Population in 22 Big US Cities was covered in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and more.


Your best best: Benchmark study or short polls 

When your goal is backlinks, you have a couple of options that work well, so consider your secondary goals.

If you are also interested in thought leadership, subscribers and leads, a benchmark study that is your editorial cornerstone can work really well. Publish one key piece and then create a lot of content that links to that — and share widely with influencers. (More on that later.)

However, short polls and surveys also can work well as you create multiple pieces that have the ability to attract links over time. This works well if you also want to get media attention as well as backlinks.


Your best bet: A benchmark study

Benchmarks and other larger studies are often a top lead performer for many marketers we talk to. Readers are willing to exchange their information for data to help them understand their industry. Gate the report and create many related assets (more on this later) that link to the report.


Your best best: Benchmark study or series of polls/data analysis

Anything you publish on a consistent basis can be useful for building an audience such as mini-surveys and polls or analysis of secondary data. People will want to subscribe to your blog to get access to these new stories.

However, benchmark studies can also work well when you are trying to acquire subscribers. As you’ll learn later, you may not want to gate the report, but you may want to create a piece of related, gated content that addresses an issue your research uncovers.

Goals impact the TOPIC of your research

Once you decide on the type of research you want to create, you’ll need to decide on the topic. Regardless of the type of research your choose, the best topics:

  • Are interesting to your audience
  • Align with your brand’s story
  • Provide new data

While every research topic should encompass all three angles, your goal will prioritize which of these factors is most important.

Thought leadership

  • Your research needs to align closely with the story you want to tell about your brand because you want to use it in many ways throughout the year.
  • Think about how you can “find the stat that is frequently asserted, but rarely supported,” as our friend Andy Crestodina You want to become THE source of key information.

Media mentions  

  • When creating research for media pickup, remember that your audience consists of the journalists, influencers and others from whom you want coverage. Your prospects and clients may be a secondary audience.
  • Consider pre-pitching your topic to the media before the survey is developed — and ask them what questions they want answered. This is a great way to increase the likelihood that your research will be covered.
  • Consider a topic that is timely and seasonal.
  • Instead of looking to validate the stats that are frequently asserted, consider those stats that are commonly believed but untrue. Journalists love to “bust the myth” or otherwise uncover why people should be looking at a topic in a new way. Validating something believed to be true is often less interesting from a press perspective.


  • It goes without saying that you need to choose a topic that is worth linking to, which often means you need to resolve those unanswered questions with new data.

Leads and subscribers

  • If your primary goal is to gain leads or subscribers, choose a topic that is a good mix of the three criteria above.

Goals impact how you want to LAUNCH your research

The next reason you need to be clear on your primary goal is because it will help you prioritize what levers you want to focus on as you launch your research. Of course, if you can do all of these things, that’s great, but focus on the items below if your time is limited.

Thought leadership 

  • Optimize for SEO: Because your research will be a key piece of content to drive traffic, optimize the name of your study as well as the findings for SEO so it can be easily found.
  • Create related content: Before you launch your research, decide what next step you want someone to take. What piece of content would help someone stay engaged with and continue to learn from your brand? Consider gating this piece of content, especially if your research is open access.
  • Develop a plan for influencers: Engage with influencers to contribute to and/or share your findings. When your message is tied to ideas from people who others respect, your findings may have more gravitas — and shareability. People also tend to share findings in which they are mentioned, widening your potential reach.

Media mentions  

  • Develop a PR/media plan: Not surprisingly, if your goal is media mentions, you need a plan to get your research in front of the right people. Keep in mind that you’ll need a longer lead time so you can pre-pitch your research to the media before it is released to the public. In the coming months, we’ll be exploring more ideas in our newsletter on how to to use PR efforts to increase the reach of your research.


  • Develop a PR/media plan: If you are looking for backlinks from media, a PR plan is critical (see above).
  • Develop a plan for influencers: You need others to share and link to your findings, so create a plan on how to engage with key influencers.
  • Optimize for SEO: One of the reasons marketers want to get backlinks is because they help increase their rankings on Google. If this describes you, make sure you have a plan for SEO as well.

Leads and subscribers

Consider using some or all of the ideas above to drive new people to your website, but also think about creating related content that will continue to share the stories and data from your research.

One approach that works well is to create a gated piece that shares how to do something that your research identified as a gap. For instance, when I worked for CMI, our annual research showed that having a documented content marketing strategy was an indicator of success. To help, we created a guide that walks someone through this process.

Goals impact if you want to GATE your research

Your primary goal will also help you decide if you want to gate your research. This is something you can learn about in more detail in this recent post, but here is a quick recap.

Thought leadership

Gate your research? Possibly.

In general, you’ll get wider reach with ungated research, but it’s important to consider your other goals and factor that into your decision.

Media mentions

Gate your research? No.

The media is more likely to link to and share a story that is not gated.


Gate your research? Probably not.

Sometimes, influencers and others only link to open-access content. If backlinks are your primary goal, consider not gating your research. Instead, create a detailed blog post that shares the findings. Be sure to optimize this post for SEO.


Gate your research? Yes.

This one is pretty self-evident, but if your primary goal is to acquire leads, by all means, add a gate! However, create something in addition that is open-access for the reasons mentioned above.


Gate your research? Possibly.

While you may think it’s best to gate your research if you want subscribers, remember: subscribers are those people with whom you want an ongoing relationship. So instead of gating your findings, keep them open access and then offer a related, gated piece of content as your call to action from your research.

Goals impact the type of research FINDINGS you want to create

In a recent post, we talked about the various types of findings you may want to create. Here is a recap organized by goal: 

Thought leadership and leads

You want your piece to have some gravitas. Create longer-form findings that are a mix of facts and commentary.

Media mentions and backlinks

If you want someone to link to you, it generally makes the most sense to have a piece of content that is ungated. It can be a blog post or a landing page that shares the findings in a more visual way.


You have several options to present your findings if your goal is to acquire subscribers. You can create a content-lite version if you want to use your research as a jumping off point for more editorial. Another option is to create a longer-form gated piece. A detailed blog post or visual findings that include an option to subscribe are also effective.

Goals impact how you want to AMPLIFY your research

Research works well because you can re-use and reimagine the data and the stories from it in so many ways. However, before your head spins with too many ideas, consider which type of ancillary content makes the most sense based on your goal. The guidelines below are just that, but if you aren’t certain where to start, this will help you prioritize where to spend your time.

Thought leadership 

Your goal is to get recognized. Remember that this a longer-term commitment. You want to build out your story in a thoughtful way so you are continually connected with the topic. Some ideas:

  • Bylined articles
  • Articles on your own blog
  • Infographics
  • Datagraphics for social media
  • Industry presentations
  • Webinars
  • Videos 

Media mentions

Make it as easy as possible for journalists to write about your findings. Create content such as:

  • Advance, embargo copy of the research
  • Press release
  • Datagraphics for social sharing
  • Infographics
  • Media kit


Think about ways you can drive people to your website to read your findings:

  • Bylined articles
  • Press release
  • Datagraphics for social sharing
  • Infographics
  • Media kit
  • Videos

Leads and subscribers 

Gain leads and subscribers using the tactics listed above. In addition, think about how you can incorporate research into content that is typically gated, such as:

  • Webinars (You may want to consider offering a webinar to promote the findings as a way to generate interest and leads)
  • Related, gated content
  • Online assessments

Goals impact how you MEASURE your research

You want people to visit your website, consider you an influencer, reach out to you to speak, be quoted in articles, etc. Here are a few wants to measure the success of your research:

Thought leadership

  • Traffic to research and related assets
  • Social shares
  • Invitations to write, speak, be interviewed, etc.

Media mentions and links

  • Number of backlinks, including the domain authority of each
  • List of media mentions

Leads and subscribers

  • Number of leads
  • Number of subscribers


The first step to begin a research project is to identify what goals and business impact you want the research to meet. Consider these guidelines for each of those goals:

Thought leadership 

  • Thought leadership is a long-term play. An annual benchmark study is an ideal “backbone” on which to tell a cohesive story.

Media mentions

  • Choose a topic that will interest media and journalists.
  • Package your research so the story pops and it’s easy to repurpose.
  • Include a PR professional in your planning process to validate your topic, pre-pitch the story and help spread the word once the findings are complete.


  • Choose a topic that will generate interest with influencers. Proactively share it.
  • Optimize your research findings for SEO.


  • Create findings that have gravitas to convince someone to download it.
  • Have an open-access version of the research that people can link to.
  • Identify what you want someone to do once they have downloaded your research so you can continue the conversation.


  • Use you research findings as a starting off place. Dig into the findings and create related content. Remember that your goal is to encourage an ongoing relationship.

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