From Simple to Ambitious: 6 Types of Original Research Projects

Most people think of original research as a traditional quantitative survey that includes polling a large group within a particular segment to extract insights. This model is a powerful one, but there are in fact many types of research undertakings for content marketing, including options for those wanting to begin with a small-scope study.

In this blog post we’ll discuss a wide variety of research project types for content marketers to consider, examples of each format, and the benefits of each format/type.

Defining original research

First, some definitions. The type of research we are referring to is that which is published for public consumption with the goal of getting attention, building an audience, etc. (We’re not talking about market research or other research you conduct internally to help with strategy and planning decisions.)

Original research falls into two categories:

  • Primary research is any research based on new data you gather, such as from original surveys or interviews. Projects from primary research include industry benchmarks, salary guides and “State of” reports.
  • Secondary research is any research based on existing data–whether or not it was collected for the purpose you have in mind. This could be analyzing public data sets (e.g. census data or Google Analytics) or aggregating existing research to come up with new ideas or insights.

While primary research is used more often by content marketers, there are very compelling ways to use secondary research, especially considering the wealth of publicly available data for you to play with. We’ll discuss both types here.

Entry-Level Projects

If you are new to research and want to start small, these projects may be ideal for you.

Small-scale quantitative survey

Interested in getting started with research but feeling tentative about focus and scope? Sometimes a study with a very narrow focus can get big results.

WHY CHOOSE IT: These types of simple, high-visibility projects are excellent for brand recognition and media attention, particularly if you choose your focus wisely. They are also a great way to suss out qualified research partners and try out new tools.

EXAMPLE OF: My favorite example is the What’s Hot 2018 Culinary Forecast from the National Restaurant Association. The association asked its members to rate 161 items as a “hot trend,” “yesterday’s news,” or “perennial favorite” on menus for the coming year. The idea is deliciously simple, and the results are both educational and amusing lists of “hot” and “not”–perfect for sharing via social media.

GETTING STARTED: Any quantitative study will require some type of data collection tool, and the advantage of a small-scope study is you’ll be able to buy a subscription that’s relatively inexpensive. We use SurveyGizmo to handle projects like this one, though there are plenty of platforms to choose from, such as SurveyMonkey and Typeform. You may even be able to use your customer experience survey platform to get the job done.

Small-scale secondary research aggregation

An alternative to fielding a survey is to aggregate other parties’ data. This way, you can focus on the message and delivery rather than on how you’ll collect the data. For this you can use publicly available data–everything from census data to analytics platform data–or you can license data from a third party.

WHY CHOOSE IT: Similar to a smaller scale quant study, a very small-scope aggregation study can help you become familiar with data-driven content, without the inherent risk of a large-scale, expensive study. The findings can help you build brand awareness and grow your audience.

EXAMPLE OF: In recent months, we’ve noticed an uptick in seasonal, data-driven social sharing. Two of our favorites include a graphic from Title Pro Loans that mapped out the most convenient airlines in the US (just in time for Thanksgiving), as well as’s map of the most popular Halloween candies by state.Another interesting example: Orbit Media’s study of web design standards. It created a checklist of 10 web design standards, then looked at the top 50 marketing websites to examine whether they are used. The resulting findings drew big-time interest from readers.

GETTING STARTED: Finding publicly available data that applies to your business isn’t always easy. A good place to begin your exploration is Kaggle, a community for data scientists. Kaggle offers a searchable database of public data sets, and the variety of ideas will astound you.

Curated research presentations

Curation is a bit different from aggregation in that you’re curating a list of interesting data sources instead of manipulating third-party data. Some may say, “that’s not original research.” You may be right, but let’s be generous, shall we?

WHY CHOOSE IT: It’s stupid easy and depending on the area of study you focus on, may be a valuable resource to your audience!

EXAMPLE OF: I love what Nation 1099 did with its Ultimate Guide to Gig Economy Data. Reliable gig data is hard to come by (and we know because our client, Kelly Services, operates in this space), and Nation 1099’s massive list of studies is akin to a meta-analysis on the subject.

GETTING STARTED: If you choose to publish curated data, be absolutely sure you credit every single original source you cite (complete with link). Also, please make sure you don’t present junk data. We’ve seen too many of the same statistics published over and over again–and they have absolutely no value, whether due to a ridiculously small sample size or some other data science sin.

More ambitious undertakings

Larger-scope quantitative research

A more mature content marketer understands the best content projects aren’t the one-and-done campaigns, but rather a sustained effort over time. Medium or large-scope quantitative research probes multiple-but-related trends and does so over multiple periods.

WHY CHOOSE IT: Cyclical research projects are fantastic at building an audience over time, and growing your company’s reputation as a source of authority and useful information. And best of all, this type of project just keeps getting better over time as you refine the questions you ask, and are able to show trend lines after your first year.

EXAMPLE OF: My co-founder, Michele Linn and I have been closely involved in the annual Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends research from Content Marketing Institute. The research, now in its 8th year, was launched in 2010, the same year CMI started.

As CMI’s Joe Pulizzi has shared, “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.” The research, which is the most widely cited research in the content marketing space has now spanned almost 50 reports on various geographies and verticals and is cited, on average, every day.

Another favorite example is the Blogger Survey from Orbit Media. This is one of the few surveys we’ve seen that publishes its results as a very detailed blog post. The author, Andy Crestodina, provides not only the basic findings for each question, but he also offers what the most effective bloggers are doing and includes a quote from an expert for each question. This approach is great for SEO and social sharing!

GETTING STARTED: When clients approach us with the intent of funding a larger-scale project, we always ask them to choose projects they admire. We do this because larger scale projects can take many shapes and sizes, and it’s best to understand what appeals most to your company about original research. While the upside for original research is huge, there are also risks inherent in this approach–and a carefully considered plan is essential to minimize those risks.

Qualitative research studies

These are research studies based on open-ended questions, most commonly gathered in one-to-one interviews.

WHY CHOOSE IT: Why use qualitative research instead of quantitative research? Sometimes interviews are used to get responses from high-value targets, such as C-level executives or customers. At times they are used to probe more complex, nuanced topics. And sometimes qualitative interviews are useful in the types of content they generate (e.g. interviewing executives on video can be the basis of a video series). It’s a matter of your company’s goals and area of study. Keep in mind that it may be ideal to do a quantitative survey that includes a qualitative subset. More on that below.

EXAMPLE OF: Our friends at Farland Group do a tremendous job working with customer advisory boards at massive brands like Fidelity, Huawei and IBM. Farland helps these big brands engage their C-level customers in novel ways, including conducting qualitative surveys. Farland’s interest isn’t so much content marketing as it is customer engagement, but Farland has found that involving clients in content creation is an effective way to deepen the relationship.

GETTING STARTED: The most important problem to solve when considering qualitative surveys is your “output”–how will you present the research. Traditional reports using qualitative research can be dense and tough to get through. When conducting qualitative research you should consider asking some qualitative questions to help give your report visual interest (provided your sample size is big enough to support it).

Also, consider video capture as a valuable asset, even if you can only capture video for a smaller subset of the whole.

Larger aggregation studies

Larger aggregation studies canvass publicly available data or licensed data to extract original insights. (Or in the case of tech companies that have access to user data, aggregation can also take the form of analyzing your own internal data for original insights, even if that’s not the reason it was originally collected.)

WHY CHOOSE IT: Among the most exciting projects we’ve seen of late use third-party data in novel ways. It’s a particularly rich idea for marketing organizations that have deep quantitative skills, such as technology companies with Big Data analysts on staff. It’s no coincidence that most of the companies that aggregate data are from the tech industry.

EXAMPLE OF: Our friends at BuzzSumo published an analysis of 100 million headlines to understand what attracts the most engagement, and what drives people away. SEMRush published a study of how to rank for featured snippets based on analyzing 1.6 million featured snippets and 80 million keywords. And Orbit Media has a long history of using third-party data to interesting ends, including its investigation of average time between website redesigns (done by looking at data from the Way Back Machine) as well as its salary study (using aggregated data from Payscale and Glassdoor).

GETTING STARTED: These types of project aren’t for beginners. You’ll need an experienced data scientist to work with the data and think through how to use it. You’ll also likely need an expert in data visualization to ensure those insights are translated to be clear and shareable.

These examples of research just scratch the surface of what’s possible. If you want to see more examples of brands doing amazing work with research, or sign up for our newsletter.