In a world of “peak content,” original research gives you a competitive advantage

What do Edelman, LinkedIn, and Spotify have in common? At first glance, not all that much. But if you look a little closer, you’ll notice they’re all examples of companies that have successfully used proprietary data to create awareness, inform brand storytelling, and establish themselves as authorities within their respective verticals.

While many brands are happy to simply collect data, smart marketers recognize that proprietary data and original research are powerful ways to drive a business forward. When well-executed, both can act as a magnet for earned attention, provide a brand platform to support content marketing, and earn a competitive advantage—here’s how.

Original research yields greater returns

We’ve reached peak content—there’s a lot out there to consume, but there’s only so much time to consume it. While great content remains an essential part of every marketer’s game plan, there are diminishing returns associated with the always-on content marketing machines that many brands rely on to stay relevant.

That’s what makes original research so valuable. In a crowded landscape, having proprietary data and insights allows you to tell stories nobody else can.

Spotify is a great example of this. With user data from 248 million monthly active users, the music platform has an edge on its competition—and uses it to generate more engagement and press. Spotify’s annual ”Wrapped” campaign, which shows listeners their favorite songs and artists from the year, gets broad media coverage every December. 2019’s “Decade Wrapped” was the biggest yet, and was covered by high-profile outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times (NYT).

Having proprietary data and original research provides you with novel angles and perspectives to engage media and publishers who are also challenged by “peak content” and hungry for anything that will help them drive reader/viewership. In return, your brand gets talked about—and the impact of one story is multiplied as it’s re-told across the media landscape.

Proprietary data makes you an authority

Since 1931, NYT has published a weekly collection of best-selling books, based on data from book sellers across the United States. It has become the global authority on what is worth reading, and being named a New York Times best seller comes with more cache than any other list.

The more your brand’s data is referenced relative to a particular topic, the more of an authority you become. Your brand then becomes a trusted source of information that is proactively sought-out. And over time, this provides your brand with a defensible position—one which your competitors can’t compete with, because it hinges on data they can never own.

Take public relations (PR) firm, Edelman, whose annual “Trust Barometer” examines global trust in government, business, NGOs, and media. For the past two decades, the company has made the report publicly available to all—including their competitors. While there are other PR firms that try to talk about trust, none are cited as commonly. With so much original research to draw on, and an established reputation as an expert, Edelman has become the de facto authority on the topic.

There are many other examples of brands that take the data in front of them and turn it into gold—and in the case of SAP, this isn’t just a figure of speech. With experience management data from Qualtrics, which SAP owns, they’ve made their “Gold Guide” the must-have industry outlook for the experience economy.

Where to start

It begins with an understanding of the data that is available to you.

First-party data

Start by looking at what first-party data you’ve got on hand, from sources such as:

  • Analytics
  • Customer information
  • Market research
  • Product research

Ask yourself: what’s the one thing you know really, really well? For instance, no one knows car insurance like The Zebra, the leading site for insurance comparison, independent quotes, and industry research in the US. They publish “The State of Auto Insurance” report every year with data from more than 73 million car insurance rates. Sure, it’s niche—but that’s why The Zebra owns the space, and why they’re held in such high regard. It’s a topic that touches millions of people, and they want to know more about it.

Similarly, Okta analyzes the Okta Integration Network—its repository of over 6,500 of the world’s most popular applications—to understand which apps are used most often by their millions of customers. The resulting annual report, “Businesses @ Work,” reaches a massive audience.

Second-party data

Next, consider what other sources of data might be interesting to combine with your first-party data sets. What sort of interesting and unique stories could be told if you were able to form a data partnership?

If you want to see this methodology in action, look no further than LinkedIn’s B2B Institute. The think tank, which is funded by LinkedIn, monitors research across industry and academia to find organizations doing interesting work on brand building in the B2B space, then collaborates with them. For example, remember Edelman? The B2B Institute recently partnered with them—and all their juicy research from the “Trust Barometer”—to publish “Trust in a Time of Uncertainty.” Pooling resources and expertise like this is a win-win for everybody.

Original research

Once you’ve explored what already exists and is available to you, ask yourself if you can conduct new research or studies to uncover unique insights about your industry. Start by thinking about the customer journeys that are relevant to your brand, and value creation opportunities that exist within that journey. When the “Michelin Guide” was founded in 1900 it was to increase the demand for cars—and car tires—on the roads of France.

But you don’t need to go back a century to see this type of research deployed strategically and impactfully. As a leading payout provider for freelance workers, PayPal’s Hyperwallet platform is perfectly positioned to track growth of the gig economy in established and emerging economies worldwide. To gather first-hand proprietary research on a range of additional factors, from e-commerce activity to digital infrastructure, they partnered with Walker Sands Communication. The resulting “Marketplace Expansion Index” generated more than 100 targeted media placements and garnered more than 5 million impressions within a single year.

Brand storytelling using proprietary data is the new content marketing frontier

Proprietary data provides brands with a compelling and enduring platform upon which to tell their story. As a strategy, it’s both a clear response to the way the communications and marketing landscape has evolved, and a source of competitive advantage.

For a long time now, data has been touted as a linchpin to customer success. Moving forward, brands will continue to employ this strategy—using their data not only to make business and product decisions, but to power communications and marketing as well. In today’s crowded media landscape, there is simply not enough available attention to rely on content that is replicable by a competitor.

Moreover, research can pay dividends in the form of diverse and multifaceted campaigns. When Salesforce produced the “Shopper-First Retailing” research report alongside Publicis Sapient, it spun off a blog and infographic series, a four-part webinar, and executive events across the US, along with influencer attention and podcast appearances. When they released “Consumer Experience in the Retail Renaissance” with Deloitte Digital, it not only led to a blog series, a digital hub, and top-rated presentations at Salesforce Connections and Dreamforce, it resulted in internal assets for business development as well.

It’s time for brands to not only use data to make business and product decisions, but to use the stories behind the data.

Image: Andrey_Kuzmin/Shutterstock

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