Lessons Learned from Conducting Two Monster Audience Surveys

You may be creating content in a niche with 1,000 other sites, but only you have your audience. And surveying your audience can be fertile ground for the kind of information and insight that builds your next transformative content series.

Just ask Demian Farnworth. He did it twice for Copyblogger in 2014 — and the results of his second survey will be posted here tomorrow.

We talked about his mentality in conducting these two surveys, his process, and the lessons he learned in the latest episode of The Lede.

In this episode, Demian Farnworth and I discuss:

  • Creating a survey to gain insights for a unique content series
  • Choosing the right survey methodology
  • How to survey your audience, even if your audience is small and you have limited resources
  • The golden rule of good content
  • What we’ll do differently when conducting our next survey

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The Show Notes



Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

The Lede Podcast: Lessons Learned from Conducting Two Monster Audience Surveys

Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing by Copyblogger Media. I’m Jerod Morris.

This episode of The Lede is brought to you buy Authority Rainmaker, Copyblogger’s second annual live conference focused on providing content marketing training and networking opportunities for real-world results.

Authority Rainmaker takes place in May 2015 and will be held at the breathtaking Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, Colorado. Keynote presentations will be delivered by Daniel Pink, Sally Hogshead, and DIY-pioneer Henry Rollins.

Super early bird pricing is still available, but it goes away this Friday, so don’t wait. Go to authorityrainmaker.com for details.

Creating content that is both useful and unique is not easy. You know this. It’s one of the reasons why content marketing is a proven long play, rather than a scheme to get rich quick.

But sometimes we overcomplicate things. Sometimes the answer to our question of, “How do I create the next great piece of content that will help me build my business?” is staring us right in the face, if only we’d open our eyes.

It’s our audience. Because while you may be creating content in a niche with a thousand other sites, only you have your audience.

And surveying your audience can be fertile ground for the kind of information and insight that builds your next transformative content series.

Just ask Demian Farnworth. He did it twice for Copyblogger in 2014.

We talked about his mentality, his process, and the lessons he learned in the latest episode of The Lede. Demian. How are you?

Demian Farnworth: I’m doing well, friend. Thank you. How are you, Jerod?

Jerod: I am doing very well. Excited to begin another year of Lede podcasts. It should be a fun one.

Demian: I agree. I’m excited, too.

Jerod: A big theme that we’ve talked about that is popular in a lot in content marketing circles is just how much content there is out there, right?

It’s harder now to get noticed because there’s more content. So to get noticed, to rise above that din, you’ve got to do something special.

You’ve have to create content that is more useful than others, and one way that you do that is create content that says something different. That is unique.

Creating a survey to gain insights for a unique content series

For anybody who has built an audience, the most unique element that you have that you are in control of is that audience. And it can be very fertile ground for creating the kind of unique, useful content that you need to stand out above the crowd.

This is how I want to introduce the theme of today’s Lede podcast, which is surveys, and, specifically, surveying your audience to create unique content.

It’s something that we’ve done now twice just in the past year. We did it once last year with our native advertising series, and we’ve done it again with the cost of doing business online survey.

The results of our latest survey will be posted on Wednesday, January 14, so since that is tomorrow, I wanted to talk with you, Demian, about surveys — and about your process for creating the surveys.

What have we learned from these two audience surveys? Can you give our audience some insight?

Because I think it’s something they can look at too as an avenue for creating that unique, useful content that’s needed to stand out above the crowd.

Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the surveys that we’ve done in general, some of your thoughts behind them, and some of the lessons you’ve learned.

Demian: Great opening. This idea of your audience being an asset is something Copyblogger has been preaching for quite a long time, and when we talk about content marketing, we define content marketing, and we say that content marketing is building an audience by educating, informing, and entertaining them.

And sometimes, instead of using the word “audience,” I like to use the word “market” because, really, essentially what you’re after is this idea of creating, building this group of people who will then eventually be interested in buying your products.

Then you can turn around and say, “Okay, I fed you all of this free content, and now what is it I can build to help you succeed in your business, in what you do, whatever routine you have? Whatever challenges in life you have. What can I do to help build that?

The best way to get there, if you think about it, is to build that audience, create that content, and keep building that asset, that market of people who are faithful to you, who are advocates for you.

Eventually you turn around and say, “What can I do for you?” That’s essentially what we’ve done with this survey.

It’s such a powerful tool to use, and often, I think, it gets missed. People don’t tap into that simply because they don’t realize that they can do it, and how easy it really is.

For example, our very first survey that we ever did, which is kind of surprising considering of the age of Copyblogger, was the 2014 native advertising survey. It was 12 questions.

We asked people basic questions about their understanding of native advertising, their awareness of native advertising, and that exercise was pretty revealing in a sense, because part of that survey was meant to help fuel and inform the following series I was going to write.

The series turned out to be about five articles. First, I wanted to find out how aware people are of native advertising. From there, results turned out to be that only three percent of those surveyed actually had a solid understanding of native advertising.

That was a 12-question survey, so it was short.

Jerod: And I want to jump in here.

Demian: Sure.

Jerod: That part was very revealing, right?

I recall being surprised by that response because we’d been talking so much about native advertising, and obviously in the content marketing cocoon, native advertising had been discussed a lot.

But we found that a lot fewer people actually recognized it, knew it, and were doing it than we thought, which really highlights the point that you never want to assume, and it’s better to ask the questions and find out the real answers, right?

Demian: Right. Exactly. Like you said, so often we’re working off assumptions, but when you have an asset you can test your theories.

And that’s the scientific method. Formulate a theory, and then test it, and a survey does that.

We were all surprised because native advertising was the current buzzword. It seemed like everywhere you looked there was some sort of hotshot talking about native advertising.

BuzzFeed was talking about it. Mashable. All these different companies were talking about it and doing it, yet when it came down to it, the understanding and awareness within the market was very, very low.

Jerod: So you were already planning on doing the native advertising series.

Demian: Yeah.

Jerod: How do you think the results of the survey informed the series, or possibly even changed the trajectory of the series from where you had initially planned on it going?

Demian: That’s a great question. I don’t remember at what point I had done the survey and at what point I had done the research, whether the survey had come before or after it.

I have a hunch we did the survey first, so I don’t think I had done the research yet. In a lot of ways it did inform what I was after, and information that I could use.

For example, it basically also confirms this belief that you should really assume nothing about the sophistication of your audience. Meaning that you should treat them as if they don’t know anything.

We often get into this rut of what they call “the curse of knowledge” where you think, “Hey, I know this really well, and so does everybody else.

The mistake in that is the fact that it’s just simply not true. Just because you know something doesn’t mean that somebody else knows it.

Like the other night, some young man was trying to teach me how to play Euchre. It’s a card game. And he was saying these words like “bids,” “sets,” and I knew what they meant, but not in his context.

He said, “This will be easy,” and I said, “That’s easy for you to say.” But that’s the idea.

When it came to native advertising, I understood I had to start from the very bottom and define it, and simply keep repeating that definition.

And if you look back through those articles, I always started each article with the definition of what native advertising is to give people something to sort of anchor themselves on, to steer them.

I need something to be explained in one sentence or two sentences, very simply and succinctly. And so in that way, that native advertising survey helped me create that series, and just give really concrete examples of native advertising in the wilds like that.

Jerod: You said something interesting there about assuming that your audience knows nothing, and you have to be careful with that a little bit, because it can sound condescending.

Demian: Right.

Jerod: But you don’t mean in that way, of course.

It’s not assumed that your audience are idiots, it’s just assumed that they don’t understand this concept yet, but once you explain it to them, they will get it.

So just make sure that those bases are covered. Don’t assume everybody knows what you know already.

Choosing the right survey methodology

I want to talk a little about methodology here, because the native advertising survey, as you mentioned, was short. It was 12 questions.

The cost of doing business online survey is much longer.

Demian: Fifty-seven questions.

Jerod: Yeah. 57 questions.

Demian: Mmm-hmm.

Jerod: What were the differences in creating those two surveys? What were some of the lessons that you learned based on how people responded?

Demian: I knew that was a risk going into the cost of doing business online survey, it being long, because convention tells you keep it short.

There were a number of comments — probably two or three comments — within the survey results that said “Don’t you realize that surveys should be short? Anything longer than that, the response will drop.”

And the response did drop, but it did not drop nearly as dramatically as we thought it would. In fact, on the very first question we had 449 responses, and the last question had had 421 responses.

There was a very tiny drop. I expected a drop, but I didn’t expect that small of a drop, though. So I was really pleased with that.

The methodology of trying to dig deeper with many questions, within reason, was to uncover what it looked like to run a business online — whether you sold physical products, or you were talking about digital information, software, that sort of thing.

I went through many iterations of the survey questions, and I was asking lots of people. I had a number of people, like Chris Brogan and Jeff Goins, take a peek at it, and just tell me: What am I missing here? What sort of questions should I be asking?

Chris Garrett and Sonia Simone and all of these people looked at the survey and gave feedback. I was really interested in being precise, but I’d have been much more precise if it had been twice as long a survey.

But I was really after just figuring out as much as I could uncover. What were the categories? I went after the categories. You know, what were the main categories when running a business?

And that was from the creation to execution type of thing, to the commerce side, to the securities, security as a category. And then within that, I tried to ask a few questions that got me close to useful information.

We all talked after we got the results and agreed that for each one of those categories we needed to do another survey that just digs even deeper into that particular information.

Jerod: And you know, it’s interesting too because the two surveys were different, but it all comes down to your goals and what you’re after.

The native advertising series was very much about gaining a broad understanding of what people know generally about native advertising. With 12 questions that are somewhat general, there was not a lot of follow-up from one question to the next — it didn’t fit the purpose of that kind of survey.

With this cost of doing business online survey, you could have asked 10 to 12 questions and got thousands of responses, right? Instead you asked 57. We got 449 responses.

But what’s really interesting about the data set that we got is you can go and can cross-reference responses.

For instance, Question 40 may ask, “How much are you spending on SEO?” You can see how someone answered that question and then go back and look at what he answered to Question 4, and find out if he’s barely paying the bills or living comfortably from his online business.

You get a depth of information with the longer survey that you don’t get with a shorter one. So again, you’re sacrificing number of responses for the depth of the responses, and for the online business survey, it made sense to do it that way.

And that’s where I think if someone’s planning their own survey, their own research project like this, you really want to think about what kind of data set do you want to get? What are you going to be using it for?

For us, with the cost of doing business online survey, we knew we wanted to, obviously, put out a good report, a good educational PDF at the end that everybody could learn from, which I think we did, and we will. That’s going up tomorrow.

But also, for our own internal use. This really helps us understand our audience better — understand what people’s needs are, what their challenges are.

And what I love about it is being able to go in there and say, “Okay. Here’s this group of people who said that they’re not experiencing success. How are they answering all of these different questions? Where are the gaps? What are the majority of people who aren’t having success not doing? Or what are they not investing enough money in?”

And that made it really, really valuable.

Demian: As you review the responses to the questions you asked, you’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t think about that. That’s a surprising find.”

Those nuggets that you weren’t really expecting come to the surface, and that’s the beauty of doing a survey — asking these questions and seeing how people respond, and then seeing how the questions relate to each other.

Because, at first, you’re not really thinking that way and not expecting responses to relate to one another.

A lot of this is serendipity in the sense of first sitting down and thinking about this logically, but then when you release it out there, information comes back.

It comes back in such a way that if you study it, you’ll see these patterns emerge as we did. And so that’s really, really interesting.

Which helps us to then say, “So what content can we create, and in what format, that can serve these needs for these people? What kind of product can we create to serve these needs that these people are saying that they have in this sort of unique, kind of convergence of data sets?”

How to survey your audience, even if your audience is small and you have limited resources

Jerod: I feel like people who are listening to this probably have two objections in their heads, as they think about applying it to their own sites, their own online businesses.

One is, “Well, we don’t have an audience quite as big as Copyblogger,” or “We don’t have the resources or want to invest the resources to go out and pay for a survey like this.”

You can use SurveyMonkey or Google’s consumer surveys. We actually have a post coming out about this that Sean Jackson wrote. It’ll come out sometime early this year. He went out and did some tests.

Now, you have to pay some money to use some of those services, but you can get good data. In terms of the people who are thinking, “Well, why should we do this? We don’t have an audience as big as Copyblogger’s,” how would you respond to that?

Because it’s true. Obviously, we’ve had almost a decade to build a very responsive audience, which we feel very, very fortunate to have, and we’re so grateful that people spent the time to take the survey and provide this great data, which we really hope, again, helps inform us and helps us make better editorial and product choices.

Is it still worth doing even if your audience is smaller?

Demian: I think it’s still worth doing. I think even if you had 10 faithful readers, you would treat them the same way as if you had 1,000.

Just ask. You know, it’s your audience. Those are the people you should be listening to. And there are lots of free tools out there. For example, Google Forms allows you to create free surveys that you can actually embed on your site.

Or if you don’t even want to go that route and you have a small audience, and you have a responsive audience, just create one as a blog post on your website and ask a question.

Have people respond in the comments, or send you an email. There are lots of very cheap, inexpensive work-arounds to get that information.

But the practice of surveying is really a discipline, and it’s one technique inside the discipline of listening to your reader, which we should all be doing.

The golden rule of good content

You can do surveys right on your blog where you ask for answers informally through comments or email. You can do surveys on Twitter. If you’ve got only 400 followers, you can still ask them questions and ask the questions repeatedly so they get more exposure.

You can do that on Facebook. You can do that through email if you want to send an email. But like I said, it’s part of a broader discipline of actually listening to your audience, which is, I think, the cardinal rule.

Listening to your customers is the golden rule of good content, first and foremost.

So figure out how to do that survey, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a very big audience at all. You can do it anyway.

Because it’s like how you would gain information in any group, even if you had a book club of four people. You would ask them: “So what book should we read next?” And they would tell you, and a decision would be made.

What we’ll do differently when conducting our next survey

Jerod: If you could do either survey over again — native advertising or the cost of doing business online — what would you do differently, if anything?

Demian: That’s a great question. The biggest mistake that I made on this last one, the cost of online business survey, was that I did not allow for people to choose multiple options.

It was one of those oversights. I was so concerned about all these other portions and getting these things right and testing it that it just didn’t even occur to me that some of these questions were phrased in such a way that demanded the opportunity for multiple checkpoints.

That’s the biggest lesson in that one — in the future instead of radio buttons where they exclude other answers, we will use check boxes so people can check as many as they want.

Jerod: If you’re listening to this episode of The Lede on Tuesday when it comes out, the cost of online business report based on our survey results will be on the Copyblogger blog tomorrow, Wednesday.

If you’re listening to this at some other point in the future, just tweet us: @JerodMorris or @DemianFarnworth, and we can send you a link to the cost of online business report, because I think there’s a lot of information in there that people will get a lot of value out of. We certainly did.

Demian: Yeah, and just to let people know, too, Jerod, Stefanie, and I all reviewed the responses and added analysis and commentary to a good majority of the questions in the report.

Jerod: Any particular responses from the cost of online business survey that stand out? I was particularly fond of the person who responded “Goat Keeper.”

Demian: I was impressed with that one. My favorite comment was under the question, “How successful is your online business?” And the response was, “I’m 22, and I’m driving a $70,000 Mercedes. I don’t know, you tell me.”

Jerod: I’d say that guy has got it going on.

Demian: Yes. He’s got something going on.

Jerod: All right. Well, we certainly learned a lot from the surveys, and I think it’s something that we’ll continue to do.

If you’re in a crowded niche, or we look at just how much content is out there, it’s hard to see what you can do that’s unique sometimes.

But remember that you are the only person with your audience, and so that is one sure-fire way to get unique content ideas.

Talk with your audience. Find out what they’re thinking. Let them answer some questions. Learn from them, and then see what kind of helpful, useful content you can turn that into, because that is going to be unique.

So, with that said, Demian, another fun episode of The Lede.

Demian: Indeed. In the books, right?

Jerod: Yes. In the books.

Demian: In the books.

Jerod: We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another one.

Demian: And I will be in the books until then.

Jerod: (Laughs) All right. Sounds good, man.

Demian: Take care. Bye.

Jerod: Thank you very much for listening to this episode of The Lede. We’re excited to be back for another year of every-other-week episodes in 2015.

And if you enjoyed this episode, and if you’ve been enjoying past episodes, please consider giving the show a rating or a review on iTunes. We would definitely appreciate it.

Don’t forget to go to authorityrainmaker.com. The early bird pricing won’t be around much longer.

And just know that the vast amount of actionable information you will learn at this year’s event will be surpassed only by the incredible amount of fun that you’ll have simultaneously.

I know. I was there last year. I’ll be there this year. And I hope to see as many of you there as possible as well.

All right, everybody. We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode of The Lede. Hopefully you build a bunch of positive new year momentum in the meantime. Talk to you soon. Serve boldly.


*Credits: Both the intro (“Bridge to Nowhere” by Sam Roberts Band) and outro songs (“Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart) are graciously provided by express written consent from the rights owners.