Five Ideas for Effective Thought Leader Studies

When an organization exerts thought leadership around a topic of interest to its customers and stakeholders, it establishes credibility and builds a positive brand reputation. Many Rockbridge clients commission surveys for release in the public domain with the goals of providing valuable information for influencers and demonstrating their thought leadership. For example, we have clients who provide services to small businesses and freelancers who commission trending studies among these audiences, while clients in the education services sector commission studies of students and parents. Many of our association clients invest in studies on the markets where their members play, such as technology, travel and home improvement. The success of these studies is judged by the degree of attention they receive in the media, by influencers (e.g., bloggers, newsletters) and at industry events.  Having developed scores of these studies over the years, as well as conducting several under our own name such as the National Technology Readiness Survey (conducted since 1999), we are able to share lessons for ensuring thought leader studies beat expectations.

#1 – Support your story with a compelling digital presence.  When results are released, go beyond the basics of a press release and give interested parties a way of engaging and interacting.  For example, Rockbridge conducts a study on the top markets for skilled professional freelancers for Fiverr. This client created an interactive website that maps the locations and trends of these markets, allowing interested parties to become immersed in the story. For another study we conducted for Intuit that surveyed providers in the platform economy, we created an attitudinal segmentation of the “Five Faces of the On-Demand Economy” that was uploaded as a slide share and received over 700,000 views. For other clients, we have created interactive surveys where professionals could go online and assess themselves; for example, one allowed small business owners to evaluate their “success” on an index compared to other small businesses.

#2 – Build tension in your story with counterintuitive or unexpected insights.  Objectively reporting the topline statistics of a study can be boring, but a more insightful story may exist with deeper analysis.  In a recent study of freelancers, we found that 71% were satisfied with their vocations, but the story became more interesting when we contrasted it with the satisfaction of workers with regular employment, revealing that fewer of them (54%) were satisfied with their jobs. As another example, Rockbridge conducts an annual study on company innovation, the American Innovation Index™, where we rank nearly 200 companies. Surprisingly, Ikea heads the list as the most innovative company in America beating tech giants like Apple (#2) and Amazon (#10). These unexpected insights gain more attention in the public domain, while challenging commonly held assumptions.

# 3 – Add up the numbers to convey a sense of magnitude.  Rockbridge was one of the first companies to provide statistics on purchasing in the on-demand economy in the U.S., but what got the most attention in the public (including an HBR blog post) was not the percent of consumers who participated, but the fact that they numbered 22.5 million and spent $57.6 billion annually. Thought leader studies often gather statistics on areas such as product ownership, purchases, frequency of behavior, and intent, but the story is more compelling when we aggregate the data and provide estimates of market sizes and forecasts of growth. In another study on email spam, we computed the amount of time consumers spend deleting spam, multiplied it by wages, and provided an estimate of the economic impact ($22 billion a year, as reported in major news outlets like CBS). We had been tracking trends in a home improvement market for a trade industry client for years, but we enhanced the study by providing estimates of sales and forecasts, adding a new dimension to the study without increasing the costs.  To provide the quality that is necessary for credible news outlets, conferences and publications, it is important that a study providing these kinds of numbers meets high standards for sample representativeness and includes carefully designed metrics to be included in an “estimation model”. Rockbridge may also rely on government sources such as the Census Bureau and the Department of Labor. The steps in producing the numbers is tedious, but the end-result can be fascinating. One tracking study we conduct is for MBO Partners with Emergent Research, The State of Independence, which combines a range of survey and government sources to produce statistics on the number of independent workers in the U.S., serving as one of the primary sources of this data for a decade.

#4 – Provide access to experts.  A study is viewed as more credible when you can demonstrate that qualified experts were involved in its creation. When Rockbridge implements thought leader studies, it includes a senior methodologist who can speak about how we conducted the research and answer questions about our approach and what the findings mean. When studies are released publicly, our clients may arrange for the methodologist to be interviewed. The methodologist may speak to a journalist working on a story, but could also talk to bloggers, government agencies and universities. To further ensure the integrity of studies, Rockbridge routinely checks press releases to ensure the numbers and conclusions are accurate, a free service that clients value.

#5 – Go beyond numbers and provide insights from experts and consumers.  In a study on success factors in education, we augmented our survey results with interviews with five globally recognized experts.  The final report conveyed a more vivid story by providing quotes, examples and advice from the experts. In a study on digital imaging, we included an online forum using our OpinionPond™ tool that gathered consumer quotes and invited them to upload images. In a study on the impact of the Affordable Care Act on employee benefits, we conducted focus groups with employers and industry providers to provide themes that were subsequently captured in a structured survey of employers.

Thought leader studies compete for attention in a cluttered marketplace of ideas, which means that solid research, a well-written report and appealing visualization are not sufficient to ensure an impact.  In our experience, the most successful studies involve working with the communications leaders inside our client organizations to develop a strategy for making their story interesting and engaging their audiences.

Written by: Charles Colby, Chief Methodologist