How to Do Original Research

(Episode 2 of 2 with Michele Linn)

How to Do Original Research

Welcome back to another episode with Michele Linn. In the first episode, we talked about Michele’s journey to become an expert in original research and how original research can give us credibility. In today’s episode, we’ll dive deeper into doing marketing through original research, discussing the specifics of what original research is and how to do it.

What is original research?

Original research is any type of data that is presented in a way that provides meaningful, new, and unique insights, helping a company build credibility and authority for its brand. 

Michele said, “We specifically look at original research as something that you publish out as part of your marketing efforts. It’s different [from] market research which a lot of people use because that’s typically used to make internal marketing [decisions].” In other words, it is publicly published content to establish our credibility and authority.

Why do people do original research?

When Michele is starting a new original research project with a client, she always asks them, “What does success look like to you guys?” They often respond with, “We want to build our subscriber base,” or “We want to become thought leaders,” or “We want to build our email list.”

“These things are very, very tied together,” Michele said, “but we always try to focus on what’s that one core thing you want to do.” When we are deciding to do original research, we need to have a core objective like this that we can design everything to work towards that focus.

Four Stages of Original Research: IDEA

There are four stages of original research: impact, data, exploration, and amplification.


The impact stage is all about putting together our strategy, understanding why we’re doing this, understanding the topic that we want to focus on, and what’s actually going to be new and original. It’s about trying to understand and working backward to know how our research is going to help us meet the goals we want to meet. 

What Topic to Focus On

How do we know what topic to focus on? Michele said, “Sometimes marketers don’t spend enough time trying to figure that out. . . . [For] example, I had a client who came to me in a sales enablement space, and they said, ‘Hey, we want to do research around sales enablement.’ [But] if you type in ‘state of sales enablement,’ you’ll see like 678 companies have these state of sales enablement reports out there.”

“So you need to dig in and you really need to understand what already has been done in the space,” Michele continued. “And then you need to go in a different direction because you need a topic that’s meaningful to your audience. It needs to align with your brand; it needs to stay something new.”

We need to find our own space and angle that we can do a research project on that no one else has the answers to. If we’re trying to establish thought leadership then we have to have a unique topic. Parroting something that someone else has already done is not thought leadership.

So you need_Blog


The next stage centers around data. It’s putting together our survey, programming it, doing the testing, and getting our responses. This stage also includes data cleaning and analysis once the data is compiled.

Drafting Questions

How do we draft the right questions to get really good, insightful data that tells a compelling story? “I always recommend,” Michele said, “that once [people] have their topic identified, the next thing they [should] do is picture their research table of contents if you will. What are those key categories that you want your research to focus on?”

In a study Michele did on thought leadership, those categories were the characteristics of thought leadership if companies were interested in being thought leaders, and the different things that companies were doing with their own thought leadership efforts.

We need to identify the key things we want to learn and draft questions for each of those categories instead of trying to draft one encompassing survey. 

Another point to consider with our questions is how we can create questions that provide insights and stories. “Oftentimes,” Michele explained, “especially if people are new to research, they are . . . asking research questions that effectively take an inventory of their industry, like ‘what do you do here?’ and ‘what do you do with that?’ but you might find that those questions are not all that interesting. Instead, you really need to shift your thinking and say, ‘How can I ask questions that are going to provide insight?’”


The next step is how we choose our participants, how many we need, and how to get them to respond.

How do we choose participants? “For many people,” Michele said, “the easiest way to field a survey is to use a panel of consumers. These are adults in the US or the UK, or wherever that place may be. You can get these panels; they’re relatively easy to access and inexpensive.”

Michele also has clients who are B2B who do surveys of customers to help their B2B audience. “A lot of B2B marketers don’t want to go after a consumer audience; they want to survey other B2B people. The easiest way to do that is if you have access to your own list that’s engaged, if you have an email list or a community of people who want the insights, who are happy to share the insights, and they also want to learn from those insights. That’s the best way to get data, [but] a lot of people don’t have that.”

“The best next thing to do is to partner with someone,” Michele explained. “For instance, we did a survey a couple of years in a row where we wanted to learn about the state of original research. . . . We partnered with BuzzSumo . . . because they wanted to understand how marketers were doing research too. We put together all of the survey questions and so forth, and then they sent out the survey to their list, so we had the people to participate. It was a very joint effort, and we both published that research data in a really collaborative way.”

The last way is to use panels of B2B participants. However, Michele said, “B2B panels are tough. They’re expensive. There are quality control issues.” We need to make sure that people are who they are supposed to be. For marketers, are they actually a marketer or are they just trying to get that survey incentive from the survey company? “So you really need to put a lot of quality checks in place and know you’re going to spend time and money to get the right people if you use a B2B panel.”

How many participants do we need? Michele said that if we’re going after a consumer-based audience, she generally recommends a minimum of 1,000 participants. However, if we’re going after a B2B audience, the sample size is much smaller. Michele recommends at least 300 unless we are doing comparisons such as B2B and B2C. In those instances, we must make sure we have enough participants in each group. Michele also said there are sample size calculators we can use to determine how big our sample size needs to be. 

There are a couple of ways we can get people to participate in our survey. We need to give participants some kind of value or incentive to participate. “Oftentimes offering someone a chance to win something be it a gift card, cool earbuds, or some other thing of the moment can work really well. It gets people to take the survey, and it gets people to actually complete the survey, and that’s a huge thing.”

Michele also said, “It’s useful to make sure the audience knows why they’re actually taking their time.” She continued, “One thing I would not recommend is giving each survey participant an actual gift card or some kind of financial incentive if you’re going to use your own list. . . . There’s a high probability that you’re going to get in spam and fraudulent respondents because people want that incentive.”

What do we do with the data?

You want to make_Blog

Once we’ve written the questions, found participants, and gotten the responses, what do we do next? The next thing we want to do is clean the data and then analyze it. Michele said, “Make sure that you don’t just take what comes in and say, ‘Look we got all of our responses. Let’s go.’ But once you clean the data and you have a good data set, I always analyze it for what are the themes, what are the insights, what are the stories. Really pull those out because you want to make sure that you have key takeaways.”

“You want to make sure that you really try to understand and articulate because your reader has this report. [They should know] how you’re going to make their life better. . . . Make that very, very clear to yourself and make that very clear to your readers. This isn’t a bunch of data; this is what we’ve learned that you can apply to yourself.”


Stage three focuses on exploration. We should take what we’ve learned from the data and put together our launch plan. In this stage, we explore our findings to create meaningful insights, then create a plan for how we are going to present those insights to our audience in a meaningful way. 


A standard way to present the data is in a static PDF, but we can often find more interesting and engaging ways to present it. “I think that marketers can get a lot of value if they think beyond that,” Michele said. “Andy Crestodina does this really well. He has an annual blogging study, and he gets backlinks to that study every single day. So if your goal is backlinks . . . put together a really comprehensive blog post.”

Anything that _Blog

Michele has also been thinking about presentations that allow the audience to interact with the data such as an interactive dashboard that allows the audience to click through the data, filter it, look at it through a specific lens, etc. “Anything that we can do where people can interact with the data is going to be really useful moving forward. Just a marketer giving the story to someone is useful, but I think people want to see the data and how it changes. I think it feels a lot more credible that way.”


This last stage is what we do after our research is published to amplify it. How do we continually grow and get great energy and results from this project we’ve invested in? How do we promote it and get continual backlinks? Do we use our email list, social media, etc.?

How long should this process take?

The whole process can take more than two months. “We have a process that we use with our clients that takes you from strategy until you put surveys out on the field, but it takes three weeks. It can certainly be condensed, but we always know clients have other priorities to work on. So, we’d say on average, you know, allocate two to four weeks to create your strategy, your questions [and] program, [and have] it tested.” 

“[Then] your survey needs to be out in the field, so if you’re using a panel that can take days to weeks to happen. If you’re using your own list, I always allot four weeks as an average bucket of time. So then, you’re at two months.”

“And then the last step is putting together those findings. . . . Some people have really fast processes where they can write findings, get it through design, and so forth, and other clients, it takes longer. I think marketers probably have the best idea of what that last stage looks like. It’s just going to depend on how quickly your organization works. Long story [short], I would say two-plus months to get it done, but there [are] ways to condense that.”

Key Takeaways

Thank you so much Michele for sharing your stories and knowledge with us today. Here are some of my key takeaways from this episode:

1. We can use original research to build our following or become thought leaders.

2. The four stages of original research are impact, data, exploration, and amplification.

3. The topic of our research should be something that no one has done before.

4. When drafting questions, we can picture what we want our table of contents to look like and create questions around those key categories.

5. Our questions should provoke interesting insights and stories.

6. To find participants, we can use our own email list, panels of participants, or we can partner with someone and use their email list.

7. For a consumer-based audience, we should have at least 1,000 participants. For a B2B audience, we should have at least 300.

8. Once we have the data we must clean it before we analyze it. Then we can look for key insights and stories.

9. We should try to find an interactive way to present our data to our audience. 

Connect with Michele

If you enjoyed this interview and want to learn more about Michele or connect with her, you can find her on LinkedIn at or visit her website You can also check out episode 1 of this interview.

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    About the author

    Nathan Gwilliam

    Nathan Gwilliam

    I help organizations navigate tectonic shifts that are transforming the business landscape, so they can optimize marketing, accelerate profits, and make a greater difference for good.

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