by: Emily Heintz, Managing Director, EntryPoint
At EntryPoint, we are frequently asked how to create strategic, accurate and comprehensive research reports. Over the last decade, I’ve applied my knowledge and expertise from my experience in public accounting and leadership roles in the entrepreneurial ecosystem to develop industry-leading research reports. Here are ten guidelines that I can share from my experience:
Identify your specific audience. You need to collect data from an accurate, consistent and complete audience.
Data tends to be less reliable if you survey an inconsistent set of organizations and people. If you have multiple viewpoints, then you have multiple interpretations of the questions and multiple types of responses. Also, figure out exactly who is in your audience. For example, if you are analyzing the entrepreneurial community, decide whether to survey investors, founders, or CEOs. Put together a list of 100% of that audience. Then, tailor your questions to the specific audience and survey everyone.
Make sure your audience understands the scope of the report and the projected outcome.
Making sure everyone understands the objectives of a report is critical to receive a high response rate. If the people providing the data don’t value what you’re trying to create or how the end report will be utilized, then you’ll have low response rates and people will provide less accurate data.
You must get a high response rate.
I’m talking 85%+ response rate. On average, internal surveys receive a 30-40% response rate, compared to an average 10-15% response rate for external surveys. Surveys are a great way to collect data from a particular audience of people. However, if you have only a 40% response rate, that data is NOT accurate. A low response rate is the failing of MANY “data” pieces out there – a survey is thrown out there, followed up on a few times, and then whatever comes back is given a quick polish and is published. If you want to publish a fluffy piece, you can write whatever you want and don’t need to waste people’s time by surveying. If you are publishing an actual research piece that has legs and longevity to base your many strategic plans around – a 40% response rate won’t cut it.
Collect complete data by ANY. MEANS. NECESSARY.
Fill in the gaps – Are you missing some data? Get it by any means necessary. Library, call a company, city records, tax filings, etc.
Source the best in the industry.
Use outside data sources that are well-recognized and trusted. Outside data is great for benchmarking and providing additional context. However, if it’s not widely recognized and trusted, it weakens and dilutes your information versus bolstering it.
Verify until you die.
Once you collect the data, verify its accuracy! This step takes the longest but is probably the most important. One inaccurate piece of data means the result is inaccurate and over time, inaccuracies result in a report that can’t be trusted – the research kiss of death. Compare data sets to each other, public sources, purchased data sources and prior years data. Does the data make sense in all of those contexts? If not, follow up until you find every inaccuracy.
Use both sides of your brain.
Once you have compiled a database of complete, accurate, consistent data – this is when the data artistry comes in. Aggregate, sort, filter, and compare data in as many ways as you can. You want to select the pieces of information that paint the most comprehensive, informative and understandable picture possible. The team working on the piece also needs to understand the subject quantitatively and qualitatively.
Avoid cherry picking but don’t publish everything under the sun.
- Cherry Picking: You can have complete, accurate data but paint an inaccurate picture. Selectively showing only the best data erodes the accuracy and validity of your final product; it might make a great soundbite but will have very little value beyond that. If there are negative trends, that’s useful too!
- Kitchen Sink: A great report says just enough. You can always publish a subsequent mini-report, blog post or byline that focuses on one area of the report and provides some additional findings. It’s easy to throw everything into a report, but people won’t even open it.
Great writing is the backbone of communicating your data to a broad audience.
Hire a great writer (shout out to our in-house writing wiz, Amber Pineda!). Once you’ve painted an amazing picture with the data, carefully craft the words to explain it to a broad audience. We find it useful to have broad messaging on each page that’s highly understandable for the general public alongside tidbits on each page that are more technical for your core audience (aka your hardcore audience). However, the storytelling aspect is critical in creating context, interest, and understanding.
Visual appeal is the heart of communicating your data to a broad audience.
Hire a great graphic designer (shout out to our fantastic graphic design team at Wagner Design!). If you want to reach audiences on digital and traditional media channels, graphic design is important. Visual appeal is critical to creating a piece people want to read. The design of the graphics and layout of the page enables readers to digest the data more easily. At the most basic level, people simply enjoy pushing out pieces that look amazing – whether that’s digitally or in print format. People will share it if it looks great.
A Quick PSA:
- Don’t do a report that has already been done. If you’re covering the same ground that has already been covered, then nothing new is being learned, and you can (and should) skip it.
- Don’t publish a report if you’re not going to do a great job. There’s nothing worse than researching something that has been poorly researched 100 times before. Everyone has survey fatigue, and there’s a ton of conflicting information out there. It’s just noise.