stories headlines

What’s Your Story? Turning Survey Data into Stories People Care About

I’m a huge advocate of surveys as the basis for content projects where objectives include link acquisition, brand mentions, exposure and social media interaction. I love surveys.

From the silly (like that time I asked 1,000 Americans to name a British City other than London) to the serious (like a recent smartphone survey we ran at Tecmark), surveys make great foundations for storytelling. And in turn stories are, in essence, the focal point of any piece of content. We’ve used survey based stories in a whole host of sectors to generate content that makes noise online.

But how do you go about turning a simple survey into a piece of content that gets people talking? Here’s my personal approach.

1.    Start with the Goals

What are you trying to achieve?

  • Is it links?
  • Coverage?
  • Social shares?
  • Namechecks in the national press?

Understand exactly what results you need to determine that your survey was a success. And, more the point, make sure you know exactly how you are going to measure it.


2.    Who’s your audience?

This ties into goals closely. Who do you want to reach? If you just want as many mentions from anyone at all as possible, great… but if you are trying to create something that will resonate with a particular audience or a particular audience’s influencers, you’re going to need to take this into account right from the outset.


3.    What’s your topic?

At this point, you’re in a position to start thinking about topics. What niche is the campaign for which you are running this survey? You’re going to want some relevance, of course, but we need to think laterally.

I’m a big fan of the 6-3-5 method of brainwriting for coming up with a number of ideas in a short space of time.

I also can’t recommend highly enough that you flick through this deck by Distilled’s Mark Johnstone.

You should have a loose topic area before moving on and you should be able to answer the question:

“Who will give a crap about this?”

I don’t mean just saying “oh, Mums will care about this.” You should be able to name key social influencers or journalists that will care about this survey. I like to have a list of 20 people who I think will care and I should be able to back it up. I should have examples of other things they have done or said that tell me they are going to care about my survey.


4.    Think headlines

It might seem a little premature to dive right into writing headlines before you’ve even decided exactly what you are going to ask and who you are going to ask it to. But this is exactly when you should be starting to think headlines. The questions you ask and the people you ask them to should be dictated by your goals and your potential headlines.

A question in a survey is a potential headline.

With our Tecmark smartphone survey, when we wrote the questions, it was with the potential headlines in mind.

“If the most popular answer is this, then our headline will be that.”

Key point: you can always count on humanity to let you down in a survey. Write every single question with the headline in mind because you won’t always get the answers you want, so you need a number of options.

Recommended reading: “The secrets of great headline writing,” on the Guardian.


5. Finalise questions and your demographic

Your headlines will pretty much write your questions for you and will probably determine your target demographic as well.

Personally, I’m a fan of a big pool of respondents (1,000 minimum, preferably 2,000). And I always choose to buy responses from suppliers who will supply me with the data in raw format and separately broken down  by gender, age and location.

Make sure your questions aren’t too leading as it could damage the credibility of the content you create. Depending who you buy the responses from, you can often get help from professionals with that.

6. Source the Responses

You can, of course, run surveys completely free of charge using tools such as Survey Monkey. Personally, though, I prefer buying responses in simply because that give me:

  • Quick responses
  • Demographic of my choice
  • Easy access to a pool of respondents large enough

Who you buy the data from will affect the quality, speed of response and, frankly, the credibility your survey holds.

6.1 Low Budget Survey Responses

At the lower end of the budget scale:

6.1 Higher Budget

If you have a bit more budget you can buy in data from companies such as:

Does it matter which you use? Well, I managed to get a lot of coverage in the news with a survey run through Google Consumer Surveys (I asked 1,000 Americans to name a British City other than London). But it was a lighthearted, tongue in cheek survey anyway so this might have affected where it was picked up. But for serious surveys, I’ve had much wider coverage using higher budget services.

Tip: If you want to know whether or not the source you plan to buy data from is credible, do a site search on some of the news publications you would be interested in getting coverage on see whether they’ve used surveys with data commissioned through that provider before. E.g:

yougov guardian results

It’s always worth checking any providers you haven’t used before to see whether they do get cited on credible web publications.


7. Analysing Your Responses

When you get the data back, the first thing you’ll want to do is check whether you got the responses you need to make your headline dreams come true. You probably haven’t in all cases! But sometimes what you get is actually significantly better (and, of course, other times, humanity p**ses on your parade and it’s back to the backup questions!).

The process I use personally is this:


  • Look at a question’s answers from the raw data and write a headline based on the responses (it may or may not be the same as the one you had in mind before you got your answers)
  • Check the demographic split and regional split and see if there any differences of note between people in certain places or between men and women. If so, write another headline taking that into account
  • Repeat for every single question
  • Get the headlines on a single sheet and get as many people as you can around a table to take a view between you on which you think is the most compelling
  • Shortlist headlines based on feedback
  • Upload a few as a single image to and get more feedback
  • Get social media followers, journalists, writers and anyone else you might know to give you feedback too
  • Ultimately, you want to end up with your lead headline (and potentially some local variants for a sideline local campaign too)


8. Tell the story

Go back to your initial list of people who you think will give a crap about your survey and tell a story they should care about. Your initial press release or outreach email (or whatever it is you intend to present to people about your data) should tell a story. The headline is key, but the body of the email or press release should elicit some kind of response too. Typically, I find the surveys that perform best either:

  • Make people laugh
  • Elicit a strong emotional response (make people incredibly sad, angry or happy)
  • Are potentially controversial
  • Have elements to them that some people will agree passionately with while others will absolutely disagree with
  • Are relatable

It’s key that the content you write is “Sticky.” You should read, “Made to Stick,” for more on that.

9. Create a Media Pack

You’ll want to send a simple initial email (or make a simple call) but you should have all the resources journalists and bloggers might need, including the raw data, a bank of quotes, contacts for people from the relevant organisation who would be prepared to give commentary, any relevant photographs etc.

Outreach Advice

It’s all about the content quality and the contacts you have. As well as existing relationships, I like to find journalists through:

  • Muckrack
  • Twitter!

Make the raw data available!!

Really, do! It’s a great source for people to link back to (helps with your link building if there’s a reason for journalists or bloggers to link back). It also adds a bit of credibility if you are happy for people to see the original data and not just the bits you want in your headlines or stories.

One good survey – many great campaigns

We always lead our primary campaign with the best headline. But we create multiple campaigns out of one single survey – literally dozens sometimes. There are regional campaigns with the local data, for a start. But sometimes, a question or two from within the survey can be a campaign unto itself.

If the story has proven itself of a high enough quality to generate traction, sometimes we’ll then invest in infographics or big visual pieces to bring it to life and there’s a whole new campaign again there.

Don’t expect miracles

As with any content marketing style campaign, bear in mind that great content alone isn’t enough. You’re going to need to work to get it in front of the wrong audience and apply the same level of outreach you would to anything. We often invest as much in outreach (time wise) as in content concept, research and copy).

Featured Image Credit.