The Content Playbook That Helped Qualtrics Earn an $8 Billion Acquisition

content strategy

How are you leveraging the power of data in your thought leadership content to deliver real value? Many marketers make the mistake of solely using opinion-based data rather than data that provides real value. Justin Ethington presented at Avalaunch Media Google Day 2020 on how to earn consumer trust, improve brand experiences, capture everyone’s attention, and ultimately drive business through original research.

Before founding Trend Candy, I was at Qualtrics and ran many of their thought leadership content campaigns. Qualtrics is a local SAS company. They experienced hypersonic growth and were acquired recently by SAP for about $8 billion. It still stands as one of the largest SAS purchases in history.

A machine like Qualtrics is a complex machine and a complex formula, and there are many factors that drive it. Success, talented leaders, a fantastic executive team, brilliant marketers, fantastic technology. Not to discount any of that, but I’m just going to zoom in on one particular aspect of the success of Qualtrics that I think is relevant to us today, and that is how Qualtrics, using content and thought leadership, invented an entirely new business category called “experience management.”

How Qualtrics Experience Management Attracted SAP

It was the invention of this category that drove much of its success and ultimately attracted SAP. We were about a week away from an IPO and SAP swooped in at the last minute and said they wanted us first. It was really the invention of this category that helped Qualtrics get to that point. So in order to invent this new category of experience management as digital marketers and as content people, we had to ask ourselves some really tough questions about whether our content really delivered value to anyone. Is it enough to attract press coverage? Is it just hyping our product or is it actually helping our customers to grow, learn, and succeed? Is our content providing insights for free that are so valuable that prospects and customers would be willing to pay for them? That’s really the benchmark we’re trying to hit. 

We learned a valuable lesson in all of this that if your content is serving you more than your customer, it’s really just another sales pitch, and it actually damages your thought leadership profile because people are generally repelled by advertising. They’re attracted to thought leadership. It’s an inverse relationship; you have to ask yourself how you’re doing in that regard. 

We decided that we needed to make our content absolutely irresistible. It had to build brand credibility. It had to be valuable to the press, to analysts, to customers, to prospects, and to everybody. True value means sharing data — not opinion data that isn’t already out there because data drives trust, and trust drives your business. When you bring data to the table, you don’t just join a conversation; you change a conversation. We knew we had to do that with data. 

So, we decided to stop using our content as a way to share our company’s opinions and start using our content as a way to share valuable data that no one else had that was based on original survey research. Qualtrics is a research company at heart, and we had all the tools to do that. We learned that when we used research to create our content instead of just our opinions, it became invaluable. We saw over and over how this flavor of content would outperform standard opinion-based content by 10 times. 

Every Campaign Needs Research

When it comes to content, your opinion alone isn’t good enough. You need data, and this is one way Qualtrics changed the game. We frequently use data to learn how to improve customer experiences, product experiences, employee experiences, and brand experiences. Over time, analysts, PR journalists, customers, and ultimately SAP noticed because they acquired us for $1 billion.

In a nutshell, we would run the same content playbook over and over. I’ll give you an example. We had a mantra that every campaign needed research, which was the tent pole of our campaign research. For example, we wanted to sell more Qualtrics software to the cruise line industry because they are acutely interested in creating experiences, making them a perfect match. Instead of creating a bunch of case studies and landing pages, we surveyed a thousand people who just took a cruise and asked them what they loved, what they hated, what they liked or disliked about onboard and offshore experiences, and why they became an advocate for a particular line of cruise ship. 

We did all this research and gave it away for free in the form of PR campaigns and press blog posts targeted at cruise line leaders. We put out infographics and blog posts and about our findings, being careful to include our top SEO keywords. We launched social media posts, email drip campaigns, and paid media, and we created eBooks to capture leads. We gave slide decks to our sales reps and they would get on the phone with the cruise lines. They’ll tell them about the new original research that no one else has seen and offer to share it with them. We produced webinars, launched videos, bought ads to promote our assets, and we even looped our data into emails and landing pages. In essence, we took one study and spiraled that out into all kinds of different assets into that campaign. This is something that really helped increase the performance of our campaigns. 

Research today is fast, easy, and affordable. It used to be hard and take a long time — sometimes even months. Let me give you a quick example. On Tuesday night, the president gave an Oval Office address about Coronavirus, and in that announcement, he mentioned that he was releasing federal funds to the Small Business Administration for low-interest loans to small businesses impacted by the outbreak. I have a client that focuses on small business loans for small businesses, and by 8:00 AM the next morning, we had a survey out to 500 small business owners. We had our results back about how they’re going to use it, what they’ll use it for, if they’re going to lay off employees, and whether they could survive without it or not — all kinds of headlines, and now they’re pitching that today to media outlets. This was more of an opportunistic survey, but most of them are more strategic. But when there’s a new story that you can tie into, you could have research data in 12 hours or less.

So there are three parts to what I’m going to talk about: 1. How thought leadership drives brand growth, 2. How to create thought leadership content from research, and 3. How to turn thought leadership into content PR and marketing campaigns. So let’s dive in. 

Part One: How Thought Leadership Research Drives Brand Growth

Let’s say you’re trying to reach HR directors, learning how to get their attention, and creating original research that helps HR directors solve a key pain point. You could research how to recruit, retain, and engage millennials who are famous for job hunting job jumping. You could survey them about why they left their last job and what, if anything, would have convinced them to stay. Then, when you have your findings, you can bring your research to life. 

  • Take the most surprising headlines and make a PR campaign for the human resources trade media launch
  • Create gated eBooks about your findings and describe the context more in-depth
  • Make a series of infographics that are easy to share
  • Offer a five-minute summary presentation to your sales reps
  • Tell marketers about why their product launches fail and turn that into a campaign 
  • Take what you learn and turn that into a two-minute video
  • Create a gated report to capture the leads on your site or publish a press release with the most exciting findings, and then buy paid ads on LinkedIn that link to your assets
  • Make a short webinar that highlights key insights and provides recommended actions

The key to all of this really is persistence. You can’t just drop a study once a year and sit back and wait for Forbes to crown you a thought leader. It’s a constant drumbeat. If you look at what all the big companies like Microsoft and are doing, they’re always releasing new data that no one else has. It’s part poetry and part finding something unique to say that no one else can and then being persistent. They say water doesn’t cut through rock with power. It cuts through the rock with persistence. You just have to keep dripping, and the rewards are rich. 

  • 79% of buyers say that thought leadership is critical for determining which provider they are going to choose
  • Infographics are shared 23 times more often than other types of documents and assets on LinkedIn
  • 80% of content marketers say that thought leadership is the most effective type of content, and C-suite executives spend over four hours a week consuming different forms of thought leadership
  • Forrester says that thought leaders benefit in the early stages through more of a sales cycle, through more inbound queries and shortlisting; they benefit in the middle stages through faster sales cycles and higher close rates and bigger deal sizes; and then in the later stages, they increase customer loyalty and have a higher lifetime value

How to Build Great Thought Leadership Content

Create a Hook

To learn how to create this content and move onto this playbook, we can take a lesson from music. Music uses something called “hooks,” like the first four bars of Day Tripper by the Beatles. Everyone knows that the first guitar lick of Sweet Home Alabama. Even going back to Beethoven, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that fate knocking at the door, that’s a hook. Hooks are designed to suck you into the song, and you need hooks in your research to suck someone into it. Research is no longer saltine-flavored, dry, boring stuff. There’s a ton of creativity that you can inject into research with humor and surprising insights, but you need that hook. If you don’t have a hook, it won’t get a look.

A good hook isn’t clickbait. It’s a simple idea from your research that’s compelling enough to pull someone in. You really can have fun with research. I actually started off as a creative person; I was on the creative side of advertising, and now I’m on the research side, and it’s really helped me to apply creative thinking to it. Here’s some research I’ve done to illustrate this:

Start at the End

Another key I use is starting at the end, and doing this will help you focus your research. Whenever I work on a study, I start at the end. We first write sample headlines with completely made-up numbers about what we’re hoping to see in the study. Then we reverse-engineer that into a study, being very careful not to manipulate the results. We’re not trying to do that, we’re just trying to write the results and then see which ones are true. Some examples of sample headlines might be, “More teachers have paid for school supplies out of their own pockets than have actually paid off their student loans,” “Millennials have more pets than kids,” or, “83% of employees don’t really care if a customer is happy.” Then when you write your sample headlines, you’ve got to package them in a way that raises curiosity. 

Here are a few packaging techniques that I like to use. 

H4: The Formula to Success

The “Dos”

  • Use timely topics that are being talked about
  • Use solid statistics that are credible and use original data that no one else has 
  • Use those hooks and find creative ways to draw people into your research
  • Tie it to current events — current news coverage, sports events, seasonal events, societal trends — to make journalists much more likely to share your research
  • Compare groups, ex. how men answer versus women/conservatives versus liberals, etc.
  • Make sure your surveys adhere to sound methodology and be transparent about how you reach your conclusions; you’ll only be seen as a thought leader if you bring evidence to the table
  • Give to your customers, don’t sell to them; you want research that helps you, not research that tries to sell to you 
  • Feed research to your sales teams so they can use it as a tool 
  • Create research around your top 10 SEO keywords

The “Don’ts”

  • Don’t conduct your own research.

It adds a layer of skepticism if it’s generated internally. Have an independent research agency run your research for instant credibility. 

  • Don’t only survey your own customers.

You’ve got to have an honest random sample size to have credible stats.

How to Turn Thought Leadership Into Campaigns

Remember, there’s a lot of media chaos out there. You don’t want to break through to your customers. You want your content to be so good that people break through the clutter to get to you. Thought leadership is like Mexican cuisine. They just mix up the same ingredients into different configurations to make different things. Research is the same way. You can scramble one study into all kinds of different assets. 

Final Thoughts and Parting Advice

It’s all about consistency. Drop new thinking every month. Customers aren’t just buying your products — they’re buying into you. If they don’t buy into you, they’re not going to buy your products. 

Whenever you release data, ask three questions and answer three questions: What? So what? Now what? 

In order to 10X your B2B marketing content, don’t just share opinions. Share valuable data, have a constant drumbeat of research, make your data irresistible, and package it into consumable formats with hooks. 

Presented by Justing Ethington

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