Career Growth

11 Advanced Research Tips For Content Marketers (Part 3: Channels)

Nick Moore
February 21, 2023

4. Use social media (especially Twitter)

Social media, with a little persistence, can yield really interesting insights and sources. I have a bias toward Twitter because people attach their names to their posts, which makes it possible to cite them, but other platforms provide interesting information, too.

Broadly, social media can give you a sense of what people and practitioners are actually talking about in regard to the topic you’re interested in. Sometimes, that can shift your argument and sometimes it can fuel it.

Once, for example, I was writing about zero-trust architecture for a technical audience and while the Google search results revealed relevant information and explanations, a social media search revealed that a lot of practitioners (my audience) considered it something of a buzzword. I didn’t cite any of these posts but it showed me I would have to address that dynamic in the article if I wanted my content to be taken seriously by those skeptics.

As you do these searches, it’s worth being persistent and thorough because you might also find influential, thoughtful people—recognized experts in the field—offering ideas and arguments they might not elsewhere.

For example, when I wrote about the backlash to the SSO tax, I cited numerous tweets:

  • Gergely Orosz, writer of the popular newsletter The Pragmatic Engineer, tweeted about the controversy but didn’t write anything in his newsletter about it. Using Twitter, I was able to find his thoughts on the topic anyway.
  • Klaas Pieter Annema, engineering manager at Sketch, tweeted about it as well. Annema, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have a platform like Orosz does but as a practitioner, he certainly has thoughts worth sharing and thanks to social media, I can cite them.
  • Patrick McKenzie, a respected tech and business figure, also weighed in on the topic. As you can see in this short thread, social media is often where smart people can test and develop thoughts they might not want to extend into whole articles.

The threshold for publishing content is much lower on social media than it is on a company blog or newsletter. Even if the people you find aren’t making novel arguments, it can make your content come alive and feel more believable if you’re citing a recognized figure and proving that there are people who think in a certain way.

5. Read books

Many of the content marketers I know have a deep appreciation for traditional books because they often come from a background of enjoying reading and writing. But I don’t find many content marketers who use books on the job.

I’m not here to argue books are necessarily more thoughtful than articles, but in my experience, they very often are. Books demand, in a way articles don’t, that authors go into greater depth and breadth. The result of that dynamic means that:

  • Books tend to offer deeper insights explained in greater detail. Sometimes that means the author is giving you background and historical context; sometimes that means the author is laying out more pros and cons to a given idea than an article might; and sometimes that means the author is taking the space a book offers to build your knowledge from the ground up.
  • Books tend to offer more original ideas because books tend to optimize for novelty whereas blog posts and articles often optimize for search. Even though the book publishing industry is not doing well, it’s still often the best venue for distributing ideas that authors want to influence their industries with.
  • Books are more likely to talk about feedback loops, frameworks, and trends that feed into the topic in question. For example, the book on technical debt I referenced above talks about the cyclical nature of technological change—a framework I was able to use in another article that wasn’t about technical debt.

The primary reason I see why content marketers don’t often read books is because the books we need are almost always targeted at a different audience. There’s a real struggle to find books you can actually understand and sometimes, you have to read a book you’ll only partially understand (for example, a book that explains programming principles you can understand but then illustrates them via programming examples that you can’t).

Books are the best example on this list of long-term research. Unless the topic of an article I’m writing and a book I’ve found are amazingly aligned, I’ll never buy a book for the sake of one article. At a minimum, I will only buy a book if it will serve an entire content pillar or, more commonly, I’ll buy a book that will likely explain topics I’ll eventually want to touch on in future articles.

6. Read reports

Unlike books, I’d expect most content marketers frequently use reports, white papers, surveys, and other research materials in their articles. My recommendation here is to take a little more time with a report you’ve found and, if not read it in full, at least skim it.

There’s often much more relevant information buried within a report than you might expect. Though you might have found the report linked to in a news article reporting on the results of the research, it’s unlikely that that writer shares your interests and needs. They’re going to cite the most explosive-seeming results whereas your article might be better served by other results.

Press releases and even the executive summaries of these reports suffer from the same problem: They don’t know what you’re writing about so they can’t predict which parts of the research are actually most relevant. Try to give every report a careful skim and look for statistics, graphs or headlines that will clue you into results that might be relevant.

Once you start doing this, you’ll get a whole new appreciation for reports. Eventually, I found reports to be so useful that I started targeting them in some of my first searches.

Instead of searching, for example, “data breach trends,” I’ll look for reputable reports on the topic or on a topic that encompasses that topic (for example, cybersecurity) and skim those reports for interesting ideas and results.

7. Listen to podcasts

For my money, podcasts are the most underrated source of information for content marketers. It’s easy to see why: It’s time-consuming and laborious to listen to them and they’re often filled with worthless banter and empty discussion instead of useful information. If podcasts were merely a different way of accessing information that articles otherwise had, I’d never recommend them. But they don’t.

Podcasts are unique because, like social media, they lower the threshold for sharing ideas and experiences. In the same way that an article on the company blog can intimidate a practitioner but then that practitioner can turn away and tweet on the topic, so will that practitioner accept an invitation to go on a podcast and pontificate about all sorts of topics.

Thanks to podcasts, I’ve found juicy quotes that add color to an article, experiences and narratives that provide realism to a claim I’m making, and expert insights that just aren’t available from other mediums.

If we return to the data breaches topic again, for example, you could reference the Verizon data breach research that everyone cites, but add color or examples after listening to, for example, Neil Daswani, Co-Director of Stanford University’s Advanced CyberSecurity Program, on an episode of Changelog.

This is also a sneaky way of doing more with less: In the above example, you can lend your content authority with a great quote without having to do the interview yourself.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. It’s often difficult to figure out which podcast is a good source for you because again, you’re not the target audience. A podcaster might put little effort into writing show notes or into keeping the episode focused and concise. For the target audience, the banter might be the primary appeal.

I have three tips that have served me pretty well to make this easier:

  • Find a few go-to podcasts by searching for lists others have put together and sampling them. The best podcasts can attract interesting or noteworthy guests and consistently yield interesting insights and discussions. Once you have a list, you can search through these podcasts first when you have a topic in hand.
  • Search across podcast episodes. Though these search functions aren’t typically great, you can keyword search for episodes across a podcast app’s library. This is useful to do even if you have a go-to list because a podcast that’s otherwise irrelevant might have an episode that fits your topic perfectly.
Screenshot of Apple podcast search
  • Find or create transcripts. Many podcasts create transcripts of their episodes. Make a list of as many of those as you can find because searching through those will be substantially easier. Occasionally, it’s even worthwhile to create transcripts yourself by downloading the episode and sending it to a service like Rev. It’s a bit like mining for gold but sometimes, you’ll find an episode that’s so rich with information it’s worth getting every word transcribed (especially if you have a research database you can put the transcription in).

There are also a few podcast player apps, such as Airr and Snipd, that provide bookmarking features that make it much easier to, say, listen to a podcast on a walk and bookmark interesting sections to revisit later (both of which, via Readwise, can connect to your research database).

Screenshot of Notion podcast list
Screenshot of Notion individual podcast page

Just note that in my experience, transcribing quotes yourself can be really laborious so if you find yourself bookmarking more than a handful of sections, consider getting the whole episode transcribed.

8. Interview subject matter experts

Subject matter experts, or SMEs, are well-known sources of information for content marketers yet still, somehow, underrated.

The reasons, I suspect, are primarily logistical: Getting an SME on the phone can be difficult; running an interview can be hard; and scheduling can often take so long that SMEs can be arduous to tap for one-off articles.

That said, SMEs almost always offer a bounty of information—much of which you should transcribe and capture in a database for later use.

If you’re working full-time, SMEs are likely more available and useful than you might think because they work at your company. Don’t wait for an article or offer. Instead, regularly interview people at your company and ask them about their thoughts and the projects they’re working on.

At the same time, don’t overthink interviews. Yes, sitting down with an expert for an hour and asking them a prepared list of well-researched questions is likely best. But other kinds of interviews are still valuable.

Don’t be afraid to DM an SME on Twitter to ask one question; offer, especially if an SME is busy, to send them a list of questions they can answer via email; and if an SME is full of thoughts but short on time, ask them for a brain dump and see what emerges.

9. Find relevant scholarly databases

As a content marketer, you’re rarely—if ever—breaking ground with truly novel information. But that’s not your job. That’s the job of academics, researchers, and other scholars.

That said, you don’t have to wait on the Harvard Business Review and similar publications to report on new research to hear about it and cite it. Instead, you can find scholarly research yourself and get surprisingly close to the cutting edge with relatively little effort.

There are tons of research databases out there and many of them offer free PDFs of work they host or at least free abstracts. The Association for Computer Machinery, for example, has a whole digital library you can search through.

Screenshot of scholarly base

I’ll be upfront with the fact that this is another high-effort, high-reward research method. You’ll likely be poring through a lot of research that won’t work for your purposes because it’s too abstract, too cutting edge, or if we’re being frank, too advanced or complex for you to understand.

That said, when you do find a study that works, the results can be extremely compelling. For example, in an eBook I wrote, I was trying to position a company’s code search tool as being useful for finding vulnerabilities in code. To do so, I wanted to show that traditional vulnerability scanners weren’t as accurate as they claimed.

This was hard to prove: On the one hand, I talked to numerous experts who believed this but on the other, no one was writing about this with hard numbers. But a search of the ACM digital library eventually yielded a study that showed exactly what I needed. In the final eBook, I was able to make a pretty strong argument, using the research, that vulnerability scanners are not entirely dependable.

Writing screenshot

This is an especially good example because if I hadn’t found this source, it might have been better to back away from this argument altogether. But with the source, I was able to confirm a common suspicion and make a compelling, public claim against the supposed expertise of the scanner vendors.

10. Find go-to writers and thinkers

Here’s one of the harshest things I’ll say about content marketers and writers in general: Quite often, a really good thinker will have an aside that’s more interesting and insightful than an entire article written by an outsider.

These experts are not always easy to find because they’re often not writing for search but are instead writing for an audience of their peers so as to impress them, satisfy their own curiosity, or maybe get some attention on social media. Sometimes, too, the best thinkers are writing on an ancient, ugly, poorly-optimized blog rather than a slick company blog. Nevertheless, the former tends to be much more useful.

Screenshot of poorly optimized but good blog
Screenshot of Martin Fowler blog
Screenshot of dan luu blog

One way to see this is if you take the time to trace back some of the claims and allusions high-ranking articles are making. If you search “tech debt,” for example, five of the top ten articles explicitly cite one article by Martin Fowler.

screenshot of product plan blog

This is no insult to these articles, of course. The Fowler article is not a definitive or comprehensive take on this term and search intent is better served by folding his argument into a more wide-ranging article.

But then look at one of the other top ten results, an article that explains three different types of tech debt.

screenshot of article on tech debt

This article does not cite Fowler even though this framework bears a striking resemblance to his tech debt quadrant. I’m not going to accuse anyone of plagiarism—intentional or otherwise. My point is that if you’re reading articles because of how well someone's search optimized them and not because of the expertise or reputation of the writer, you risk missing the ability to cite the original (and often better) argument.

Plagiarism is beside the point too because it’s very likely the writer of the previous excerpt (there’s no byline) didn’t plagiarize at all but merely absorbed this idea via exposure. There’s nothing wrong with that per se but if you can, you should aim higher than that and cite the original source.

Your primary tool for this will again be Google.

Create a list of all the thinkers that are influential in your field (which you can do with more Google searches, social media, podcasts, and just asking people). With a list in hand, you can do a site search ( [keyword] in Google) to find any time that person has talked about that topic. You could even make a custom Google search with your whole list of experts.

This method is especially effective if your audience tends to be skeptical of marketing efforts. You can earn a lot of credit by citing figures well-respected by your audience and even by citing people who may not be well known but who have a standing just by being a fellow practitioner.

11. Invest and experiment

A consequence of research not being a priority for content marketers is that we’re generally unlikely to invest in research resources and software. For a while, this was my own biggest weakness and I found myself clicking away from the best tools because they were paid and searching for free articles instead of buying books.

But what I’ve found since is that even small investments in research resources often pay off immensely. Most eBooks, for example, cost under $20. I bought The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford in 2019, for example. I’ve explicitly referenced that book in my work as much as a dozen times and I’ve referenced implicitly, or relied on the knowledge it gave me, many more times than that. $9.49.

Software, too, is often a good investment. Readwise costs $7.99 per month and I’d pay much more for it (don’t tell them that, though). I paid $44.99 per year for Pocket before switching to Readwise Reader and felt it was worthwhile, too.

That said, not everything has to cost money. I built my research database in Notion and because Notion’s primary buyer is businesses, they offer a free personal plan. Snipd is free and Google, of course, is free.

As you shop, keep two or three things in mind:

  • Getting off the ground is your priority. It’s easy to get lost amongst a bunch of different options as you search for the perfect one. Compare the features, yes, but focus on trying something and learning what you want through using it.
  • Most tools aren’t designed for content marketers. Since you’re not the primary use case, you’ll often have to dig into the features a little bit and think critically about what you need. You might end up with a tool that is, on the whole, worse than a competitor but wins for you because of a specific feature.
  • Look for tools that offer net new features as well as tools that offer efficiency. Some tools give you capabilities you simply don’t have otherwise. Other tools make processes you can theoretically do yourself more efficient, such as for transcription or Readwise for syncing highlights. The focus tends to drift toward the former set of tools but don’t underrate the latter set: Some tools can improve your efficiency so much that the difference is night and day.

And after you shop, when you’ve adopted a tool and are putting it to use, try to be mindful of its strengths and weaknesses. You’ll occasionally want to shop again and see if new tools have come out or if previous tools have evolved since you last evaluated them.

One major caveat is that this practice is perhaps the one I’m worst at actually following through on. There’s a huge swath of great research tools out there, such as Sparktoro, Buzzsumo, Exploding Topics, and many more I don’t even know about (please suggest your favorites to me). 

Additionally, I’ve chosen to focus my skill set fairly narrowly on researching and writing but if you’re taking on content strategy tasks or helping other teams with product marketing and copywriting, there might be many more tools out there worth looking into.

Content marketers are researchers who produce content on the side

Research is a long game but in my opinion, it’s the game for content marketers. Great writing is necessary but not sufficient for great content, whereas great research and great arguments can make a poorly written article worth struggling through.

In my ideal world, content marketers are researchers first and foremost and most content emerges from that research.

Of course, we don’t live in my ideal world and that’s why I want to close this long article with a pretty huge caveat. Even if you like what I recommended (and I hope you do!), it might not be practical for you to put it all into practice.

For many content marketers, I recommend against doing a lot of this research. If you’re working for an agency, don’t bother reading a whole book about technical debt just to write one article or even just to satisfy one client—that client could churn or you could get reassigned tomorrow. Similarly, if you’re freelancing and on the hunt for a niche, find the niche before building the research machine.

And even given a niche, you’ll want to be wary of diving too deeply into some topics. For example, I wrote an article about Bossware for Kolide and while many of these research practices came in handy, I had to be careful not to spend inordinate amounts of time reading about old labor law cases. On the one hand, I had a separate, prior interest in the topic so it was fun, but on the other, I’ll likely never write about labor law again so I had to restrain myself.

With all that in mind, my final recommendation is to take research seriously and embrace it as a long game—meaning that you might do some or all of these practices or start small with particular ones and scale them up as they prove useful. 

Content marketing requires a diverse set of skills but to my mind, no skill improvement will provide more benefits to you, especially over the long term, than learning how to research.

Check out the rest of the articles in this series:

  1. 11 Advanced Research Tips For Content Marketers (Part 1: Google Like a Pro)
  2. 11 Advanced Research Tips For Content Marketers (Part 2: Building a Database)
  3. 11 Advanced Research Tips For Content Marketers (Part 3: Channels)
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