For the past month, I’ve been buried in a pile of survey results—reading them, organizing them, interpreting them, and hoping that they’ll provide valuable insights that will drive my strategy, my products, and my tactics in the year to come.

I run this same survey each year over at my travel blog and each year I am impressed by how useful the results are, how easy it is to map them back to my strategy, and how much of an art it is to interpret them and use them well for the coming year.

Today, I thought I’d share six of the things I’ve learned about interpreting survey results (and using those interpretations to move your content forward).

1. Ask the right questions.

Effective interpretation starts with the survey itself. The most useful surveys are short (and advertise themselves as such), speak the language of your customers, and, of course, ask the right questions.

So, what are the right questions—and how should you ask them? First, list all the questions you might want answers to, then use the following questions to determine which will make the cut for your survey:

“Effective interpretation starts with the survey itself.” @gigigriffis

  • Will this question help me plan for/change/improve content or give me a key insight into my users (or is it simply a curiosity or an ego question)?
  • Is there a simpler way to ask this?
  • Is there a simple way to combine two or more questions?
  • Is there more than one way for a user to interpret this question and, if so, how can I ask it more clearly?

Making sure your questions are clear, speak to your audience, and really matter to your business is the key to getting answers that you can use.

2. For open-ended questions, start broad and drill down.

When you’re asking an open-ended question, start by grouping the answers in the broadest way possible, then dig into the details.

For example, if you’ve asked for customer opinions on your new product, start by grouping the responses into positive, negative, and neutral. Then look deeper at the answers. You may find that the negative perception of the product is mostly due to unclear instructions or a lack of support.

While these are still negative reactions, they don’t indicate a need to improve the product, but rather the marketing, resources, or support. So it’s important to have this information split out in your results document so that you can use it to fix what’s broken (and not fix what isn’t broken, as they say).

3. Filter for key phrases.

Throughout your open-ended results, make note of common phrases. This will help you understand how your customers speak about your product or service, your company, their challenges and needs, etc. Once you understand the language your customers use, it’s easy to mirror that language in your own writing and, quite literally, speak the language of your customers.

4. Display results visually.

Our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text.

Studies show that our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. So put your data together in a visually compelling way, both for yourself (as you go back to the data throughout your planning sessions) and for those you may be presenting the data to.

5. Use other data to understand (and sometimes discount) results.

In my own recent survey, I was faced with some very conflicting data. Survey respondents said their favorite pieces were the personal, vulnerable anecdotes.

On one hand, these are the pieces that get the most engagement in the form of emails and comments, so it makes sense that they also showed up prominently in my survey results.

On the other hand, though, an unemotional look at my website analytics shows that detail-level how-to posts garner the most page views and the best search rankings. They’re also the most frequently shared via social media.

So, what does this mean for interpreting my survey? That I need to take the data with a grain of salt and look at everything—analytics, survey results, industry data, etc.—side-by-side to get a big picture view. After all:

  • People don’t always know what they want or like. In asking what content my readers valued, they responded emotionally. The pieces about facing your fears and living your dreams are what they remember and connect with. But that doesn’t mean the how-to pieces haven’t been extremely useful and kept them coming back for more.
  • Not every user is taking your survey. Your survey respondents are only a small subset of your customers, so while their input is valuable, it is by no means the final word.

6. Interpret through the lens of your goals—both overarching and current.

Everything you do with your content marketing should tie back into your goals—both at a business level and a campaign level—and surveys are no exception. When you’re choosing questions, soliciting responses, and interpreting results, you’ll want to keep those goals top-of-mind.

For example, this May I will be publishing an Italy guidebook for travelers who want to see Italy through the eyes of the locals. My main goal is, of course, to create an amazing product and sell a whole heck of a lot of books.

With this in mind, I’m parsing survey results not just for general information about my platform, audience, and content, but specific information about things like:

  • What percentage of my audience is planning travels in Italy this year or in the near future?
  • What other places in Europe are they planning to travel?
  • How did my target audience find me? (What outreach methods are working for me?)
  • How are they articulating their travel challenges and needs—and is it possible for me to mirror their language when I present the book?

The answers to these questions will help me better market my book, target the right audience, and serve my existing audience (if Italy and France are the two most popular destinations this year and if I continue with the series of guidebooks, France becomes a no-brainer for a second book).

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