Surveys have long been a way to garner press coverage for clients when they didn't have much else going on.
But savvy boutique agencies also know that, with a little finesse and imagination, surveys can be great branding tools for the firms themselves.
The key is to find a niche that reflects an agency's specialty, find out what useful data is missing from that niche, and then use surveys to "own the space." That's what Boston-based Morrissey & Co. did five years ago when it initiated its annual Massachusetts Corporate Reputation Survey, which ranks the state's largest institutions.
"We went out with the concept of... becoming the arbiters of reputation leadership in this market," says Peter Morrissey, agency CEO.
Now, area CEOs and the heads of MIT and Harvard display Morrissey's awards in their offices. Boston media outlets routinely publish the results, which are sent to groups ranked in the top 50 - all of whom are potential clients. The firm ensures, however, that the results are free of bias, to the extent that Morrissey has seen some clients fall below non-clients, to their dismay.
"The integrity of the survey would be useless if it was perceived as manipulated in any way," Morrissey notes.
At Atlanta-based tech firm Arketi Group, surveys have become a staple of client work and have helped put the agency in the front of many minds in its target market.
"If you do them right, they can play to your strong suit, to a sweet spot for your customers and prospects, and really position you as a thought leader," says Mike Neumeier, a principal at Arketi.
In 1998, tech-focused boutique McClenahan Bruer found that there were no comprehensive surveys about the "psychographics," or lifestyle elements, of engineers.
So the agency did one itself. Nine years later, the MB survey has been covered in outlets ranging from The Wall Street Journal to BusinessWeek, the firm is expanding its research to China, and it is viewed as the go-to resource on the topic.
"It started out as a practical tool to help us do a better job," says Kerry McClenahan, MB president. "But as we... started to take branding the firm a little more seriously, we realized that our desired position was the experts on reaching an engineering audience."
Surveys are a quality way to establish your firm as a thought leader
Surveys can generate news for clients with little ongoing newsworthy work
Integrity of research is critical to having a survey taken seriously