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Interview with Michele Linn – Level Up Your Content Marketing Using Original Research – Episode #68
    • “You want to make sure your survey questions result in stories.”Michele Linn is the founder of Mantis Research where she helps content and community managers conduct surveys so they can learn about their audience and publish compelling, original research findings. Prior to Mantis, Michele was head of editorial at Content Marketing Institute, where she led the company’s editorial strategy and helped grow its audience to more than 200,000 subscribers.Questions:
      • What are some of the benefits marketers can get from doing original research?
      • When is the best time to do original research?
      • What’s a simple step-by-step process marketers can use to conduct original research?
      • What are some suggestions for marketers who want to conduct original research projects, but who don’t know how to propose these projects to their managers and business leadership?
      • What are some common misconceptions about original research that annoy her?
      • What are some incentives a marketer can use to get people to respond to surveys?
      • What it is like working for Joe Pulizzi?
      • What skills did she learn from working at the Content Marketing Institute?
      • And more!

Full Episode Transcript:


Kenny Soto 0:02  

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the people of digital marketing with your host Kenny Soto, and today’s guest is Michelle Lynn. Hi, Michelle, how are you?


Michele Linn 0:16  

Great. How are you doing, Kenny?


Kenny Soto 0:18  

I’m doing very well, the second week of the year, and no complaints so far. And I’m very excited to speak with you. I’ve been waiting for this chance to have a conversation with you for about, I think four months now, you were recommended to me by Andy Crestodina, a former guest of the podcast, and potentially a future guest as well, because he has a whole slew of knowledge that you can share with us. But for today, I wanted to start off by asking you, How would you describe your job?


Michele Linn 0:50  

Yeah, so what I do currently is I run a consultancy called Mantis research. And I specifically conduct survey-based research for marketing and community teams. So that they can have all of these insights and data that they can then use to publish out research reports and other content that really brings them that helps them build their brand, shows their thought leadership and so forth.


Kenny Soto 1:19  

Now, I’m going to paint a story for the listeners based on my next question, just so they can understand more. So why did you start this business? But it’s going to start off with an indirect question, which is, what are some of your weekly and monthly challenges that you have as you’re trying to scale the business?


Michele Linn 1:39  

I mean, those changes have definitely, those challenges have definitely changed over time. I would say that my current biggest challenge is that I have too many, I have too much work. And I’m trying to figure out, do I either, you know, say no and raise prices? Or do I try to bring someone on to help to scale the business? So that’s my current biggest challenge is how to handle all of the work.


Kenny Soto 2:10  

Yeah, definitely. And now I want to ask, what are some of the benefits both b2b and b2c businesses can get from doing original research?


Michele Linn 2:22  

Yeah, so I have been in the content marketing space for many, many years. And as I’m sure you and your listeners know, it’s increasingly difficult to get your content known in the space. So even though people who are starting out in content marketing, I mean, you guys are starting out at a really difficult time, because so many industries are already so very noisy. And it’s very difficult to get traction and get noticed, and so forth. So I’ve worked on a lot of different types of content over the years, but the type of content that I think is underused, and that gets a really great return is original research, which is the survey-based insights that you can, you know, bring out to the market, like, you know, trends in your industry, or whatever that might be. 


So I think that research is great for b2b because it’s not new, I mean, it actually, if you structure it, well, it actually is something meaningful, it’s actually adding something new to the conversation. By its very nature, it’s data-driven, which people love to see. So it just works on a lot of different levels. And when you do a bigger benchmarking project, it also is a great jumping-off point to create a lot of different content. So you don’t have to, you know, constantly reinvent that, that we all you can use one piece and do a lot of great things from it. Can you


Kenny Soto 3:44  

Describe when’s the best time to do original research.


Michele Linn 3:50  

You know, I mean, in terms of the time of year or in terms of time in your business, like if your…


Kenny Soto 3:56  

Timing your timing your business specifically? Yeah. So


Michele Linn 3:59  

Yeah. So I’ll be honest, I think that it’s doing original research to kick off your business, I think is a wonderful thing to do. I know that I used to work in an organization for many years called Content Marketing Institute, or CMI, which some of your listeners might know. And we launched in 2010. And I was the first person that their founder or hire Joe puts it back in the day. 


And one of the first projects that we actually did is this state of content marketing, content, marketing budgets, benchmarks, and trends back in 2010. And it’s an annual survey-based report that they have since repeated every single year, at least when I was at CMI, that was their best performing piece of the content year over year so that content helped put CMI on the Mac. 


And I know I just said, You know what works 10 years ago doesn’t work now. But when we launched Mantis in 2018, we did a research report. We partner with what Sue had more to do with the state of the original research report which was wonderful at getting our business on the map. And I’ve helped other organizations who are launching their business, do these research reports like this. 


And they always tell me like, this brings this as their best-performing asset that helps get their business on the map below subscribers and, and so forth. Now, let’s say yeah, okay, go ahead. I just think you can get value anytime in your business cycle. So I’m saying don’t if you are not in the early stages, don’t think, Oh, I can’t do it. But it really works anytime. But you know, it can really work at any time.


Kenny Soto 5:36  

Let’s, let’s say I want to create a simple step-by-step process that maps out, it could be like a flowchart or Google Doc, the process for it creating an original research project, and then launching it, what would you say is like, the outline for proper execution?


Michele Linn 5:57  

Yeah, so. And I’m even happy to send links to you guys if you want to see more steps. But in general, decide you need to figure out what your niche is in the research space. So even though original research works really well, just like anything, you have to find something that’s very new. 


So for instance, I was working with this organization called typeset content. They’re a content marketing agency out of Australia and UK. They wanted to go to market with research. They’re in the content marketing space. But what they didn’t do was another state of content marketing reports. Because CMI and so many others have already covered that. So what they did is they found their own niche, and they studied the state of writing effectiveness. So that it was, it’s something that no one else is studying. 


So find a topic that is not covered. So you can make your name for that topic, make sure that that topic aligns with your brand. So you can get a lot of life out of it and make sure that that topic is really meaningful for your audience. So pick one core audience and really focus on how you can help them. 


So once you have, your topic, the next part in once you figure out how you’re going to get responses, your next part of the process is reading the survey questions. And I could talk about this for hours. But the net of it is you want to make sure that your survey questions result in stories. And you want to make sure that your survey questions include questions to test the quality. 


So instead of just saying, you know, are you going to spend more are you going to, you know, what are your challenges, so on and so forth. Really make sure that you’re asking questions that you know, uncover opportunities, or expose a disconnect, or, you know, that that are going to actually be stories that you can tell throughout the life of your research piece, instead of just like slapping up the stats and moving on. 


So once you put together your survey, which I think is the most difficult part, you then need to program your survey, you need to test your survey, and you need to get responses. You need to clean the data, to make sure that you’re getting rid of any of those responses that are not quality. You then need to analyze all of the results and really pull out what are those stories that you can tell from your data. And once you have those things, yep, please, Kenny.


Kenny Soto 8:29  

Yeah, I was just going to quickly interject. Let’s say, for example, I, needed a template if you will, where and resources you have, or if you could recommend what would be useful for survey templates.


Michele Linn 8:46  

So I serve a template in terms of what process you follow? Or what type of templates specifically?


Kenny Soto 8:51  

Ah, let’s keep it open-ended. So let’s say there’s an all-purpose survey that I can use and just plug and play for any business, any b2b Business specifically.


Michele Linn 9:03  

So I know that’s a really good question. I know that if you look I honestly don’t use templates I use them what I do with a lot more on custom. But if you go if you’re looking for a survey, for something, just honestly Google survey template for whatever that thing is you’re looking for, and I know companies like Survey Monkey and elk are and others have a lot of different survey questions that you can take and customize based on whatever your needs are.


Kenny Soto 9:30  

Got it And sorry to interrupt, but you were gonna mention one more step.


Michele Linn 9:34  

I was just gonna say after you have all the data, the last step is writing and launching the report.


Kenny Soto 9:39  

Got it? Got it. Now, let’s say I have a foolproof survey planned out. I have the plan documented, but most marketers at my level are going to face the challenge of convincing leadership that this is a project worth investing in. How would you approach the leadership of a Have your team or in this case, in this hypothetical scenario, you have a CEO, how would you approach them? And tell them this original research project is worth the investment?


Michele Linn 10:10  

Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, at first, I would try to understand what their bottleneck is, is it because they don’t think research works? Is it because they think it’s too expensive? Is it because they just don’t understand it? You know, what is that thing to make sure that you’re matching your justification with the actual pain? But in general, what I would do is I would look for other research that’s been done in the industry and, and share examples and share successes that others have had in the industry. 


And describe why it is that you think that your brand can really, you know, do XYZ, whatever that main goal is, you know, brand authority, thought leadership leads so forth. Explain what your brand can benefit from doing research to help that primary goal.


Kenny Soto 11:00  

Are there any common misconceptions about divisional research? Or are there any assumptions that you hear about it that tend to, I guess, make you annoyed? 


Michele Linn 11:13  

Me, I think that the biggest misconception, the biggest thing that I see is that I think on its face, it looks like a great idea to do research. But I think that there are so many different pieces and parts of the process and so many different ways, it’s a very right-brain left-brain type of thing you need to do. 


So I think that the, to me, the hardest part. And the biggest misconception is that it’s really easy to put survey questions together and get them out into the field and get results. So I think that it’s very difficult to write a good survey that is going to get you insights and stories and prescriptive advice, and so forth. I’ve read a lot of bad surveys out there. 


Um, and I think it’s because, you know, people say, hey, you know, research works, I’m gonna put together this survey here my questions launch. And it just, you know, the questions aren’t written away that are credible, or the questions you get, I’ve talked to many marketers who’ve done surveys, and they get back the data. And they’re like, well, this isn’t very interesting, like, what can I actually do with it? So if you’re going to spend time anywhere, or if you’re going to get help anywhere, get help with designing the actual survey questions.


Kenny Soto 12:26  

Now, in terms of incentives, are there any go-to incentives that you use to convince someone to actually complete the survey?


Michele Linn 12:37  

So if you are using your own list, or if you are using partners to get a list, you can certainly include an incentive, like you said, Kenny, on the survey, I often do a chance to win something. Anecdotally, I haven’t experienced it, I think the reason most people fill out us, excuse me, I think the reason most people fill out surveys from organizations, is because they truly want those insights back. 


So you can certainly offer an incentive to help people you know, get through the entire survey, but make sure that you are studying something that people truly care about, and they want the insights back from, and that you already are a brand that people know is going to be really helpful. I think that’s the best type of incentive. 


But if you want to add some kind of financial incentive, I would offer a chance to win, you know, some cool headphones or a gift card or something like that. And as a quick note, as a quick aside, I would definitely, I also worked on a project where we offer you know, I think it was $5 to Starbucks or a donation to someplace else to complete the survey. We received a lot, a lot of spam to that survey. So if that’s not something I would use, again, I think it was just it’s, it created more issues than value.


Kenny Soto 14:01  

Let’s dive deeper into common issues that you experienced. Are there any other quote-unquote, horror stories that you’ve had in the past when it comes to launching an original research survey?


Michele Linn 14:14  

Um, as I alluded to, I think that the biggest problem now is, is the quality of data. So if you are going after your own list, if you’re using your own list, you really need to be cognizant of, spam and spam typically comes in because, if you’re offering an incentive, I always ask for a business email address to someone who wants to be entered into the drawing for whatever the incentive is. 


So this stops people. I think that another issue is that a lot of people rely on panel companies to get survey responses. So panel companies or companies out there who say you know, if you want to serve a, either a consumer-based audience like adults in the US or if you want to survey, a more specific b2b Audience, like, you know, marketers, they can help you find those they can help, they can send your survey out to their pool of people to get the responses that you need. But when you use a panel, there’s a lot of bad-quality data out there. 


So you really need to build in quality checks throughout, so that you can clean that data and make sure that the data that you are left with is this quality is that can be so I think that’s, that’s a really big challenge in the space right now.


Kenny Soto 15:33  

That certainly adds more context. And now I want to get more context on your career as a whole. So my next question would be, what was it like working with Joe Pulizzi?


Michele Linn 15:45  

Oh, you know, I have such a special heart in my place for Joe. Yeah, I was freelancing from any work for a couple of years when Joe reached out and worked on a couple of projects, and he asked me to use a cane starting CMI and you know, what do you want to help and that the whole my whole time working with Joe, he’s a great mentor, a great manager, a great leader, you know, he’s one of those guys who empowers you to do your best, but he, you know, if you have a roadblock or an obstacle, he’ll help you with that, or, you know, give you ideas to really help you to push yourself to do better. 


So he was a great manager, and I loved the spirit of everything about CMI, and how we were building something to really help those in the industry, in the industry. So I mean, I only have really positive things to say about Joe and just, it was a very special time, in my, in my career and in my life. And, and even when I was in it, I’m like, You know what these times aren’t gonna come by too often. So I learned a ton. I love the people I work with, I just do it just as you can tell it brings me joy, and it puts wonderful memories of my experience there.


Kenny Soto 17:02  

What specific skills did you learn throughout your experience working for Content Marketing Institute?


Michele Linn 17:11  

Yes, I mean, so Content Marketing Institute was the first startup I had ever worked for. I had never come from a corporate environment, so I was freelancing. And I never worked at a company that was, you know, like a startup. 


So I think that it’s one of those things where you have to be willing to learn, you have to be willing to put in the time, you have to be willing to get uncomfortable and try new things. You know, some of the stuff that we tried did great. And some of the stuff that we tried did really, really poorly, and we had to stop doing them. 


So I mean, there were a lot of projects I worked on that seemed awesome in theory and took a lot of time, and you know what you learn from them, but they didn’t do a lot for the business. So I think you have to just, it really taught me to be flexible and to try new things and to work quickly. And to be focused on the overarching strategy, but not to overthink sometimes just to keep moving and to keep doing. 


And just, you know, another thing I would say it also taught me I would encourage any of your listeners to ask questions and be involved. So even if you’re just because you’re new in the business, or even if you’re new in your career, ask questions and be curious and learn as much as you can. And really just soak up and volunteer and try all these different things. Knowing that some are going to be great, and some are going to be less great. But you’re going to learn a lot about yourself. And you’re going to learn a lot about marketing in the process.


Kenny Soto 18:50  

Speaking of marketing, 2022 is going to provide a lot of challenges and opportunities in the content marketing space. So this is a two-part question. The first part is what excites you about content marketing this year. And the second part is about what worries you.


Michele Linn 19:10  

So I think these are actually two sides of the same coin. I’m saying that right? I think that sometimes content marketers are so focused on the metrics. So even like I would say, this still happens but marketers are so focused on those vanity metrics like likes and shares and so forth. 


And I think that evolution from that is that marketers are focused on building an audience, which I think is a good evolution, but I don’t think that that is a good enough evolution. So what I would love to see in the content marketing space is not this focus on so much building an audience but on building this community of people. I think it’s much stronger to build a community than it is an audience because the community remembers, there was a quote from David Spanx to run CMX. 


And it was something and I’m totally paraphrasing, but it’s like an audience is something that’s like good for the business. But, this community is set up so that the community can help each other grow and change and be better. So I think if marketers can be more focused on that aspect than just getting their audience numbers large, and really focus on being these truly useful people that bring other people together to be better at whatever it is that they’re focused on, I think that’s a huge opportunity for content marketing. 


And I think those who aren’t doing that, I think that’s kind of the threat. It’s like, I don’t want to dehumanize marketing, I think as much as you can bring in that human element of marketing is a good thing.


Kenny Soto 20:48  

For the listeners, I’m going to put in the show notes, a link for an article by First Round Capital, it talks about the basics of community building. And I think it’s a perfect tie-in to what we’re discussing right now. So after this episode, I recommend clicking on the show notes, clicking that link, and reading the article. Now, Michelle, my last question is hypothetical because time machines don’t exist. But if they did, and you can go back 10 years into the past, knowing everything you know, right now, how would you accelerate the speed of your career?


Michele Linn 21:24  

You know, that’s a really interesting question. So me going back 10 years. It’s funny, my daughter, just turned 10 yesterday, so I know exactly where I was 10 years ago. Honestly, I don’t think I would have changed much at all, I think that I was at a point in my life. And again, I was so lucky to work for Joe and his wife, Pam. Throughout my time with them, you know, I had a toddler. 


And then I had a new baby and my, my, I was able to, you know, work more when I could. And I was able to downshift when I had a new baby. And I was able to work more again, and then kind of add on hours, as my personal life is everything kind of worked out together. I honestly, I honestly wouldn’t change anything I was, I would highly recommend that your listeners Accept where they are in their life. You can do everything, but you can’t do everything all at one time. And be okay with that. 


As you start families or have families and whatever it is that you do realize it all has to work together. And be willing to upshift and downshift and change how much you can give to work over time. But whatever it is that you’re giving to work, you know, make sure that you’re doing your best work. 


And the other thing I would highly recommend that I’m glad that I did is Joe was good about pushing me out outside of my comfort zone. So you know, I’m not a natural person to go speak. But I started speaking at events or I speak on podcasts like this, or just try to do those, those things that you are uncomfortable with. 


And I think that’s a great way, you never know who you’re going to get in front of that you might not otherwise know. And you are just a great way just to grow as a person. So I’m really glad that I did those things. But honestly, I’m thrilled that the path that my career’s taken in the past 10 years. And I’m glad that it’s had its slow parts, and its fast parts.


Kenny Soto 23:30  

Thank you so much for sharing that and for sharing all of your answers to the questions today. If anyone wanted to connect with you online, where can they find you?


Michele Linn 23:38  

Sure thing, I am active on LinkedIn. So you can find me on LinkedIn at Michelle when it’s one L with Michelle Lynn is Li n en or you could also check out my website, which is mantis


Kenny Soto 23:55  

Perfect. Thank you for your time today and thank you to you the listener for listening to another episode of the people of digital marketing with your host Kenny Soto. And as always, I hope you have a great week.




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