Michele Linn, Chief Strategy Officer for Mantis Research and Survey Expert [Podcast]

Today we have one of my favorite content marketers. Her articles on the Content Marketing Institute and other blogs are must-reads. She’s a content marketing OG, the very first employee at the CMI, and one of my go-to resources on how to do content right.

“Before Mantis Research, Michele worked for Content Marketing Institute. As the first employee,  she was instrumental in building the platform to more than 180,000 subscribers — and she worked on their annual research, which was a key to helping the company grow from start-up through acquisition.” – Mantis Research (wow!)

We’ve all participated in surveys and read survey-based research posts, eBooks, and white papers, but I can guarantee that only a select few made you think and got you excited. The power of survey-based research cannot be overstated, well maybe. In this interview, I pick Michele’s brain to make sure we’re doing this the right way.

In this chat, we talk about…

  1. Typical mistakes marketers make with surveys
  2. Addressing the “so what” issue with survey data
  3. Story-worthy survey questions
  4. Running tests with your surveys
  5. The future of content marketing

This one is super useful, I know you will agree! Let’s do this…

Digital Transcription (Edited for Readability)


Jon-Mikel Bailey: Hello, and welcome to the Wellspring Digital Chats series, I am Jon-Mikel Bailey. This is where we interview marketing experts we use top-secret technology to virtually hijack their brains, tap into their brainwaves and extract all of the useful marketing knowledge and data that we can. They know nothing has happened. They’re fine. They’re completely unharmed and safe to return back into the wild. Yes, I am a dork.

Today, we have one of my very favorite content marketers, her articles on the Content Marketing Institute, and other blogs are must-reads, I always sort of walk away from them feeling as if I’ve gotten an aha tip or some other useful tidbit. She’s a content marketing OG, so much so that she was the very first employee at the Content Marketing Institute. So she’s an old-school real deal. And one of my go-to resources on how to do content. So Michelle, please go ahead and introduce yourself to these good people.

Michele Linn: Yeah, thank you for the warm welcome. It was very, very sweet. So as you said, I’ve been in the content marketing space for many years, I worked at CMI for many years from the beginning. And I had such the pleasure of working with so many marketers and learning about content marketing and writing and speaking about content marketing.

So when I left CMI in 2017, I knew I wanted to, still, stay in this space with these great people. But I knew I want it to get really niche. And I wanted to help people in a really specific way. As you can imagine, when you’re in a space for a very long time, you feel like you hear the same stuff again and again. Sure. And so what we did is we broke out and we created Mantis Research.

And what we do is we help marketers specifically conduct and publish survey-based research that they can use in their marketing for thought leadership and leads and media mentions and content, fuel, and so forth. So we help marketers do it and we also educate them on how to do it because I think it’s one of those spaces where there’s a lot of interest.

It’s one of those projects that may seem a bit simple on its head, but there’s a lot of complexity and moving parts. So we really want to help people share what we learn and help everyone do it better.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So I have a hidden agenda here that I have to confess to you we are getting ready to do a survey ourselves here at Wellspring Digital. So I’m hoping to take some tips away from this, to apply to that. But yeah, surveys are what we’re going to get into it. So you know, we’ve all participated in surveys and read survey-based research posts, ebooks, white papers, I can guarantee you that only a select few really made you think and got you excited.

So the power of survey-based research can’t be overstated. Because this is from real people. This is real-world stuff. But I want to pick your brain and make sure that that people are doing this the right way. So let’s do this. Are you ready?

Michele Linn: Yeah, absolutely.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Cool.

Typical Mistakes Marketers Make with Surveys

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So like I said, we’ve all participated in surveys and maybe even ran a few. For marketing directors and CMOS out there thinking about doing a survey, what is the one piece of advice you’d give? Or maybe that one mistake or misfire, they’re bound to encounter?

Michele Linn: Yes, I mean, the three things and this is three, not one, but the three things you need for a really great research project are you need to have:

  1. Really quality data.
  2. You need to have story-worthy or compelling findings.
  3. You need to have a plan through amplification.

So I know you and I have, you know, traded some emails offline, Jon, we’re going to be talking all about story a bit more. Which I’m excited to dig into. So I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes. But besides that, I think, another mistake and this is gonna sound boring because people just marketers don’t really want to think about it. It’s just the quality of survey data.

It’s tough, you know, I’ve run many, many surveys, and I love running surveys of people’s, you know, communities and email lists because there are people who are really engaged, and they want the answers. And I think that’s the best way to run a survey.

But even when you run a survey like that, it’s there’s a potential for a lot of spam to get in there. It’s an easy fix, it’s a time-consuming fix, but you need to build surveys so that you can weed out those spam responses, and be really confident that the data that you have is really quality good data.

I think that’s a huge gap that marketers just start thinking about, they run the survey, they get the data in, and then they take it and they and they run it. So I think you just need to be really focused on that quality.

Are Marketers Serious about Their Surveys?

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So just a quick follow-up to that. So do you think that marketers are kind of like, I mean, I don’t want to dismiss their efforts, but you think maybe they just sort of run through it as if it’s just another marketing task? And they’re not really looking at it as a chance to dive deeper into understanding, you know, actual human response? Uh, you know, this data actually is from real people.

And it’s telling, you know, I know, we’re gonna get into stories here in a second. But, I mean, do you think that that, that maybe people aren’t taking this seriously? I don’t want to say they’re not taking it serious enough, but maybe they’re not. You know, they’re not putting their full resources into it? Does that make any sense?

Michele Linn: It does. And I might be a bit more forgiving than that. I just think that people, I think marketers have the best of intentions. Sure. And so, they’re looking to get as many responses as they can. That’s just human nature. So sometimes you don’t really want to clean the data, because that makes your number of responses go go down.

But I think too, I think if you, if you’ve never done a survey, and you don’t know what to look for, if you don’t set up a survey in the right way, to begin with, and put in different quality checks, you don’t have any way to clean the data. I mean, you have a few things you can do. But you, it’s going to be difficult to know if those responses are, are quality.

I personally think it’s just something that marketers aren’t thinking of just because they trust the mechanism to get the responses so much. And so until you really dig in, and you look at all of the data, and you see where there are problems, and you have to clean it, it’s just, you might just not be thinking about it.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: That’s a great thought they trust the mechanism to get the responses too much. That’s I never thought it really thought of it that way. And that’s probably what I was getting at. So thank you.

Addressing the “So What” Issue with Survey Data

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So, you know, there’s no sort of shortage of boring surveys out there with, you know, jargon field, boring questions. And I recently watched a marketing prop seminar you hosted? And you talked about how you can make your survey and resulting data answer the question of “so what” by finding a unique and unique angle when conducting that research?

Can you kind of talk about how to get to that “so what” with the survey efforts?

Michele Linn: Yeah, absolutely, I think the first thing that I always tell people to do is they need to figure out the focus of their survey. So, let’s say you’ve been in the content marketing space for a long time, I’ve been in the content marketing space for a long time. I mean, we don’t need another… if you Google “state of content marketing,” there are so many things that come up, the world doesn’t need another state of content marketing report.

And I think so many people are just thinking, “Well, you know, hey, research works. I want to do it, let me do it, I’m in the content marketing space. Let’s do a report on that.” But I always, always, always urge people to look at the research in the space, and see well, what is it that we can do? What can we offer that is actually new and meaningful to people instead of just going quickly through this process and saying, “Okay, let’s just get this research out there.”

So for instance, I worked with a client and a good friend Typeset, they’re an agency in Australia, they’re a content marketing agency. So when they want it to do research, they said, “you know what? Content marketing is covered.” So they did a study all around the state of writing effectiveness.

So they reached out to business communicators and those who run content marketing programs, to understand is their writing is effective and really try to suss out what makes writing more effective. That’s just one example. But just really finding what your niche is, you can offer something new so you’re not just saying the same thing everyone else is already saying.

Story Worthy Survey Questions

Jon-Mikel Bailey: And I feel like I’ve been teasing this the whole time and you’ve been wanting to talk about this. You were talking about in a content marketing institute post about writing “story worthy survey questions.” And I thought this was really cool idea. So can you maybe talk a little bit more about that and kind of expand upon what we’ve already discussed so far?

Michele Linn: Yeah, absolutely. So I think once you have your topic defined, it’s time to start thinking about the questions that you want to ask. And for what it’s worth, too many people jump here before they do the upfront work, which is another pet peeve.

But a lot of times what we see in the industry is we might see, you know, this, many people are using video or you see all of these types of industry, I’m sorry, inventory stats, they’re like, here’s what’s the state of the state is. And they’re really effective if you want people to link to your website and be that source. But then when you publish that you’re like, Okay, that’s interesting. But what do I do with this? Like, where do I take this?

Do you know what I mean? It’s not thought leadership, it’s not conversation-worthy, and so forth. So I always challenge people to if you want to have some of those inventory stats, that’s great. But what kind of story stats can you have, too? So I actually just published my, I just sent out my newsletter when I talked about this in there today, too.

There’s a lot of different ways that you can create these types of survey questions. Um, oftentimes, you just need to dig a bit deeper. So for instance, in that state of writing report that I just talked about, one of the things, one of the questions they asked was, are you planning to publish more content in the next 12 months? And 61% said, Yes.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I think it would be higher.

Michele Linn: Well, I was like, I’m sorry, what? Are you going to increase or decrease the amount of content you’re going to publish? Or is it going to remain the same? Yeah, yeah. And so 61% increase. Okay, and was interesting. But again, not much that you can do with that.

But we also ask the question, “are you planning to invest more in your content?” And only 39% said, Yes. So I think having those two questions and showing that conflict, like people are trying to do more, but they don’t want to spend more. Yeah, which you and I know, but to have that stat behind it, and to talk about, you know, how to justify more marketing spend, or how to do more with less.

So there are all these different spin-off stories you can tell right? Because those two stats together an actual story?

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, I mean, you’d think doing more versus investing more is definitely a thought-provoking question, especially for the marketing director who’s like, “Well, no.”

Michele Linn: Yeah. Those questions were back to back. Yeah, it wasn’t even like we were trying to trick people. It was just more content don’t want to spend more.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So yeah, I think that’s the state of marketing today, unfortunately. But Exactly. That’s a whole nother discussion.

Running Tests with Your Marketing Surveys

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So, a lot of these surveys, you know, I did a search for marketing surveys, just for fun. And there’s like, there are marketing survey templates out there. And it’s all the same questions, you know, and so, a lot of surveys are born out of maybe one brain or small group of brains in a boardroom, or these days on a zoom meeting.

So, I mean, how much input do you need when developing these survey questions? I mean, do you, should you run smaller tests with these surveys? And maybe, maybe do like, marketing, we do A|B tests, or we run small campaigns to get a feel for how a campaign is gonna hit. Do you do the same thing with your surveys?

Michele Linn: Absolutely. So I mean, I always again, back up, so many people want to do a survey. So they jump in, they start reading all the survey questions. I always back up, and I figure out, “Okay, what are your goals? Who is your audience?” I mean, even just defining those two things can be telling, but then figuring what’s the unique angle for your research project that’s different than anybody else, right.

And then I look at all the different types of questions we want to ask. And I put those into categories. Think of it like the research table of contents. So, then what I do is I present that particular strategy to clients, or if you’re doing this on your own, figure out, what is the focus of the research going to be and get buy-in on that.

So what’s the focus? And what are the categories you’re going to study? And I think it’s really helpful to bring that to managers and anyone else who’s going to be using the research just so they all know which direction you’re going to be going in. And then from there, once you start writing the actual questions, I think it’s really helpful then to bring in your customer success and your product, people, and so forth.

Just to make sure you have all the right answer options, you’re not missing anything and so forth. So in short, I would start with a small team, because that seems like it’s it moves faster, but get that input at different stages, depending on where you are and what help you need. But I don’t think one person you know, in and of him or herself can create a really good survey. There’s just, it’s just too hard.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Well, I mean, it’s the same thing with content. You don’t leave the content in just one person’s lap because you get one perspective. And I think that’s interesting because, you know, surveys are really, you’re finding, maybe you’re looking for data for internal reasons, or maybe you’re looking for data for external reasons or both.

But, yeah, that’s a great point, you know, is the sales teams going to have a very different take on this than the marketing team, then the product development team, then whoever, customer service team? So I didn’t even think about, yeah, that makes sense to run it through all your, it’s the old break down the silos, you know, get the whole team involved. So that’s a great point.

Michele Linn: But pick the points, I would say, like, have that strategy available, so everyone can see it. But then pick the points where you engage different people, or what they’re really good at. And the other thing I would add to that, too, is to test your survey outside of your company, or, you know, run by someone in your target audience because, like you said, there’s so much jargon.

And so often we’re in a company, we don’t even hear the jargon that everyone uses, because it’s the company’s jargon. So make sure that people outside the company are reading it. I always test it with editors who have really a really keen eye, and they’ll be like, “Well, do you mean this? Or do you mean this?”

And find those people who can poke holes, so you don’t ask questions that can be misinterpreted, and then you have to throw out that data or you interpret it the way you want, and you’re just a little less credible. But, you know what I mean? So you have to bring in those kinds of survey testers just to get fresh eyes on it.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, I mean, make sure you’re asking questions in a language that everybody understands. Marketers are the worst. We use acronyms, and jargon and all that junk, you know, and, I mean, I’ll talk to my wife about marketing. So she’s like, I don’t know what that means.

Michele Linn: My husband says the same thing. And some words, I think aren’t even jargony. And he’s like, that’s “Yeah.” You know, so.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Exactly. It’s funny, I, you know, as a total aside, one word that I found that some marketers don’t even know what it means is marketing automation. They think of it as something completely different. They’ll call it email marketing, or they call it inbound marketing, or they call it some other, you know, so that’s a great point.

The Future of Content Marketing

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So you’ve been in the content marketing world for a while, many years, as long as I’ve been in it, maybe longer. You live and breathe content marketing. And, you know, Mark Schaefer wrote Content Shock, and then he wrote The Content Code, and everybody freaked out.

And we’ve reached a saturation point, you know, and, you know, every time we feel like we cannot possibly produce or consume any more content, there are more channels, more types of content show up on the scene. So as someone with 20 years, which is a long time in the content marketing world, what do you see as the future of content? And how can marketers out there prepare themselves? It’s a big question.

Michele Linn: It is, and I think there’s a lot of different ways to answer this. I mean, I think some people focus on you know, AI and tech and how that’s going to evolve things with no personalization, so forth. I’ll be honest, like, my, what I love about marketing is just being genuinely helpful to people, and educating people, and bringing groups of people together to help each other.

So I hope that what we’re going to see is a lot more of these marketers connecting communities and bringing together ideas, and having really true good conversations about things. I understand the value of promoting content and getting your word out there. But it’s so like, shouting and listen to me, listen to me, listen to me.

The things that I think are most worthwhile are when people are having conversations to aerate ideas and make things better and really improve things. So I hope, I don’t know if it’s going to but I hope that we move into more authentic, I hate the word authentic, but I hope that we move into more authentic connections and conversations to make the world a better place and not just fill it with junk.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, I’ve heard that there’s been the term human to human marketing instead of like B2B or B2C or you know, authentic or I think what Mark Schaefer calls it “artisanal marketing” or something. Handcrafted, however you want to put it, but it seems like, you know, when you when you go screaming down the road towards high tech, the thing that ultimately wins out when you reach this tech saturation is the most human company wins, in a sense.

Michele Linn: Yeah, and we did a study, I keep mentioning studies, but the State of Marketing. I’m sorry, the State of Writing. We looked at the most difficult thing people had a hard time with writing is knowing what their audience wants to read about, and we asked how do you learn about what your audience wants to read about.

What marketers aren’t doing is talking to their audience. I mean, they’re not engaging in conversations like LinkedIn. So I mean, just be human, market to humans, you know, just be part of the conversation. And don’t be so scared to participate.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Words of wisdom. I think that’s a great place to leave it. I am definitely gonna take a fresh look at the survey questions I’ve prepared so far, based on this conversation. So I definitely appreciate that. And I think there’s a lot here for the rest of our audience. So, Michelle, thank you so much for coming on here and doing this and it’s just been a lot of valuable information.

Michele Linn: Thanks so much, Jon.

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