Can a well-researched piece of content from a single URL help bring in millions of views in just one year? The answer is, “Yes.” CoSchedule knows exactly how that feels. Researched content helps you drive 10X results that convert into profitable customer action.
Today, we’re talking to Michele Linn, who knows everything about research-driven content marketing. She is the co-founder and chief strategy officer at Mantis Research. Michele has amazing advice to offer on how to succeed at content marketing.
Nathan: Hey, Michelle. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Michelle: Thank you so much for having me, Nathan.
Nathan: I’m excited to have you. I know we talked a little bit, a few months ago about research and you wrote a blog post on it on Mantis, so let’s just just kick it off from there. Tell me a little bit about you, Mantis Research, and some of what you do there.
Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. I have been in the marketing space for about the past 20 years. I spent the first 10 at the tech company but then I started freelancing about 10 years ago when I had my first daughter. Very long story short, Joe Pulizzi, who was the founder of Content Marketing Institute, reached out in 2010, and I was the first person that he hired to launch CMI. It was such a personal and a professional highlight to work with Joe and the team and to build that platform. We did a lot of editorial including research. Fast forward to last Summer where I left, simply because I love content marketing and I was just itchy to build my own plane. Out of this desire and so forth, I actually partnered with a good friend and colleague, Clare McDermott, and we launched Mantis Research at the end of 2017, the beginning of 2018.
What we are trying to do with marketers is helps them publish their own original research. Clare and I both have had different experiences throughout the years but out of everything that we have done, research has proven to be one of those things that has worked really, really well. We haven’t found other marketers trying to help marketers figure out how to publish their own research, so that’s the gap that we’re trying to fill in the marketplace.
Nathan: I think that’s very much needed. I want to get this from your perspective. Why is research a very crucial part of content marketing?
Michelle: I think for many organizations, as you well know, Nathan, and I think in this age of the difficulty in getting the attention, things that worked five years ago, two years ago, one year ago, they aren’t nearly as effective in most cases as they used to be. I think there is this whole shift and the things that you no longer can just put out the same type of marketing.
I think that research is a real opportunity because you and your brand, you become the authoritative source for some type of topic. People are always looking to find data to backup what they think, they want to validate their thinking. If you can become that source, then you’re going to get backlinks, and traffic, and SEO rankings, and leads, and so forth.
I think it’s a real opportunity for marketers to do something different and really fill the gap in the marketplace.
Nathan: I love that idea of something different. All too often, you could see the same blog post headline anywhere, and research definitely can set you apart. It’s one thing to know research is an important part of content marketing, I was wondering if you could share some of those ideas of maybe some research-backed content that our listeners could explore for using within their own content marketing strategies?
Michelle: There’s a ton of different examples. I know you guys have a wonderful research project which I why I reached out to you a couple of months ago. You have this wonderful state of the marketing report and I would–not in a sucking up kind of way but in a really educational way–I would definitely urge people to look at what you guys have done. I love that you have a very clear hypothesis, you test it with data, and then you report on, “Here’s what the data actually showed us.” Sometimes it validates what you’re thinking, sometimes it’s very different.
I think that’s a wonderful example of research [...] study. I also tell a lot of people I talk with, I love that you guys are pointing people to a tool kit at the end to really help build your subscriber base. Your research isn’t [...] but this tool kit is.
Some other examples that I love; Salesforce has a wonderful collection of research, they do a lot of state of the industry reports. I was actually talking to the Salesforce person today and she said they do 25 research reports every single year.
Michelle: I was like, “Oh my gosh,” that kind of blew my mind. They have a wonderful library to study. You can do things like salary guides. I connected with someone from the creative group from Robert Half and they’ve been doing salary guides for the past two decades. It just basically says, “Here’s how much people are actually making,” so that if you’re hiring or if you’re looking for a job, you have data to actually back up what you’re actually worth. It talks about hiring trends and so forth. Those are just some different ideas of research I think that works really well that marketers could study.
Nathan: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. If I’m thinking about my own industry here, how might you recommend I find some new ideas for my own audience or niche? Some of these state of the industry things, do they work everywhere or what recommendations might you have there?
Michelle: I think that if you are in a new industry or you’re trying to create a category or if you’re in an industry that simply doesn’t have state of XYZ industry, I think that type of research can be really effective. I know back in the day, in 2010, CMI, we published our first annual state of content marketing or budgets benchmarks and trends report in conjunction with marketingprofs. In 2010, there was no other data around content marketing and now there’s tons but because CMI was the first person to do that, we’ve done it every single year for the past eight years, I can’t even tell you the backlinks, and the shares, and the traffic, and so forth that they’ve gotten because of that research. But if you’re looking to do research today and let’s say you’re in the content marketing space, you don’t want to do a content marketing state of the industry report because it’s such a saturated space. For those people, I really recommend trying to find their own niche.
Andy Crestodina who does a wonderful, wonderful study on blogging, he’s just a super smart, wonderful person to know but he does something called [...] recommends people “find the un-stat.” Look for a stat that people believe but it’s not actually backed up with data and do research around that. Again, you become the source of authority in that particular industry.
Or one other idea is look at the space in Brody Dorland, they do a study over at DivvyHQ. Brody basically said, here’s overall the content marketing space but again, it’s too saturated of an industry so they figured out where they could actually play. They did a survey on content planning because no one’s done that and it really aligns with their own business.
It really is going to depend on a lot of different factors and it’s going to take some digging where you’re angled really can be.
Nathan: I love that example too because it’s almost like keyword research to me. It’s like, you’re not going to rank for the word marketing but you could rank for something that’s a lot more niche and honed in. It seems like you could have success with research if you plan it that way.
Nathan: Michelle, I’m kind of wondering then, we’re thinking about our own niches, our own audiences, and I could see some people may be asking themselves, “What would my audience care about?” What kind of audiences do you tend to see care most about research-based content?
Michelle: That’s a really great question and I think it’s going to vary from organization to organization but if you are in a, like I said, new industry and people are trying to justify your product or service or so forth, I think that research can work really well because they’ll actually have the data that they actually need to justify what they’re doing. I was talking with Andrea Fryrear and she runs an organization called Agile Sherpas, it’s all around Agile marketing. They published their first annual marketing, the first annual state of Agile marketing report earlier this year. She was getting consultations and engagements directly from this research because her audience craved this justification so much. I think that’s one great example.
I think another great example is if your audience is on social and they love to share stats and compelling thoughts like that, your research can work really, really well.
Honestly, it can work for a lot of different industries, you just have to figure out your audience truly cares about and how much they’re going to care about the actual data. Some people are going to scrutinize the data, in some industries less so. Either way, it’s completely fine but I think it’s important to be cognizant of that so that you really create research with enough work to actually satisfy your audience.
Nathan: I think it would be interesting too to target something that people hold as true but you can disprove it. Have you ever seen that happen? I think that would be a really interesting play.
Michelle: You know what, I can’t think of an example that pops in my mind but I do think that is exceptionally important to not try to only prove something but I think, to your point, it’s even more interesting to disprove something.
I talk with clients and they just want to have research that just validates their own story and their own way of thinking which I don’t think is all that interesting or useful. I haven’t seen that example, Nathan, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah, no worries. Something that was interesting when you were mentioning Andrea Fryrear was that she did this state of Agile marketing, I believe is what you said. By the way, if you have not listened or read some of her stuff, she is brilliant. She is an amazing person to follow.
Michelle: She’s awesome.
Nathan: What’s interesting about that I think though is she really targeted a topic that’s core to her company. She offers all sorts of services. How might you recommend for marketers to target those right topics that are just core to their business?
Michelle: I always recommend that marketers think about three different questions when they’re focusing on their topic. One is, is it something that’s going to be interesting to my audience? If you’re trying to get press mentions and do things with the media, recognize that your audience is not only your customers but it’s also media.
Two, really think about, does this topic align with our brand story. In the case of Andrea, you have to do research that really is in your core wheelhouse. And then the third question I always recommend people think about is, is there other research on this topic that is currently out there? If you can find a topic that meets all of those criteria and it does sometimes take a bit of digging, I think you’re probably in a really good spot.
Nathan: I think that’s awesome advise. Michelle, I’m sold on the idea of research. I’ve seen it work well for CoSchedule but because we’ve done it, I know that it can be a little time consuming, and just to hit this right on the head, I would love your perspective on why is research important despite maybe a higher level of effort than just writing a blog post or something like that?
Michelle: It’s funny, after you and I talked, Nathan—I’ve been talking with a lot of people because I’m like, “I wonder how long research does take people.” and I wish we ask this in our annual research but I know Andy Crestodina said that his research took 150 hours. When we talk with clients we always plan a minimum from four months for a project from start to finish. I talk with other organizations and it’s always four to six months to actually do a really solid, rigorous research project. You’re right, it does take a lot of time and it’s not an overly complicated process but there are a lot of details to think about. But when you look at the benefits from the reports, we know it’s often huge.
I did a quick little informal survey on BuzzSumo and CMI publishes research every single day, but one of the things that we’re always very interested in is backlinks obviously, because backlinks are a sign of authority and it helps with SEO, it helps with traffic, and so forth. I looked at the top 10 posts that received backlinks to CMI’s website and four of them were all research-based. You can just see there like they work really, really well. We’ll get hundred of backlinks to these articles. I think that it’s something that just works really well.
The other thing I think helps is if you’re struggling like so many marketers I talk to, and you have all of these different story ideas and you are publishing all of these different content assets, I think when you have researched it really can be that guiding force and that glue that holds your whole story and your whole editorial strategy together. I think if you look at it as not just the research in of itself but like the glue of your whole strategy, it’s just a really effective play.
Nathan: I would agree with that. Just for all of you to know, some of our best performing content at CoSchedule is all backed by research and is research-based, basically. Anytime that we say something backed by science or backed by 20 studies, it performs really well. Everything that you’re talking about here is definitely on point which brings me to this next question, Michelle, because I think that you’re going to be really good at answering this. Let’s say I’m kind of sold on this idea of doing a research project but I need to pitch it to someone, how might you recommend pitching it so that you can justify that time involvement which we know is just a little bit more than maybe a standard piece of content?
Michelle: I actually talk with different organizations about this and it’s amazing to me how many different organizations have different objectives with their research. Anything that you’re trying to justify, figure out what the person who you’re trying to justify it to cares about, and then tie the justification for research into that.
For instance, we were talking with one client and what they cared about was media mentions. They want back links and media mentions. They didn’t care about traffic, they didn’t care about subscribers or anything like that, it was all about media mentions and so our pitch focused around that. Other people I talk to are focused on downloads, and leads, and subscribers, so that’s a different story that you have to tell.
Another person I was talking to, she really wanted research to be used as this way for her to get speaking invitations to industry events, and really elevate her perspective as an expert in the industry. There’s a lot of different ways that research can be used but figure out what that thing is that the powers that [...] really, really care about and chances are, you can make a really good case of how your research is going to help elevate that particular cause.
Nathan: I love it. Content to produce results, that’s perfect.
Michelle: Also, one other quick thing, Nathan, is I also recommend for someone starting out that they start small. You can still do something that’s comprehensive to really be the editorial glue. One of the mistakes we made early on at CMI is we have this huge grand plan of what we’re going to do with the research. We were trying to do too much all at once. It was a very complicated cumbersome process. Just start small, do something really well, and then grow from there. I think that also really helps when you’re getting started.
Nathan: Definitely. Since we’re talking about getting started too, Michelle, I know that you probably use tools or processes or stuff like that, to get started here, I was wondering what tools work well for gathering this research?
Michelle: Are you talking about how to gather survey responses?
Nathan: Yeah. Are surveys the right way to go? What might you recommend for the different types of things that we’ve been chatting about today?
Michelle: I have the most experience in doing survey-based research. You obviously go out to a wide group of people and ask them questions and report on that data. You can also do secondary research where you’re mining your own data, or mining publicly available data, or licensed data, that also works really, really well. I think it’s really important to have a process in place to do all that. I think it’s also really important to find a really good survey tool. There are a ton of tools out there, anywhere from free tools to paid tools that are more sophisticated. I know we tested the same survey in different survey tools and it’s pretty astounding but a different experience those survey tools provide. If it’s a better experience, the survey is going to take a shorter amount of time to answer and it’s going to be an easier experience for someone to actually answer. We’re personally fans of SurveyGizmo but I know there’s a ton of other tools out there that you guys can actually use.
Nathan: That’s perfect. Michelle, since you’re an expert at this with the surveys, this is something we literally just asked ourselves this week here at CoSchedule was, what might be a good sample size that you go for before you consider that data as valid? Is there a hard number or percentage? What do you look for?
Michelle: If we’re trying to figure out sample size, we look at few different things. First of all, we’ll try to understand—let’s say for instance, I know CMI used to do this all the time, we’re trying to understand what made a content marketer more successful, our sample size wasn’t just the overall sample size, you need a large enough sample size of marketers who actually think that they are successful. You need to first understand what is your smallest sample but you’re going to need to report on and then you need to develop your larger sample size, realizing that that is a smaller segment, if that makes sense.
The other thing that you can do is you want to make sure that your sample is representative. “Are there any biases in your sample? How can you get a sample that’s actually representative of the people who you want to report on?” After that, there are online calculators that you can use to help you figure out how big your sample size is. Often times, the sample size that you need for something to be statistically correct is smaller than what you might actually think that you’re going to need. But if you’re trying to get media and trying to get press, bigger sample size is typically played better.
It just all depends on what your goals are and who your audience is and what you’re trying to accomplish. But there’s definitely ways to figure that out as you work with through the process.
Nathan: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s amazing advise and we’ll definitely be using that here at CoSchedule. Michelle, since we’re talking about data and obviously research and we had kind of dropped earlier that you’re producing content, produce result, I was kind of wondering if I could get your take on what sort of metrics that you might recommend that I measure to know if the project is successful or not?
Michelle: Again, one client we talked to was all about media mentions and press mentions, so they would obviously be tracking those. Someone else I talked to recently, they really cared about the impressions that they got for the research, so on their site as well as on any other site. They were using Alexa to track all of that. A lot of people I talk to care about email subscribers or leads, or downloads, so they’re obviously tracking those metrics. I’m a really big fan of tracking backlinks and so forth. You really see the type of authority that you’re building with your research. I hate to say that it depends but then metrics that you’re going to measure really do depend on what is most important to your own company.
Nathan: I think that’s a perfect example here. Goals first, content planning in many ways. Michelle, that probably ties into this very last question I have for you. Let’s say I’m sold using research within my marketing strategy, where might you recommend that I start or what should the process look like as I kick off a research project?
Michelle: I always work from a four-step process. We have strategy and planning, really figuring out who is your audience, who is your topic, what are your goals why you’re doing the research, and so forth. And then once you know that, the next step is all around data science. That is putting together the actionable survey which is a difficult thing to do, and an important side note, if you are starting for the first time and you have a limited budget, the one thing I would recommend that you get help with is your actual survey design because that’s going to make or break the entire process or your entire research findings. You need to have a plan for you’re going to put together your survey, you need to have a plan for how you’re going to collect data, know who you’re going survey, which tools you’re going to actually use, you need a plan for how you’re going to analyze all of that data that you got back. And then once you have all of these data, you then need to have a process for turning this into an actual story and turning this into your finding.
A lot of people I talk to talk about how surprising it is, how difficult it is to take that data, and actually turn it into an actual story that people can understand and think through. Great research is not one data point after the other, it’s an actual story that’s going to help someone think differently about something. There’s a whole process regarding putting together your research findings.
Then the last step is all around what you can actually do with the findings once they are published. It’s never a good idea to just publish your research then just move on to the next thing but really think through how can you incorporate these research into everything else that you are doing to make it stronger. I heard a lot of people say webinars are their best performing asset that the research findings out or blog post, or guest post, or infographics, or standalone graphics, or videos, the list goes on and on and on. There’s so many different things that you can do if you get those findings out.
At the risk of sounding too self-serving, we actually just put together a guide on the entire process if that’s helpful to your audience which is everything that we’ve learned about putting together survey-based research because it really is–as you know, Nathan–it’s complicated to figure out all of those different steps.
Nathan is the Head of Content & SEO at SimpleTexting. He's a demand generation enthusiast, content marketing advocate, and team player. He enjoys spending time with family and friends, running ultra marathons, and canoeing in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota.
Connect with Nathan on LinkedIn.