Michele Linn was on the ground floor of the content marketing movement.
Ten years ago, she left her job in product marketing and started freelance writing for B2B clients. Along with five other freelancers,, she started the (now defunct) blog called Savvy B2B Marketing. “We were writing about B2B marketing while figuring out how to blog. It took about six months but I started to get this steady stream of clients. In short, this was an aha moment for me. I could see firsthand how educating others led to business,” she says.
She connected with Content Marketing Institute (CMI) founder Joe Pulizzi, who reached out about a typo on her site. “I joke that it was the best typo that I ever made,” she says. She became the first hire at CMI, as managing editor. Last summer, she left CMI and later teamed up with a CMI colleague and friend, Clare McDermott. Together they launched Mantis Research, a firm focused on helping marketers publish and amplify their own original research.
I spoke to Michele recently about what she’s up to these days. She shed light on common marketing research misconceptions, offered some hard-earned wisdom and told me where she turns for inspiration.
What lessons did you learn in the managing editor role at CMI?
Have a really strict editorial mission. Our mission was advancing the practice of content marketing for enterprise marketers. Authors would contribute some truly interesting articles, but if they didn’t adhere to our mission, we didn’t run them. Sometimes it’s difficult to actually say “no” because a piece probably could have gotten a lot of shares or a lot of traffic, but it’s good for the long run because people learn what to expect from your particular brand.
What are the big challenges of doing original content marketing research?
Research really is a wonderful way to lead the conversation and not just regurgitate what other brands are preaching. When I talk to marketers who do research, time and time again I hear “this is the best performing piece of content I have.”
But research isn’t easy to produce. Not to get too meta, but we actually did a research project around if and how marketers are using research. The biggest roadblock for those who are planning to conduct their first research project is figuring out the process of how to actually do it.
For instance, the number one challenge our survey revealed (and what we anecdotally hear) is that people have problems getting enough respondents. Not only do you need a large enough sample size so you can confidently report on the whole, but you also need to have enough respondents for every segment you report on.
If you’re just starting out and you don’t have a big audience, one tip is to partner with someone who has the audience you want to survey who also shares the story you want to tell with your research. For instance, we partnered with BuzzSumo to do our inaugural research project as we had no formal audience. We handled all the research logistics, but they asked their audience to complete the survey — and we both distributed the findings when they were ready. It has been a win-win situation.
Another challenge marketers have is making sense of all of the data. It can be difficult to analyze the data and turn it into an actual story told from your point of view. There are things you can do when you plan the research to make this a lot easier on the back end.
My last suggestion is that marketers need to do more with the research they are publishing. As mentioned, this is often one of the best-performing assets they have. There’s so much more they can actually do with it on the back end to promote it and to create spin-off stories (guest posts, webinars, videos, infographics, gated content and more).
When you need inspiration, where do you go?
In the last couple of years, I’ve really tried to cultivate quiet. I take walks in which I deliberately don’t consume information (podcasts, phone calls, texts, etc.). Or, I “reset my head” by sitting with silence, more often than not noodling on an issue in the back of my head. I feel like whenever I don’t find quiet in my day I struggle a lot more (just ask my kids!). Truly unplugging from all technology is a very helpful way to get new ideas because connections form that otherwise wouldn’t.
How do you continue to build connections in the industry?
I have worked remotely since I left the corporate world. I love the handful of events I attend every year, such as Content Marketing World.
But, I don’t want my connections to only occur sporadically — or with the same group of people I already know. One thing I started doing this year is reaching out to random marketers via Twitter or LinkedIn to say, “Hey, I saw you’re doing this research. I love to talk to smart marketers like yourself. Do you have 30 minutes?” I can’t express how much serendipity and inspiration happens during these random conversations.
It’s amazing how many marketers don’t do this. They’re not talking to other marketers. They’re talking to people in their company, or they’re just looking in their own little world. I think that’s a huge missed opportunity.
I always come away with great insight and new perspective.