Exclusive Interview: Creating Content That People Actually Care About
I met Eli Schwartz at a start-up event and got an opportunity to speak to him about content marketing. As a digital marketing veteran, he’s created a huge amount of visibility for SurveyMonkey in Asia, and helped to change the growth trajectory in South East Asia. Content has been a central part of his success, and he shared his methods for beating writer's block, creating awesome articles, and measuring the success of his content.
Tell us something about yourself that we won’t find in your official bio.
I grew up in the east coast of the US, but had no idea what company to start or where to begin. I studied entrepreneurship during my undergrad. Decided that the best place to learn was in Silicon Valley, so my wife and I moved to Palo Alto and got a job in a lead generation company. It taught me a huge amount about creating affiliate networks and how to drive traffic & acquire customers online.
From there I moved to the 3rd largest automotive content network website, where I led user acquisition. Organic, paid and earned, basically everything digital. I’ve been at SurveyMonkey for the last three and half years, with the last 6 months as Director of Marketing for APAC in Singapore.
SurveyMonkey is well known as a survey platform (it’s in the name), what type of surveys are they running?
We handle a really wide variety of surveys, things like “Where should we go for lunch today” to “Nett Promoter Scores,” pretty much everything. In the US we handle a lot of customer satisfaction surveys, which (surprisingly) aren’t big in Asia. It’s funny because when we talk to people about patient satisfaction surveys and they literally started laughing! I got replies from users saying “Why Doctors care? You’re satisfied if the doctor makes you feel better.”
It’s such a huge part of our business in the US that we’re HIPAA certified. Asia is very different. Countries that are only a few kilometers apart have massively different cultures, demands and challenges. In Asia government agencies use our surveys to understand staff engagement and large businesses use us to get customer feedback on their website.
You'd mentioned that surveys help contribute towards data driven marketing and to creating better content, can you explain how?
Every writer gets writers block at some point, every writer has a hard time figuring out what’s unique, and finding a unique angle. With surveys you discover fresh facts that you can use to create completely original and interesting material. So as an example, I partnered with the Singapore Restroom Association (an actual NGO) that certifies toilets. We surveyed people to understand people’s views on toilets (almost entirely positive because everything is really clean in Singapore), and we asked them what they do with their smartphones on the toilet.
We asked what features they want in toilets, we gave them some options including TV, Panadol and feminine hygiene products. Amazingly 19% of people wanted WiFi!! So I can now write a headline like ”More people want WiFi than TV when on a public toilet” and I can build an entire set of articles around this one survey concept. Instead of writing fluff, or rehashing old material, you're creating entirely fresh articles based on facts.
So the surveys allow you to create unique data that nobody’s come up with before. Could you give us some examples of what type of surveys you’ve run, what content they led to and what sort of awareness they generated?
The best example would be our partnership with NBC for poll data. We’re running polls after every debate. These are pieces of content that everyone wants to read and share, and every time they share it, it says NBC / SurveyMonkey. That’s an incredible amount of awareness.
The NBC partnership is a huge deal for what it says about the reliability of online surveys. We’ve also partnered with media companies on “where people want to travel for the summer” and things like “how often people wash their jeans.” The jeans survey got picked up by Levis and put on their website, that’s great SEO and a huge amount of traffic.
Smaller business might not be able to get big partnerships so easily, what else should they be doing?
Start-ups are usually allergic to spending money, which is wrong because there’s a cost to everything. If a start-up founder spends 48 hours of his time doing payroll and accounting that’s time he could’ve spent elsewhere. The same applies to content. You could try and make it up, but if you have something interesting and compelling to write about you could get great data and publish it.
For $300 (assuming you pay to collect the data - you could also do it for free) you could get great stats on when people drink coffee, cold drinks, etc. if you spend another $50 for graphic design, and then share it on social networks and get 10 links - that’s $35 for per (high quality) link, which if the content is good will continue to grow over time. Not to mention a few good social media shares. If you put in some extra effort, that one survey turns into multiple different pieces of original content that you can create.
Compare that to hiring a spammy SEO company for $500, where you’re not really sure what you’re going to get (you might even end up with a penalty).
The problem with SEO is that many people don’t think about what would make someone press share. Or write a comment and post if on their Facebook wall. Step away from your business and look at it objectively.
It could be something as simple as drinking coffee, maybe something like “People drink an average of 5 cups of coffee per day, that’s enough to pay for a car loan every month.” Is that something people would talk about over a dinner? Or with their friends?
Is your content dinner conversation worthy?
Before people had social media, they had blogs, they would publish their opinions there. Pressing like is the easiest way to express your opinion. You just need to press like/retweet/share/pin. The motivation is the same. If someone won’t even like your content, they’re never going to link to it. So if your content is dinner conversation worthy, it’s likeable, then it’s going to get links.
What’s the single most successful piece you’ve ever created?
SurveyMonkey has done loads, but I’d rather toot my own horn and talk about a survey I did, I don’t have a statistics or math background but I’ve got some experience running surveys.
So a few years ago I ran a survey where I asked which search engines people use. I found every possible search engine I could find, including Baidu in China and Seznam in Czech Republic. One of them was called “Duck Duck Go.”
The results showed that 1% of all people surveyed use Duck Duck Go. The CEO of Duck Duck Go saw my article and tweeted me to ask where I got my data—they were fascinated. Firstly that was great recognition (of the data I’d collected), but it also motivated me to write a follow-up article talking about their inclusion as search options in iOS6 and about changing user search habits.
How did you measure it's success?
Shares, comments, and recognition. When you write something you want people to care, and you want to feel that your opinions count. So the biggest thing was that they reached out to me. It meant it was really valuable media.
An analyst at edmunds.com wrote a post about Obama’s 2008 “cash for clunkers” programme. The article was published on their blog and talked about how it was a bad programme financially. The Obama administration wasn’t happy about the post, and they wrote on the Whitehouse blog about how wrong edmunds.com was – and linked back to original post. That created some incredible media coverage, and became a great source of SEO juice. It went back and forth and got covered on every major news site.
When you write something people care about, they respond. That's success.
That’s what happens when you write something people care about. They respond, that’s success.
Do surveys add value to social campaigns?
Surveys create awesome content for your social campaigns. Not just when you're tweeting the results, but just the act of asking your audience a question.... it's very engaging. If the questions are relevant to your business it's a great way to demonstrate that you're interested in actually having a two way conversation and understanding what your audience thinks.
You can use social to get data for survey responses, but it’s not very random. You’ll be going out to your own network – so unless you specifically want their opinion, it won’t be a good random set of people. It’s a great way to engage your network though, and a good starting place.
Where and how should small businesses be going out to get their data? What sample size do they need? What should they think about?
Don’t worry about sample size and statistical relevance, unless you’re trying to make an important decision it’s not important. We’re talking about creating an infographic or blog post, sample size is largely irrelevant.
If you’re asking “How many people have dropped an Android phone in the toilet,” statistical relevance is unimportant. The survey might be less accurate, but it’s interesting and fun and it’s going to get some great shares & links. Don’t be hung-up on statistics, many surveys that become the basis for massively viral stories aren’t statistically relevant or based on properly randomized survey data.
Use social media, use your blog and send it out by email. Even if you’re conducting an internal customer survey, don’t’ worry about statistical significance. If you ask for feedback and 100 people say they hate your coffee, that’s important to know. Especially if you’re a coffee shop. You don’t need the “correct random sample size” to know that you need to take action.
So what should a young ecommerce site be thinking about what they’re planning a survey?
Just focus on scale and interestingness. Even if you’re asking about toilet use, if you can get a large enough volume of people to provide data it’s relevant. So on my survey 3% of 600 people said they take video calls on the toilet. Aside from being disgusting, that’s relevant just because of the number of respondents.
Most people don’t need to ask more than 10 questions, and most people can’t get 100 responses. Just try and run a survey and see how it goes. Don't over-think it, don't get stuck trying to write a long post, or make a sexy infographic. Just tweet it or post to Facebook, but just publish something.
Is there a lot of fatigue in the number of responses you get?
Yes. Boring surveys are more difficult for people to complete, especially repeatedly. Write your survey like an interesting story and people will respond. I’ve written boring surveys in the past, and used Facebook ads to get responses, it cost a fortune and not that many people completed it.
Then I ran this toilet survey and didn’t spend any money to promote it, but it got a huge number of responses. Why? The toilet survey was interesting! Every question was intriguing, it made people WANT to answer just to see the next question. What does that mean practically? When you’re writing, instead of asking “How many units of alcohol are you likely to consume over the next 30 days?” try asking “Are you going to get drunk over the Christmas holidays?”
What other examples of good surveys could you give us?
I ran a survey to get people’s thoughts on Indonesia, and created a blog post that got 50,000 page views, it was titled “What do Americans think about Indonesia”. One of the questions I asked was “What is the capital of Indonesia?” and instead of using Indonesian cities, I used “Moscow/Kuala Lumpur/Mumbai/Jakarta/No idea.“ It went absolutely crazy in Indonesia. The fact that Americans didn’t know anything about their country was important to them.
Your content needs to be specific and relevant to the market.
Your content needs to be specific and relevant to the market. If I had posted that in the US, it wouldn’t have gone viral.
You mentioned earlier that surveys help beat writers block, can you tell us a little more about that?
On the first survey I ever did, I asked crazy questions including “If you had a headache, would you trust headachetablets.com or headachetablets.ca” to understand how much difference the TLD made. A year later HubSpot reached out to me and asked me about it. I ran a survey with them and found that marketers thought it was important, but nobody else really cared. That got featured on Moz, HubSpot and lots of other places. I had loads of ideas for follow-up posts and got opportunities to write in lots more places as a consequence.
They help beat writers block because they give you fresh and relevant data to play with. One survey is going to give you several different things you can write about. Just like it does for me, a good survey can open up new opportunities for you to write.
So in one short paragraph; create great data that’s original & valuable to your audience, getting out of your chair & asking the questions can give you loads of new things to write about. Leveraging your own network to create fresh fun facts, is probably one of the best ways for you to move from a relatively boring curation (re-posting someone else’s content) campaign, to an effective content campaign with original material.
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