In just 5 years, Bustle has become one of the most popular and most exciting digital companies. Founded in 2013, the website covers everything from beauty, entertainment, politics and books. Today, Bustle attracts more than 80 million readers monthly.
One driver to Bustle’s impressive growth is a deep understanding of its core readers. The company has become the “go-to-source for everything millennial woman,” delivering content and experiences that resonate with this demographic.
To learn how Bustle continues to learn about its target audience of millennial women, we recently chatted with Dani Thibodeau, the company’s research and insight manager. In our conversation, Dani talked about her career, the biggest challenges facing digital media publishers, and the books and advice that shaped her career.
You came from a branding and marketing background before transitioning to research. Why did you make that move?
I've always been interested in consumer insight. When I graduated college, I wanted to be a an agency copywriter, but I found I was spending more time trying to understand the consumer than actually writing. I always put the most energy into researching who was on our site, how they got there and why they decided to spend their money with us. In retrospect, research and insight has been the through line in everything that I've ever done.
Copywriting deals with words, but market research often deals with data and numbers. How did you learn the skills required to make the transition to research?
In one of the internships I did in college, someone needed help with mobile analytics, and I volunteered. That’s where I got my first taste with data.
From that experience, I understood that numbers were a key part of storytelling. Admittedly I don’t love math, but there is an essential place for numbers in storytelling.
Earlier in my career, I worked in insight for a creative agency. When I moved to a media agency, I worked in insight but from a storytelling perspective. When I got to Bustle, I said I could work on using numbers to help inform what kind of creative assets we could recommend to potential partners. In my first year here, management announced that they were starting an insight team and would be bringing in Jessica Tarlov. I reached out to her, and our conversation led to more responsibilities, allowing me to use my expertise in data-pulling tools, learning new platforms like Vision Critical, and other tools in our research technology stack.
If you are passionate about a new role, I would suggest being proactive and start doing the work. That’s really how it worked for me.
You’ve been with Bustle for almost 2 years now. During your time there, what have been some of the biggest surprises you’ve learned about millennial women?
Millennials were already a hot topic when I graduated college in 2009. Most of my career has been dedicated to understanding millennial women. From what I’ve seen, there are many cultural aspects at play that make us unique from other generations.
For one, millennial women are extremely self-aware. They're not afraid to admit their struggles and to try new things. Partly, this is because they were raised at a time when there was a shift from idolizing the aspirational women of “Sex in the City” to celebrating the more realistic, more day-to-day woman.
"Millennial women are extremely self-aware. They’re not afraid to admit their struggles and to try new things."
I'm not a mom, but I've done a lot of research on millennial mothers. They're navigating a completely different parenting landscape than previous generations. Raising digital natives, they have to contend with interesting conundrums: do they create a social media account for their child, for instance? Do they take pictures of their kids and post those images online? Millennials’ take on gender roles is also more fluidly.
As a Gen Y, we grew up very familiar and comfortable with technology. As a result, now that we're older and more seasoned, we're expected to do more in the workplace. But when you're a mom, that's another full time job—Millennial moms have big expectations to meet.
You are a millennial yourself. How does that affect your role as a market researcher, researching about millennials?
It helps. When running focus groups or engaging with members of Bustle Hive, our online community, I naturally empathize with our readers because I am one of them. I am able to look at the numbers, back up what I see, and then deliver the right message. And when I give presentations about the millennial woman, it’s easier to convince stakeholders and decision makers because I am a millennial myself.
Digital publishing is a very competitive space. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing your industry?
The first important issue is getting quality traffic. Reducing reliance on social channels and Google to drive that traffic is essential.
"Many digital publishers are trying to become a one-stop shop for brands who are bringing more creative work in-house."
Many digital publishers are trying to become a one-stop shop for brands who are bringing more creative work in-house. These brands are ditching agencies and relying on internal resources and branded content partnerships to do more work on a smaller budget.
There's also a constant competition for innovation. We have to merge our native content with seamless e-commerce experiences, use data in new ways, integrate artificial intelligence, place a greater emphasis on user experience, and make ads that don't seem like ads.
How can customer insight help tackle the challenges you mentioned?
Customer insight is valuable in each of these challenges. For driving quality traffic, insight reveals the user path and consumers’ relationship with the brand.
As for the move towards in-house creative, media companies like Bustle need to do the strategic work that an entire agency team historically did. But we have to do it with much less time and often fewer resources. At Bustle, the upside is that we are experts in the niche of millennial women. But to maintain this expert status, we have to have a relationship with our readers so they continue to authentically share with us.
"Insight is the roadmap to innovation."
As for innovation, that can’t happen without insight. Insight is the roadmap to innovation.
Overall, if we have a holistic understanding of our consumer, that will help us drive more quality traffic. If we understand our readers’ behavior, that will help us get better insight for branded content and innovations. Insight uncovers patterns we can use to create a better experience for our readers.
You mentioned the need to rely less on search engines and social media for traffic. How do you strike the balance of delivering content natively on social networks versus trying to direct people to your website?
It comes down to search engine optimization (SEO) and consumer insights. It’s understanding what people are searching for and their social media behavior.
Yes, people spend a lot of time on Facebook, but that's not where they spend all of their time on their phone. As an insights professional, one of the questions I can help answer is, “are there other partnerships that we can engage in?” For example, we see our best-performing articles through Apple News. When people see an article in a different type of newsfeed, that drives them to our site. At Bustle, it’s important for us to diversify our partnerships based on the behavior of our consumers.
Which resources (books, podcasts, etc.) have made the biggest impact to your career, and why?
The first one is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, a phenomenal book that I always recommend.
One book that I read as soon as I declared my advertising major was Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, by Luke Sullivan. It talks about how insight has changed since the 50's and 60's.
Journey in the Power by Baron Baptiste is about yoga, but it provides good principles that have helped me in my career. One key takeaway from this book is that when something happens, you need to realize that it's not happening to you; rather, it is simply happening. You need to figure out a plan on how to deal with it. Don't take it personally. This lesson is something that is valuable for everyone. The book also talks about being clear and direct with your words and your feedback to help guide others in their decision making.
The last book is Sisters in Law by Linda Hirshman, a book about Sandra Day O'Connor’s and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rise to the Supreme Court, and their experience as female Justices on the Supreme Court. This is an inspiring book about having all odds against you, and achieving the most amazing things.
In terms of podcasts, I like The Moth because it deals with human experience, storytelling and empathy. TedTalks has some really inspiring podcasts. I listen to The Daily, the New York Times podcast, on my commute to work very day. I’ve been listening to This American Life for a while, and it's come up in a lot of work conversations. I also recommend 99% Invisible.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Never stop learning. Be resourceful. Don't stop looking for answers. The only constant is change, so having thirst for learning is extremely valuable.
Show up and be present, both mentally and physically. It's easy to get distracted. To be able to come with an open mind, and really give all of yourself is important. When you need to be present in your work, you should be there.
"Show up and be present, both mentally and physically."
Also, don't take work personally. Get out of your own way. Some people work get so invested in certain projects. It’s good to care, but you need to be able to take a step back and see things through a more objective lens.
Last one: close the feedback loop, do it often and be clear. I was told once that the smartest person in the room can take the most complex of issues and make everyone feel like they can understand it.
Big thanks to Dani for spending precious time chatting with us. Curious about what other industry leaders have to say about their work with customer insight? Visit our Q&A page for more.