May Cover Story: Curating Curiosity

“We were — and are — curious about how our customers perceived us, so we used our own product. What is the role of surveys in their life?” says Sun Lee, vice president, brand experience, for San Mateo, Calif.-based SurveyMonkey, the self-described People Powered Data™ platform. “Our internal view of our customers was that they were not necessarily numbers-savvy and needed something quick with answers that may not impact their decision-making. Instead, we were surprised about our true impact.” 

Speaking about the company’s 2017 brand refresh initiative, Lee continues, “Our consumer-side customers consider themselves change agents. Our B-to-B clients consider themselves innovators. We were not celebrating our customers properly. We knew then that we had to elevate our positioning. Those asking questions will be the leaders of this century. We captured that in our brand refresh. Those voices were heard throughout the process, and the launch received great feedback.”

 If you’ve used SurveyMonkey since its founding in 1999 — and it’s likely you have, either as someone operating one of its online surveys, or, more likely, as someone responding to one — you know the brand. But it’s unlikely you understand the depth of the company’s ability to turn those results into actionable data for its customer base.

The death of then-CEO Dave Goldberg in 2015, shortly after Lee arrived (then as creative director), was a turning point for the company, leading to last year’s brand refresh under Lee’s direction (she rose to her current title in February 2017).

Using all types of measurable and performance marketing online during its history, SurveyMonkey had built an effective tactical marketing structure and solid brand recognition. But to take the next step — to create a meaningful brand experience to maximize transactional results — Lee says strategy had to step to the forefront.

“We talk a lot about performance marketing delivering a relevant message to the right audience to build a connection,” she says. “An emotional connection is the building block of a brand. Let’s build right relationship. SurveyMonkey’s previous mission was too tactical. This new mission of ‘powering curiosity’ highlights our end benefit. More strategy, less tactics.”


SurveyMonkey CX
One of four key new capabilities launched last July, SurveyMonkey CX “takes
the popular Net Promoter Score® to the next level,” according to the company.

Flexibility and Innovation

Prior to joining SurveyMonkey, Lee had more than a decade of experience as a creative leader, mainly on the agency side. “I’d spent most of my career in smaller brand and ad agencies in Silicon Valley,” she says. “In those positions, I’d worked with clients like Twitter,, HP, and Stanford University Medical Center.”

Lee says that while working on many different brand building and brand transformation campaigns for those (and other clients), she noticed “gaps” in the agency/client model that caused less effective campaigns.

“Agencies often think they understand and know a client’s system and customers when they build a campaign — and tend to blame the client for incorrect implementation if a campaign doesn’t go according to plan,” Lee says. “On the client side, often the belief can be that the agency isn’t fully aligned with their wishes, that the agency isn’t fully embracing what the customer wants or needs. It’s a system that’s often not flexible enough.”

In 2012, wanting to fully experience how things operate “inside a corporate marketer,” Lee jumped at a chance to join Citrix as an art director in its in-house agency.

“Citrix’s technology is awesome, but it’s very hard to explain to anyone who’s not an engineer,” Lee says. “The company has a huge B-to-B focus but is best known on the customer side for GoToMeeting. The challenges were similar to  what we see here at SurveyMonkey: how to converge B-to-B and B-to-C marketing. The innovation was coming from building products for end consumers and responding to the power of consumer influence over buying decisions.”

At SurveyMonkey, Lee started as a creative director, rising to senior director, brand creative, in early 2016 before ascending to her current role. “I’m responsible for the holistic brand experience of our customers across our major touch points,” she says. “Our marketing must be meaningful, mentionable, and monetizable.”

Founded in 1999 and currently helmed by CEO Zander Lurie, SurveyMonkey has long been known as one of the world’s leading online survey companies. Both general consumers and major companies — including 100 percent of the Fortune 500 — use SurveyMonkey “to have conversations at scale with the people who matter most,” according to the company. 

With more than 750 employees throughout North America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region, SurveyMonkey contends that its technology turns market trends, customer opinions, or employees’ voices into actionable data and allows organizations to “uncover the ‘why’ behind the data.”

“Because of its brand, SurveyMonkey has an unfair advantage in that its awareness drives its performance-marketing efficiency. We measure everything,” Lee says. “Coming from Citrix, it was immediately clear that SurveyMonkey was doing everything that’s part of the performance-marketing playbook, including leveraging and optimizing even its oldest channels. It’s a well-oiled machine.”

‘Curiouser and Curiouser!’

But even well-oiled machines need a tune-up now and then. Hence: SurveyMonkey launched a brand refresh and new and expanded product capabilities publicly last July.

In a press announcement about the changes, Lurie said, “Successful businesses are driven by curious leaders who are listening to the market and meeting the needs of their customers and employees … the companies that are curious about what their customers, employees, and the market are saying are the ones that will evolve and thrive. SurveyMonkey gives businesses a competitive edge by powering conversations at scale with precisely the people who matter most.” 

In addition to the new platform, ­SurveyMonkey also bowed a suite of products and features, including:

  • SurveyMonkey CX, which the company says, “takes the popular Net Promoter Score® to the next level.”
  • SurveyMonkey Engage, which the company says, “establishes a framework to encourage open and anonymous feedback, allowing you to partner with employees to create organizational change.”
  • SurveyMonkey Audience, which the company says, “democratizes market research” and is available to customers in more than 100 countries.
  • SurveyMonkey Genius, a personal survey expert that “makes survey-taking feel more like a conversation with a redesigned respondent experience.”

How did this affect Lee and her team? “I don’t think we changed much about channel strategy — we still use all of our channels,” she contends. “It was more about positioning — powering the curious — and thought-leadership content. We want to engage different people in the conversation and reach broader audiences. How we reach out to them — and what we’re saying — changed. The idea is to constantly position curious leaders and individuals at the center of our messaging, and then amplify that message.”

Lee says curiosity has been part of SurveyMonkey’s DNA since founder Ryan Finley started the business in 1999. “He was tasked with market research at his job, using a pen and some paper,” Lee says. “He knew he needed to find a better way, and he also knew that some people have social awkwardness when being asked questions face-to-face. From wondering what could help solve these issues in a scalable way, he created ­SurveyMonkey’s original software.”

Therefore, it’s no surprise that ­SurveyMonkey’s platform “enables people to stay curious,” Lee says. She adds, “Even the answers to your surveys can make you more curious and ask, ‘Why?’ That’s why we believe ‘powering the curious’ is the perfect tack to take in this brand refresh. The technology is innovative and piques curiosity. Why shouldn’t the marketing?”

One of the big challenges the SurveyMonkey team faces is the split in its customer base between B-to-B and B-to-C users. How did the brand refresh help the company tackle this divide?

“What the end user knows is ‘I took a survey,’” Lee says. “Our field study as we worked toward this brand refresh told us something we didn’t know: customers had adopted our brand as a verb, as in, ‘I ­SurveyMonkeyed it.’”

While SurveyMonkey’s consumer brand reaches millions daily, a vast majority of the surveys are created by and for businesses. However, consumers are using the tech, as well. “We’ve become one of the leaders in the ‘consumerization’ of enterprise software,” Lee says. “But the difference between consumers and businesses — and how we can best market to them — is not as big as some would expect. On the consumer side, we sell to curious individuals using a credit card to use our platform. On the business side, we’re really targeting a central buyer from an organization who is the decision maker and spender.”

Lee says that — no matter the target — the brand remains at the center of SurveyMonkey’s strategy. “We’re using all channels to reach our customers, but consumers care about different things than that central buyer,” she contends. “Consumers want an easy-to-use product that comes with almost 20 years of expertise. Confidence in our features gives consumers the security of knowing that their respondents will take those surveys and have strong completion rates. On the B-to-B side, buyers are looking to solve business problems, desire security and flexibility, and need us to be communicative with them.”

Lee says one way SurveyMonkey differs from some marketers is that it avoids scare tactics to market its product to companies. “There’s a lot of that in B-to-B marketing, but love is stronger than fear,” she says. “People love our brand and that it is forward looking. Curiosity is something that’s not fearful.”

Lee adds, “It’s all about reaching the end consumer — they’re not B-to-C or B-to-B. The term we use is ‘human-to-human.’”

Another facet of its July 2017 brand refresh, SurveyMonkey Audience “democratizes
market research” and is available in more than 100 countries, according to the company.

New Analytics, New Outlets

As a digital performance marketer, SurveyMonkey has dozens of campaigns going at any given time. And while each has its own success measurements, some campaigns provide Lee’s team with new and unexpected insights.

“One I can talk about, since there was a lot of content and we gained a lot of data, was a campaign for our e-guide this spring,” Lee says. “The performance of the ads wasn’t great — but then we looked at the e-guide download analytics and found those were performing amazingly well. People were interested in the content — those who visited spent more than 10 minutes reading the guides, and 50 percent visited more than twice. So, we knew we had sticky and engaging content, but the ad strategy might need a rethink.” 

Lee says that SurveyMonkey used to not have analytics capability to drive user data for its e-guides. However, that’s changed. “Now, we’re tracking download and beyond,” she says. “It’s an Adobe publishing tool, the only one that gives you this detail, and it’s the first time we’ve used it. Without that data, we’d think that the campaign failed. Now, we can ask, ‘Who are the people who used the e-guides?’ It will help us create better targeting criteria for the next campaign.”

SurveyMonkey is also expanding its use of video (see Service With a Smile, Response, January). A recent change by Microsoft has allowed the company to overcome some obstacles and test more video opportunities online.

“Video is great for storytelling,” Lee says. “We’ve used it effectively to communicate the journey of our brand transformation to our employees and our power users. But it’s still relatively new for us — before Microsoft’s recent upgrades, we were having some trouble with rendering in different browser settings, and we didn’t have the resources to create the right experience for each browser.”

Lee says SurveyMonkey is “testing into video — product tutorials, YouTube bumpers — and looking at different features.” 

She adds, “Our YouTube bumpers are performing well — we’re trying out many different versions with different targeting. Part of this also gets into social media, which is more hit and miss. What makes sense for Facebook? To allocate resources, we need to figure out the ROI. Video costs a lot to produce. We’re also looking for the right partner to track video performance. We’re hoping to have a full strategy in place in the next 12 months.”

‘Past Knowledge is … Past’

With her experience on the agency side, it’s not surprising that Lee is particular about the vendor roster that SurveyMonkey works with.

“We work with many different agencies, but out key partner that runs paid marketing has been with us for six years,” she says. “A key to that is their institutional knowledge. They understand our model, where we’re heading, and how our consumers behave. They help us execute our vision and meet our targets. They’ve really become a part of us.”

At the same time, though, Lee says the best agencies and vendors provide pushback at the right time. “We might be ambitious about a targeting goal, or go off brand,” she says. “A good agency partner reassures consistency and quality and provides checks and balances. And since they’re working with other marketers, they know what’s trending and what’s working for others, and can share that knowledge.”

Keeping abreast of trends across the marketing spectrum is something Lee’s found crucial since early in her career. “I was working for an agency with a lot of lead-generation clients — HP, Proactiv — when I learned that consumer behavior doesn’t last,” she says. “What you tested yesterday might not be true today. We need to constantly ask if our messaging is resonant and if we’re speaking to the right audience. Past knowledge is just that — past.”

That leads to another early lesson that Lee carries forward to today: seeing the entire customer journey. “A lot of marketers and agencies just don’t think about what comes next — the full journey, the full cycle,” she says. “Your promise must carry through when that consumer lands as a customer. Basic key performance indicators (KPIs) might show immediate success, but if you look forward — at retention and more — those KPIs might look different.”

With such vision, it’s no surprise that Lee is clear when asked about three of the biggest challenges SurveyMonkey faces in today’s performance marketing environment.

“First, time: with digital media, after you launch, you can iterate quickly. But can we push our speed and quality by doing pre-research?” she asks. “That hasn’t been our behavior here, so we changed the process, doing pre-concept testing and ad testing. The sample size doesn’t have to be huge, but we can launch a test in the morning using SurveyMonkey Audience and have preliminary data after lunch.”

A second challenge is data collection. “With a lot of platforms for our messaging, this is a pain point,” Lee says. “When you launch a campaign, making sense of it and looking at its impact is time consuming. A single source of truth — and giving the right people access to it — is crucial.”

Finally, Lee says balancing the quality and quantity of marketing messages is toughest for her personally. “You have Google, Facebook, all these outlets with constantly changing algorithms,” she says. “While our search strategy remains solid, as we try to change the mindset of our target customers, quality content matters. We have to write for humans, not for Google. The message must deliver value to consumers — but it also needs to get through to them. It’s a true balancing act.”  


Sun Lee

Vice President, Brand Experience, SurveyMonkey, San Mateo, Calif.
Joined SurveyMonkey: 2015
Birthplace: South Korea (moved to U.S. at age 16)
Resides: Campbell, Calif.
Family: Husband, Kenny, and their two sons, Alex (3) and Max (1)
Education: B.F.A., Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, Calif.; M.B.A., Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley

Defining Moments: “When I first got the call from SurveyMonkey, I met Dave Goldberg (the company’s former CEO, who passed away in 2015). It was the highlight of career — he was such an empathetic, smart, caring, and warm leader. After that first meeting, I told him, ‘You don’t have to pay me anything, I’m coming to work for you.’ That’s not the greatest negotiation strategy! However, I knew that he knew exactly what he wanted to do with SurveyMonkey — that it wasn’t about just making money, but also about building a culture. Unfortunately, I only got to experience a month-and-a-half of that leadership before his death. It had a huge impact, and when I attended his memorial service, I saw the same kind of impact he had on those there.

Another key moment was presenting our brand refresh concept to SurveyMonkey’s board of directors. The group includes some of the most powerful, influential women in the world — Sheryl Sandberg, Meg Whitman, Serena Williams. I was nervous, but seeing the kind of engagement, the feedback, and how they articulate — by the end of the presentation, I was honored to be part of that room. Meg said the plan was ‘A+.’ I’d never gotten an A+ in my entire career!

Personally, I had my second child during the brand refresh. In fact, I was on a conference call in my car, three weeks before the due date, when my water broke. I had all kinds of meetings scheduled for the next day, so I had to make a few calls before I called my husband and drove myself to the hospital. I delivered our second son three hours later.”

Greatest Career Accomplishments: “Impact-wise, it’s the SurveyMonkey brand refresh, by far. The customer reach we now have, the influence I gained in working with the board of directors, the media spotlight we earned — all of it has been incredible. Another rewarding thing I enjoyed earlier in my career when working on the agency side, was creating and executing campaigns for the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. It’s a cause that I care about.”