Thomas McKinlay publishes Ariyh, a newsletter that translates scientific findings into practical marketing strategy, a kind of unconventional wisdom rather than the usual marketing tropes. Thomas explains the weird name, how he curates the newsletter, and his big vision for making science accessible. Let’s go.
Tell me about Thomas. Where are you? Where did you grow up?
I’m Scottish-Italian and grew up in a small town outside Milan – Bussero. I worked and studied in different cities (Amsterdam, New York, Pune, Tokyo, London) before settling in Barcelona right before the pandemic (lucky timing!).
It suits me here, as I’m definitely more Italian/Mediterranean (cooking pasta with a glass of wine is my way to unwind). I just wish I had a bit of a Scottish accent to go with my surname.
I’ve always admired the rigorous, painstaking work that scientists do. They push the boundaries of human knowledge for all of us, and often it takes longer than 2 years to conduct and publish a study!
But research is hard to access and understand. I wanted to change that. And because I’m a marketer, I started with research in marketing.
So in August 2020 I launched Ariyh, my newsletter where I translate the latest scientific studies into 3min practical insights that marketers can use to take their work to the next level.
How did Ariyh come about?
It was born out of the realization (and frustration!) that scientific research in business takes way, way too long to get applied in practice. Why should we wait years, sometimes decades, for someone to write a book about what works? We’re leaving money on the table.
This realization hit me when – after 3 years working for a startup (and trying unsuccessfully to launch my own) – I went back to study marketing at Rotterdam School of Management. I was amazed. Where were these insights when I had needed them to grow my own business? Right after, I joined Google and realized that even a giant like that wasn’t using the latest evidence (except for a handful of teams).
What pushed me to start was when I left Google and decided to look for a job in Barcelona right before the Covid-19 pandemic started. All the job interviews I was having suddenly dried up. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to work on what I really wanted to – but I was scared of starting.
Weird name, btw – is it working for you?
Ariyh stands for Academic Research In Your Hands and is pronounced ‘ar-ee’.
No, it was probably a mistake. But I don’t regret it. The search for the ‘perfect name’ was slowing me down, so at some point I decided to go with what I had – while I was at the peak of my motivation and momentum. Had I waited until I found something better I may never have started. And we would not be having this conversation.
Research shows that names perform best when they are easy to pronounce and short. My Italian side probably biased me (we don’t pronounce ‘h’), but at least I got the second part right!
What else are you working on?
My focus is 100% on growing Ariyh, and paying the bills while doing that (e.g. by giving personalized recommendations, sponsorships, upcoming paid products).
How many subscribers do you have, right now? What have you done to grow the audience? What worked? what didn’t?
I’m now 16 months in, and I’ve just reached 7,500 subscribers. It took 5 months to cross 1,000. Growth saw sizeable upticks when I launched on Product Hunt (#1 Product of the day), did cross promotions with other relevant newsletters, and got shoutouts from people with large followings on LinkedIn, Twitter, and even TikTok.
Overall, what paid off – beyond writing the best work I possibly could – was consistency, and a high frequency (twice per week until recently, now once a week). Word of mouth keeps growth inching up, and a few research insights that really resonated gave a few nice bumps to growth.
But I’m still looking for consistent tactics I should really double down on. To do that, my short-term focus right now is to clarify my positioning and marketing strategy. That will give me a much clearer idea of which marketing channels and tactics (e.g. paid ads, guest posts, referral programs) I should focus on.
There’s only so much time in the week and it’s easy to jump from one great-seeming tactic to another, which then quickly overwhelms you. I need a clearer guiding star to better prioritize. It’s what I preach to my consulting clients and also what I need to improve for Ariyh.
What’s your big goal for Ariyh? How does it fit in with your other projects?
Ariyh’s newsletter is just the start. It’s a means to an end. It allows me to build an audience and bootstrap some revenue while I gradually build a database of the best practical research insights for marketers out there.
When I have a large enough audience and revenue I will build a platform where you can easily find the relevant recommendations, when you need them.
For example, say you’re designing a referral program or want to improve yours. You go to Ariyh, choose that option, and easily find what exactly you should do to maximise its effectiveness. And you do so based on the latest evidence, not using some biased content marketing article based on questionable data.
From there, I see almost unlimited opportunities. I could expand into other research areas beyond marketing (e.g. HR, leadership, sustainability), or create a community where marketing scientists and marketing managers can easily collaborate. There’s so much that still needs to be done in this space.
I’m obsessed with other peoples’ process – how does the newsletter come together? What’s your workflow? What tools do you use? Who else is involved?
Every week I use an RSS feed to review the research papers being published in the main scientific journals. Those amount to about 400 per month. Occasionally, I quickly review lesser known journals to see if something interesting (and solid) has been published there. In total, we’re talking about more than 10,000 marketing studies being published each year. Sometimes, professors directly send me their studies when they publish them.
I then collect the best and most practically useful studies in a spreadsheet and categorize them. I select research that is applicable to most marketers, is based on solid data and experiments, and has a significant practical impact. This comes down to about 1% of research published. Some papers are open access (anyone can read the full paper for free). When they’re not, I’m either in direct contact with the scientists and they send it to me, or I purchase it (usually $30-35 per PDF).
It may sound surprising, but at Google we used spreadsheets for almost everything. It’s a habit that stuck with me, as it works until I’m at the scale where it’s worth automating processes with specialized tools.
Then, I write it up in a Google Doc following the format I developed (i.e. Recommendation, Effect, Why this happens, Limitations, Steps to implement Source, etc.). After a few days I review it and edit it, and schedule it in Substack. After finding a study, preparing each 3min practical insight takes a full day or usually more.
What’s your business model for Ariyh?
Currently, I earn revenue through a sponsorship slot in each newsletter and by giving personalized marketing recommendations to companies based on the latest evidence.
I plan to sell paid products directly to my audience, but I haven’t jumped into that yet because I want to get it right. I’m still developing clear answers to questions like “What’s the most valuable product I could sell?”.
Then, assuming I communicate the value clearly and correctly, selling it should not be a problem. Ariyh increases your revenues and profits, so it’s an investment with a direct and clear return.
What big idea would you love to work on if you had unlimited time and money?
I’d love to make all scientific research publicly accessible. And when I mean accessible, that doesn’t only mean allowing anyone to read a research paper for free, it also means ‘translating’ it piece into an easily readable summary (what I’m doing with Ariyh) and educating people into how the scientific method works (e.g. there’s never 100% certainty about anything, correlation is not causation).
I think this would go a long way in detoxifying and improving our world, and making fake or opinionated news a thing of the past (e.g. debates about climate change or minimum wages shouldn’t be driven by ‘beliefs’, but by hard evidence).