Jeremy Wacksman is the CMO of Zillow Group, an online real estate marketplace for renters, home buyers, homeowners, and realtors to find and share information about properties. Jeremy oversees marketing as well as product management and strategy for Zillow Group and its portfolio of brands within the real estate industry.
Prior to joining Zillow, Jeremy drove marketing and product management for Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE and consumer mobile efforts, where he grew digital distribution for Xbox and led product strategy for a mobile incubation group. He also previously worked in product management and sales for Trilogy Software, a pioneer in ecommerce software.
Jeremy is on the boards of directors for Rover.com and Room 77. Jeremy holds an M.B.A from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern and a B.S. in engineering from Purdue University.
Here are some of the topics discussed in this episode.
Obsess About The Persona You’re Serving
It’s essential to develop the deepest understanding you possibly can of your target personas. A complex knowledge of their pain points, motivations, and frustrations will help generate the empathy you need to continually create value for your users.
“If you are obsessed about the persona you’re serving, the consumer you’re trying to attract, the customer you’re trying to engage with who’s using your platform, it forces you to constantly challenge assumptions and find new ways to solve problems because you have empathy for what your user is trying to do. And the relentless piece comes in making it not just marketing’s problem. And I think a big part of marketing and product’s goal is to help everyone in the organization have an understanding and an obsession around your customer.”
Once your and your marketing team have internalized this deep understanding of your personas, it will be easier to communicate and foster this obsession among the rest of the departments within your organization.
The Two Phases of Retention
Depending on the nature of your product, it’s likely that retention goes beyond keeping a paying customer in one component of your product. With the multiple overlapping personas Zillow focusses on, there are two stages of retention.
“Yeah, and retention for us is really two phases. It’s retention within the life stage – so, when you’re a buyer, you may be spending two years, two buying cycles, actually buying. And we have folks that are using Zillow across multiple calendar years because they haven’t actually found a house yet or it didn’t work out that year. So there’s retention in that segment and how do we build the right tools to help keep their search warm, alert them of the right way to learn from what they’re doing when they change habits and they start looking in a different area? Are we smart and do we respond to that? When we bring them back in the next shopping cycle are we recognizing them and delivering the right value for them?
And then your question of how do you think about retention across life stages… ‘I rented this year and now I’m not renting again for two years,’ or ‘I bought and I may not buy for a decade.’ And that goes back to just providing tools and access for free. So you had a great experience; that experience is our brand impression that brings you back. A buyer will actually almost relentlessly check their ‘zestimate’, their home value of what they bought for months and years after they bought it to keep tabs on the market, and that data we have becomes a really great retention tool as they think about going to sell or go in to make that next purchase.”
Retention within one life stage is different versus retention across require different approaches. Incorporating a tool like Zillow’s ‘zestimate’ feature can help keep your users engaged while they are between different life stages.
Don’t Get Paralyzed on Data
Analysis paralysis is one of the biggest challenges we face as marketers, especially with the depth of data we have available on a daily basis. One way to avoid this is frequent experimentation and knowing when follow your intuition.
“You can get paralyzed on data, which is why we’re a big experimentation culture. It’s like you may have a bunch of data sources that might give you one or two or three different answers and you could run an experiment that might give you a fourth answer. So you have to use data but you have to use your gut. And if you don’t use some of both, you could sit on your hands for far too long.”
Allowing for this level of frequent experimentation also requires enabling you managers to make decisions on their own. If your organization has fostered a relentless obsession with your personas across your entire team, it’s easier to count on their decisions delivering real value for your audiences.
Note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ander: So one of my favorite things about doing this podcast, speaking to various CMOs, VPs – whoever they might be – is talking to the marketing leaders who are working with organizations that are valuable to me as an individual. And Zillow quite literally put a roof over my head.
Jeremy: Good to hear!
Ander: And many other people. Jeremy Wacksman, CMO of Zillow, thank you so much for taking the time to have me here into your office with this gorgeous view of Puget Sound here in Seattle. Thanks.
Jeremy: No problem. Thanks for having us. We’re happy to do it.
Ander: Yeah, awesome. So, people know about Zillow. People know a little bit about why Zillow has become such a huge deal over the past… I guess it would be thirteen years now.
Jeremy: Almost, yeah.
Ander: Which is really, really cool. But let’s hear about you. What is the sixty-second nutshell, or whatever you want to call it, of your professional journey?
Jeremy: Sure. I always describe my professional journey as one long walk off the engineering reservation. I actually started my career in computer science and I thought I was going to be a developer coming out of undergrad back in the Dot Com 1.0 days in Austin, Texas for a company called Trilogy, which is a big part of the Dot Com 1.0 boom. And I quickly A) figured out I wasn’t a great engineer, but B) kind of fell in love with the product side of things.
Ander: [chuckles] Yeah, yeah.
Jeremy: And so I quickly got into helping sell and then build and strategy around product and that led me to grad school in marketing and a focus on product in marketing. There was a stint at Xbox and now at Zillow.
And so the constant in that career has been kind of consumer technology and consumer technology brands and services. And it’s just been kind of an evolution from the tech side to more of the marketing side.
Ander: Mm-hmm. It’s very interesting that you started out as an engineer. I was at the Seattle Interactive Conference over the past few days. Really, really fascinating stuff. Great, great content. And I don’t remember who said this, but one person was talking about the CMTO, the Chief Marketing Technical Officer.
Jeremy: Yeah, I haven’t heard that title but I do agree with that theory that marketing is becoming a technical discipline. And, you know, when we talk about the future of marketing, you know, the future of marketing is absolutely data science and engineering and understanding the data that you have. So I think the idea that technology kind of permeates all facets of an organization is absolutely true and it’s sort of where we’re all headed.
Ander: And on that note – you touched on it a little bit but I’d love to hear more about this – how would you describe your marketing philosophy? And how has that changed over the course of your career?
Jeremy: My philosophy, I think, is pretty simple. It’s kind of two things: one is relentlessly obsess about your customer.
Ander: ‘Relentlessly obsess.’
Ander: Love it.
Jeremy: And the second one is always be learning. And those kind of go hand-in-hand, right? If you are obsessed about the persona you’re serving, the consumer you’re trying to attract, the customer you’re trying to engage with who’s using your platform, it forces you to constantly challenge assumptions and find new ways to solve problems because you have empathy for what your user is trying to do. And the relentless piece comes in making it not just marketing’s problem. And I think a big part of marketing and product’s goal is to help everyone in the organization have an understanding and an obsession around your customer. And one of the reasons Zillow has been so successful is that was our founding DNA. You know, we were built from Rich and Lloyd who founded the company with a focus on turning the lights on around the data in the real estate industry to empower consumers to make better decisions about homes.
So we started with that DNA of a focus on the customer. And then the second piece was to just always be learning – especially in marketing, but really in any discipline. You know, the marketing landscape changes so fast. You can’t A) rest on your laurels, but B) anything you did last year may or may not work the same way the next year. And the next tool, the next strategy, the next tactic is always right around the corner and so you need a team that has a growth mindset and is always willing to test and re-test and kind of challenge conventional thinking to find the ways to grow.
Ander: So how do you create that team? How do you foster the development of a marketing team that lives up to that?
Jeremy: For us, it actually rides hand-in-hand with the core values we have here at Zillow. And a couple of those that I think really point towards the culture of the types of people that make great marketers is that focus on always be learning. We have a philosophy around ‘move fast, think big.’
Which means data is great, but let’s not wait for perfect data before making a decision. Can we run an experiment, can we A/B test, can we learn something quickly to help make a better decision faster? And another one of our philosophies is that Zillow is a team sport and that no one channel or team or function can solve a problem by themselves. Many of these challenges are cross-functional in nature and so you need a team of folks that are curious to learn and solve problems together. And if you all are focusing on the customer goal or the problem you’re trying to solve, you have the best chance of finding the solution or finding the right outcome.
Ander: Awesome. You said something interesting a few moments ago about the internal function of a marketing team – making sure that the company actually knows what the product is that all the engineers are building, that everyone’s trying to sell, that all the customers are using. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?
Jeremy: Yeah, I mean, I think you articulate it well. Our job is to win the hearts and minds of our consumers and help them find Zillow and use Zillow and keep coming back to Zillow.
Jeremy: But in that job, it’s also helping understand what those consumers are and translating that for the organization. What I was referring to is understanding your customer is not marketing’s job; it’s the company’s job. And I think marketing can play a role in helping build the tools that everyone can use to understand the customer, but then it’s also up to us to make sure that those tools are used across the organization.
Ander: Right. ‘Understand the customer’ is something that in an early-stage company, an early-stage startup, you spend a lot of time doing. But I see some companies and I actually wonder are they still doing that persona development at, you know, post-IPO stage or when they are more mature? And clearly you guys are doing that.
Jeremy: Yeah, I mean, we’re sitting in a conference room where you’re actually looking at our personas on the wall, right?
Ander: I was looking at those earlier. Such cool graphics. I really like those.
Jeremy: That’s an artifact. That’s a cultural artifact that allows the entire company to rally around those personas. And it does. It sets that tone that we’re always… and it goes back to that growth mindset of ‘always be learning.’
Jeremy: That the persona you wrote down three years ago, maybe 90% of it is the same but what’s changed? What’s the new development? What’s the new change in consumer behavior, you know? And in our housing industry, affordability has become a big challenge and inventory is a big challenge and the buyer stress is up. And so how does that impact people who are using our site to try and buy and what tools can we build for them and how can we actually talk to them in our marketing channels, knowing that that’s what’s going on today. And that may not have been what’s going on three or four years ago.
Ander: Right. Exactly. Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about real estate and talk about the many unique challenges that the real estate industry is facing when it comes to marketing.
Ander: What are some of those challenges?
Jeremy: I mean, the two things that make real estate really unique, if you think about it as a consumer marketer, is the buying process is an incredibly long time frame, right? So, you’re attribution window, if you will, could be years. In many cases it’s definitely months. The average person spends 4-6 months shopping for a home. And the other piece is that – and this is maybe true of all categories – people have rational needs, but they are by definition emotional creatures.
Jeremy: And that is heightened in real estate where you have this trade-off between wanting to dream and wanting to fall in love with a house and then quickly, once you fall in love with a house, flipping into rational mode of, ‘Can I afford it? Can I get it? What are all the steps I have to go through?’ So it’s a complex, long journey. Not everyone proceeds the same way and you have to understand who people are and what state they’re in to help attract them at the right time or put the right tool in front of them or help them along their journey.
Jeremy: And for me, the constant in all that is sort of… it goes back to understanding your customer, but how do you bring that to life? It’s data science and it’s personalization. And having the site and the mobile technology and the marketing campaigns get smarter and learn who you are and help nudge you along your journey or help learn from what you did last time to sort of get a better experience the next time because you’re going to be shopping for a while and it’s going to be a stressful process. And our tools need to be a helper to you and a way to help get you through that process.
Ander: One thing that I find fascinating with consumer-oriented products that have a very long buying cycle is retention and getting people to use the product again.
Ander: And I think, you know, in my personal experience, I found an apartment on Zillow. I’m going to use Zillow again to find another apartment at some point because the experience worked for me. How do you guys address that?
Jeremy: Yeah, and retention for us is really two phases. It’s retention within the life stage – so, when you’re a buyer, you may be spending two years, two buying cycles, actually buying. And we have folks that are using Zillow across multiple calendar years because they haven’t actually found a house yet or it didn’t work out that year. So there’s retention in that segment and how do we build the right tools to help keep their search warm, alert them of the right way to learn from what they’re doing when they change habits and they start looking in a different area? Are we smart and do we respond to that? When we bring them back in the next shopping cycle are we recognizing them and delivering the right value for them?
Jeremy: And then your question of how do you think about retention across life stages… ‘I rented this year and now I’m not renting again for two years,’ or ‘I bought and I may not buy for a decade.’ And that goes back to just providing tools and access for free. So you had a great experience; that experience is our brand impression that brings you back. A buyer will actually almost relentlessly check their ‘zestimate’, their home value of what they bought for months and years after they bought it to keep tabs on the market, and that data we have becomes a really great retention tool as they think about going to sell or go in to make that next purchase.
Ander: Now, obviously, it’s not just about the buyers though. I mean, I’m looking at these personas up here and you guys have the renter, the buyer, the home-owner, the seller… there are all these different people with very different motivations for using the product.
Ander: How do you structure your marketing team to focus on all of those personas and give them the attention they deserve?
Jeremy: Well, what’s interesting about the real estate industry is you may exhibit the
behavior of a buyer, a home-owner, or a seller – let’s take those…
Jeremy: But you are all of those things at once, right?
Ander: Huh. Yeah, yeah.
Jeremy: The majority of sellers are also buying and so a seller is both a home-owner because they own the home and they’re a buyer because they’re buying a new home. But the idea of the personas is to be able to think about the need states and the mindset that that person is in at that time. And that’s the key for marketing and product is, ok, you may be trying to sell your house right now but if you’re shopping for a home, you’re shopping like a buyer.
Jeremy: And are we building the right tools for you to shop like a buyer? Now, you may come back and think about selling your house, and the value of your house, and how do you make that decision, and then you’re thinking like a seller and we need to help you along that journey. So you may be the same person, but you may be acting like three different personas across your transaction.
Ander: What is your favorite marketing channel? And, you know, obviously at this point, you’re not running Facebook ads or anything like that, you know? There’s other people here who are doing those kinds of things. But what’s something that you really enjoy if you had to pick one channel for acquisition or retention or whatever it might be?
Jeremy: Yeah, my favorite channel is the one that works. [chuckles]
Ander: That’s a good answer!
Jeremy: I mean, I say that as a joke but the point is, like, they evolve.
Jeremy: I mean, we’re sitting here five or six years ago and Facebook didn’t work well, pre-IPO Facebook. The targeting tools weren’t there, right? But only if you were relentlessly re-trying and testing new things did you find and make Facebook work and work well and then you could run to it. And so our campaign today, you know, has many channels in it. I mean, the offline traditional stuff that’s worked for decades, in terms of TV and radio… but the online stuff evolves quickly and Facebook and Google are big pieces of that. But for me, it’s about figuring out how they work together and then re-testing and back testing the assumptions and what you did to figure out, ‘Is what worked last quarter still working in this quarter?’
Ander: Gotcha. Where does advertising fit into all of that for you guys?
Jeremy: Many of those channels are advertising for us. The thing about our category that lends itself well to advertising, it is a life-stage category and there are new people coming into the category every year. And a big reason advertising is a big part of our marketing mix is because teaching people that the category exists and teaching people that they can start their home search online is still a big job of both us as the leader in the category and the category itself.
You know, many folks who haven’t bought a home in a decade, we weren’t around the last time they bought a home.
Ander: Right, right.
Jeremy: So even though we are a household name to you, we are not a household name to them yet.
Ander: How important is it to become that household name as a brand?
Jeremy: It’s very strategic to help be at the front of the home shopping process so that they start their home search with us. And, as you experienced, if you have a great product and you bring people to the front door and they have a great experience with it, that product and your CRM becomes the best wind back. Experience in that brings the consumers back hopefully for life.
Ander: Yeah, I would certainly hope so. What is something that has surprised you about your role here as the CMO of Zillow?
Jeremy: The surprises come, I think, in the category in that you look at what the rational needs of the consumer are and the emotional needs that they have and how do you tease out giving people what they want and helping them discover all the great data. And I think the other surprise is just that there’s far more data out there for us and for all brands than you can even sift through and the secret is trying to find the signal out of the noise of data that you have.
Jeremy: And try and build campaigns and build programs that help engage with more people out of the data that you do have.
Ander: Mm-hmm. And there is such a thing as too much data.
Ander: Especially when you’re… I mean, I think that – and most other marketers I think would agree with this – I think that having the wrong data is worse than having no data at all.
Jeremy: Possibly. And also you can get paralyzed on data, which is why we’re a big experimentation culture. It’s like you may have a bunch of data sources that might give you one or two or three different answers and you could run an experiment that might give you a fourth answer. So you have to use data but you have to use your gut. And if you don’t use some of both, you could sit on your hands for far too long.
Ander: Is there a good way to know when your gut actually comes into play? I mean, it’s kind of a counter-intuitive question when you think about it, but a lot of us, especially people who are really, really deep in these very granular pieces of data, we want that data to justify our decisions as marketers but we also know that we do need to use our gut a little bit.
Jeremy: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any perfect way to do it. I think we do it by empowering decision-making within the teams and letting them run experiments and bring back data and results and make their own decisions as much as they can. And we do it by staying close to the customer.
So you can run an experiment and a spreadsheet can tell you something and then if you sit and you listen to consumers or you watch site intercepts where people are explaining how they got there and what they’re trying to do and what works for them, that makes it real. So understanding and listening and actually watching your consumer or your customer use your product, that helps inform your gut and inform how you use the data.
Ander: Awesome. So, Zillow IPO in 2011… how does the role of the CMO change within a company after an IPO?
Jeremy: I guess I would say there’s more to do but it’s the same fundamental job. The job is still win the hearts and minds of consumers, help solve their problems and understand their needs, drive engagement with them, you know, help with the business on the advertiser’s side and make sure they come back. The channels will grow, the budgets will grow, the audiences will grow, right? Investors was an audience that wasn’t around for Zillow in 2010 and now it’s an audience that we think about. But fundamentally the job is the same. And for us, it’s because our mission hasn’t changed. I mean, our mission to build the most vibrant home-related marketplace to help all of us make home decisions… that hasn’t changed. And IPO is a liquidation event. It’s a fundraising event but, it’s just a stepping stone towards that long-term mission and when you have that ideal as a company… you know the IPO step doesn’t really change what we’re all doing. It’s just a step along the way.
Ander: Mm-hmm. And speaking of what you’re doing, what’s next for Zillow? What do we have to look forward to with what Zillow is doing and what Zillow is going to be doing in the future?
Jeremy: Yeah, I mean, we talked a little bit about it earlier. I think personalization and data science is kind of the new marketing and, you know, we see that starting to come to every channel of marketing. And when you have tens of millions of consumers every day coming and describing and using your site and asking different questions, the smarter we can be, the more personalized we can be every time you come back so that when you find your next rental, we’ve been prescriptive and helped you proactively do that.
Ander: Very cool.
Jeremy: That, for us, is what’s next. I always think about it as think about the world just before mobile and then think about the world just before, kind of, tablets. It was a single device, kind of, research search box. And now it’s like an always-on personalization service. And you have that expectation as a user. Your Zillow on your phone needs to behave the way the rest of the push-a-button, get-stuff-done apps are on your phone even though you’re going to spend months finding your rental and you have to find just what’s right for you.
So for us, understanding the data and being able to personalize your experience is, I think, the big trend.
Ander: With all of these things in mind, we’ve talked a little bit about where marketing is going. You just talked about that just now. How can we as marketers prepare for this future, especially given how many things we don’t know? I mean, there’s so many new technologies coming out. There must be, what, 5,000 different marketing technology companies out there now, or something like that?
Ander: [chuckles] It’s wild. How can we prepare for the coming future as marketers?
Jeremy: Yeah, I mean, I think just don’t get too over your skis. You can always start small and test. It’s easy to have these conversations around all the stuff that’s happening and it seems like a tsunami coming of stuff but at the end of the day, you have your goals for whatever your brand is or your customer base is for the next year, and you have a way to get from A to B. And you have to build some strategies and tactics to get there. Even when we started TV advertising, which was a capability the company didn’t have… start small and do a test.
Jeremy: And, you know, you don’t need to run all the way to PhD level, multi-touch, multi-channel attribution on day one. Just run an A/B test and see how it works and then add online to it and then another channel to it and then keep going. And, you know, five years later we have a great, well-versed media mix model and team that’s way smarter than I am to help me understand fractional attribution and incremental spend.
We didn’t start there. We got started very simply with an idea and a hypothesis and a test. And I think if you take that approach to whatever comes next, at the end of the day you have to break the problem down into how you get started.
Ander: Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Ander: Jeremy, this has been an awesome conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your insight and advice and perspectives on the industry with us and I am so happy that I got to see this wonderful view again of Puget Sound here from your office. So once again, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you and coming here to Zillow HQ here in Seattle and I really appreciate your time.
Jeremy: Great. Thanks for having me.