Leaning Into Brand: Capturing Whitespace and Category Leadership the Zillow Way
Jeremy Wacksman, CMO of Zillow, shares how the company’s media strategy evolved over time from pure organic to paid awareness in building the leading brand in real estate.
Zillow was launched in 2006 with a simple yet bold idea — to build the world’s largest home-related marketplace and transform the way people bought real estate. The company immediately took off, growing largely through word-of-mouth, but it was paid media and advertising that enabled Zillow to build a nationally recognized brand and fuel the sustained and rapid growth it has experienced for years.
- Zillow’s evolution from organic to paid awareness
- Pattern recognition: What opportunity did Zillow see, why did the team decide to “really lean into brand?”
- Performance TV 101:
- Getting started
4. Linear / OTT / Video landscape
Below is the full transcript.
Dave: This is Dave Yuan, General Partner at TCV. I have today, here, Jeremy Wacksman, CMO of Zillow Group. Jeremy has been a huge friend of the firm. Zillow is a shining star in our portfolio. We were seed investors, late-stage private investors, and more recently, public investors. Every day, every quarter, we’re just amazed with how you guys are executing over there. So, I’m very excited that we’re part of that story.
Jeremy also, as an individual, represents us on the board of Rover.com, a fast growth, super interesting marketplace business up in Seattle. And Jeremy has been an advisor at Dollar Shave Club, which recently exited, and more recently has joined GoFundMe as an advisor. So, a huge friend of the firm, excited to have you today, and grateful for your being in our ecosystem.
Jeremy: Absolutely excited to be here and to talk about it.
Dave: Maybe to get started, for those who are a little less familiar with Zillow, can you tell us the founding story and maybe take it from a marketing lens?
Jeremy: Yeah, happy to. So many people know Zillow, but Zillow was founded in 2006, really on the mission that we’re still on today, which is to build the world’s largest home-related marketplace, help everyone make decisions about home, and about the places they call home. And it was founded by some folks who had done Expedia, Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink, who were buying homes and were amazed that there really just wasn’t data transparency on the internet around how to buy and sell homes.
So in 2006 we launched with what we called the Zestimate, our starting point home value on every home in the country, and the sort of marketing lens on the story is it’s been a long journey of just building marketing on top of a great product. So, we launched the site, I think in February 2006, and we crashed the site, because the initial product, the Zestimate, was so provocative and interesting that the traffic was so much bigger than we could have fathomed. And we had millions of users on day one, and that was really the early history of the company and its growth was fantastic, products amplified by PR and word of mouth.
And then, phase two of the company, as social media got going, we were really early pioneers on how to tell our story through social. And, Dave, you love to reference that Spencer is one of the most, avid social media CEOs, and I think that DNA that he brought as our CEO really transformed how we thought about building our brand. And so we grew a lot on word of mouth and on PR, and on social. And then as the company pivoted towards mobile, mobile became our next growth engine. So, right around 2009, 2010, when Steve Jobs was holding up that first iPhone and that first App Store, we were a desktop only company. We had no mobile traffic, we were a search engine that you used on your laptop. And fast forward just a few years, we’re entirely a mobile business, about 75% of our business and our traffic is mobile. We went mobile first a long time ago, and really bet the company to pivot, and that drove a lot of our growth.
So that early phase was really organic, and we got to 10, 20 million users on the backs of really no paid media, and just really a great product, and really great word of mouth, and really great social amplification.
Dave: Yeah, which is stunning, right? Real estate is a super lucrative market, and really competitive online, and you were able to get to, was it number two or number one, in terms of online viewership, with zero paid marketing?
Jeremy: Yeah, I think we did get to number one in the category at the time. The category was obviously a lot smaller, really with no advertising.
Dave: Right, pretty stunning, which brings us to the next topic. You talked to the progression up to 2009, 2010. You went public in 2011, and in that interim period, there was a pretty big inflection point. You took a hard look at the brand landscape and decided to really lean into brand. And it was a big inflection point from a marketing standpoint, in the sense that you did it with TV. And so before we get into TV, which obviously is quite different than some of the channels that you pursued historically, let’s talk about brand for a second. Let’s talk about what you saw in terms of the opportunity to build a brand. What tangibly brand meant to you, what tangibly you were lacking at the point, so what was the opportunity, and why you thought there was a white space?
Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny to hear you frame it, and it makes sense that an investor frames it as a pretty big departure or pivot point. But from a marketer’s lens, it was actually a very natural evolution, and the opportunity, I think, which I’ll get into, is why. So that early phase was really amplifying great product through organic channels and through word of mouth and social. The opportunity that presented itself even though we had a lot of traffic to our website, and we had a lot of people who could name us late in the process, we were facing two challenges. One was this is a very episodic category, people are new into it every year, and they couldn’t name anybody. So even though we were number one in the category, when you looked at a brand awareness study, the vast majority of people would say, “Don’t know,” or, “I can’t name one.” Or even a Google or an Amazon, because they just couldn’t come up with a brand to talk about. So the white space was that new category entrance or people starting to shop for homes had no idea who to go to.
Of course, they found us, often through Google or through other means, or from a friend telling them as they got going. But that early category entrance piece was up for grabs. And then, the second piece of that is, we have this great product and this great fast-growing business model, that as soon as you told people about it, they want to check it out. And they checked it out, and they loved it, and they used it more. And so that goes back to that founding principle of the best marketing starts with great product. Over that time, we had built this great product for home shoppers to fall in love with and find a home and, ultimately, find a professional, and we really just needed to tell more of them about it. This combination of the white space for new category entrance that didn’t know who to go to, and this great product if you could get the word out more. I mean, if you ask yourself what problem are you trying to solve? Advertising is the best tool to solve those two problems.
Dave: And the form of advertising that you chose to build this brand was TV, and I think you’re right. As an investor, we do think about TV being very, very different than some of the digital channels you described. TV, can be hard to measure. There’s big upfront cost both with creative and just getting a size of campaign that can show signal from noise. TV is not necessarily the most intuitive channel to go pursue given your history; what got you interested? Why did you think you could make it work?
Jeremy: Two things on why we started with TV. One was back to that question of what problem are you trying to solve? And in our case, we were trying to solve top of mind awareness and we were trying to solve helping introduce people to a brand that could meet the needs they had, these emotional and rational needs around buying a home. Like you said, it’s a big category. And when we looked at, hey, what are the tools in a marketer’s toolbox to solve these problems? Brand building and in mediums in which you can tell a story to help deliver that brand became really important, and TV was then, and is still one of the best mechanisms to do that.
And then the second piece you talked about, a lot of times when folks get tripped up is it’s “hard to measure,” or it’s “hard to get started.” I like to say it’s not hard to measure, it’s just different to measure. You actually can measure it almost precisely as some of your digital efforts, but it’s just a very different muscle inside of the organization. It’s a very different data set and skill set, and so you maybe need to lean more heavily on partners or agencies to get you started, and you need to have a much clearer point of view on exactly what you’re trying to solve. But to me, it’s a different measurement harness than one that you can’t measure.
Dave: I’d love to dive into that in more detail, but at the time, when TV was a new channel to you, how did you ultimately get conviction that you could make it economic? Sight, sounds, and motion are great ways of creating awareness, a great way of communicating brand. How did you solve for the economics piece when you’re just initially thinking through TV?
Jeremy: We tested our way into it. And we did, effectively, A/B test taking a set of markets to learn something, and taking a set of testing controls on message. So I would say the way we got started was design a task, design an experiment, be really clear on what you’re trying to learn and you’re not going to learn everything first. That’s one piece. The other piece was we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we wanted to stay, but I think where a lot of folks get tripped up is they actually spend all the time on the question “How are you going to measure it? What are you going to measure? How’s the math going to work? How are you going to gain its profitability?” And you have to answer all that, but you have to spend just as much time answering that question in a medium like TV, where it is sight, sound, and motion. And it is a chance to tell a story. What story are you going to tell, and what message is going to resonate, and both link your brand back to the consumer, and help them think about taking the action you want them to take. And I would say we’d spent as much time on both sides of that. We spent a lot of time building a test, but we also spent a lot of time doing research and getting inside the hearts and minds of consumers to figure out what’s the right benefit and message, because we had never done that before.
Dave: Right, right. It sounds like you had a hunch, you took a risk, and you allocated resources to put initial test budgets to work, and then, validated it. Just give me a sense of the quantum. Like how much are we talking here? How much do you think a brand today if they had a similar hunch on TV, and needed to prove it out to their management team and to their board, how much would that cost? Is it a million, five million, 10 million, or something less?
Jeremy: Yeah, I mean, and I’ll give you the “It depends” answer, which is always hard. But the biggest reason it depends, if you’re thinking about why they do this, is it depends on how big the business is that you’re trying to move. So I would say just rough ballpark, it’s the companies that I’ve worked with, it’s typically more in the one to five than the 10 plus, but it gets bigger as you’re on top of a bigger business, where to get that signal and the noise you talked about, you have to create a bigger wave, and you have to be able to be sure, it takes a little bit more money.
Somewhere in that one to five range, and it can be a little less if it’s a smaller business trying to get started, it can be a little more if you’re trying to move a bigger needle, or see a bigger signal. Because back to your point from earlier on about how do you see a signal, when we got started, that was the first question we were trying to answer. It was just, “Can we see a signal or a wave coming through the data?” And let’s leave no doubt that we can definitely see a signal, and then we’ll go to work on the efficacy, and the ROI, and the potential.
Dave: That’s super helpful. So you get your team on board, you get your board on board for one to five million, or whatever the initial upfront is. Let’s talk through the three main components I think you spoke to: What segments are you trying to hit? What’s the message? I think the second piece is creative and the third piece is testing and measurement, and the ROI math. Maybe you can start and give people the Cliffs Notes version of the process around the market research and the message.
Jeremy: Yeah, and what I find interesting as I look across other organizations is this is highly variable based on the DNA of the company, and sort of how mature they are in their customer life cycle, and their understanding of the customer and their value prop, right? Some companies are much further along in terms of really having that clearly articulated and some are not. And, honestly, at Zillow, we were a consumer company from day one, so we were never shy about consumer research and insights and trying to get inside the hearts and minds of consumers, because that’s what drives our product every day. But where we were lacking was actually thinking about how to translate that not just into the value prop — we understood what our value prop was — but in terms of how to communicate that as an effective advertising message. We just had never tried to take all the insights and thoughts we had around what made our product engaging and what people are reacting to, and how do we translate that into a category message? So it can depend, but for us, and if you had never done advertising before, understanding what your users are doing is a little bit different from understanding how your users are going to react to a message.
Dave: Right that’s interesting. So it sounds like you were very tight on the value prop, but you had some learnings in terms of how to communicate it for this medium. What were some of the biggest surprises or the most non-intuitive aspects of communicating through TV? What surprised you about the messaging?
Jeremy: Maybe the way I’ll answer that, is where do I see folks get wrong? One thing is trying to communicate too many things. A 30-second spot is really just one line to people, consumers can really remember kind of one thing, so what is that clear single communication you’re really trying to leave them with. That’s one.
For us, the other piece that was maybe non-intuitive, but is obviously intuitive in hindsight, was that people were looking for a brand to speak to both, the emotional and rational needs in the category, and there wasn’t a brand doing that. And that’s obviously born out as very obvious in hindsight five or six years later, but at the time, there were no brands talking to them. And so they didn’t really know what this category was, so our job was to help introduce what the category was to them, more so than to say, “What made us different or what made us interesting?”
Dave: Right, particularly the emotion of this… I was chatting with my partner, Jay, who’s on your board, and he described when you first walked through the initial creative, apparently in the boardroom there was no dry eye. So you obviously nailed it on the creative. Tell us a little bit about how the process of getting the creative right.
Jeremy: Creative is an art, and it’s an art more than it’s a science. We were fortunate to work with a great team and, frankly, to get it really right the first time, and there’s a lot of folks, I think, that struggle, even the best laid brief and insights can then translate into a creative that either does just an okay job or does a poor job. And so we did everything we could to paint the target, right? The insights you talked about like what you do for research, and how do you figure out what you want to say, that’s really just painting a target for your creative team, and then we were just really fortunate, I think, to nail creative platform early, and we’ve really been able to build on and evolve from it from day one.
Dave: Super tactically, in the creative process, did one spot emerge? Or did it come down to the one of two or one of three candidates?
Jeremy: Yeah. And this is really where I go back to the whole test and learn framework, we could have really been in analysis/paralysis mode around, and I definitely see people get into analysis/paralysis mode around trying to nail that one spot. We treat it like a test and we said, “We have this insight, this is a swing.” We like the swing. We looked at a couple of different directions, and we picked the one we liked. We felt great about it, but if we’re wrong, it’s a test, and we’ll evaluate why it didn’t work, and maybe we’ll evolve the creatives. So it kind of freed us up to take a swing without having to think about, hitting a home run, and then it turns out we ended up hitting a home run, but we weren’t evaluating it that way going in. And I think that freedom of test and learn really, culturally, put us in a good place to get something out.
Dave: Right, one of the things I see… what my companies struggle with is they have two candidates and there’s one candidate that just tugs at the emotional heart strings and is the clear, I guess, intuitive or gut winner. And the other creative is one that does well with market research groups or sampling. If you were in that situation, if you were CMO, which do you go with? You go with the data or you go with your gut?
Jeremy: You have to use both, is kind of the answer. Market research can be helpful, but it is not the end-all be-all. And if you’re a crutch to what users say in a focus group room or a copy test, you can definitely end up with the wrong decision. So we use market research much more to validate kind of hypothesis we already have rather than to drive the decision. And in some cases, one thing that I’ve talked to some companies about is, “Do you do the market research before or after you’ve done a test? If you have a strong enough gut on whether the communication is working, what is market research going to help tell you? Is it going to answer a question for you? Is it going to resolve a concern for you? Or not?” And I think that’s where people really get tripped up, is if they use it as the only input rather than just an input.
Dave: Got it. And then let’s close it out with understanding your testing framework. How did you build the testing framework so that you could really assess lift and incrementality?
Jeremy: Yeah, I would say maybe two high level things to think about there. One is, know what you’re trying to measure and don’t try to measure everything at once, right? So I was a big fan, and I am still a big fan of that cliché of crawl, walk, run. But, see if you can see the major and macro signal, and can you do some math on that, and then overtime, can you refine that versus trying to really get everything perfect. Like kind of celebrate that you’re not going to be able to get it perfect, but can you get it directionally right, and can you improve from there?
And then the other big macro piece is know that the first time in is actually your best time to have kind of a clean read against your organic business. So whether you do an A/B test, whether you do a local/national test, whether you do an on/off test, however you do a test, you have this great pool of data leading up to it, and learn everything you can from that data and build a really good harness to guess what’s going to happen, and then learn from that.
And so once you’ve done the test, don’t only evaluate what happens in the test, but also evaluate how did you set up the evaluation framework, and you go and improve how are you measuring things based on the test itself, not just spending time on what does the test tell you.
Dave: Got it. And your first point about being super intentional about what you’re testing for or what you’re measuring. Are there particular signals that you think are key for people early in the learning process around TV?
Jeremy: Well, I mean it depends on your business, right? But I assume we’re talking mostly to internet brands where you can measure most of the entirety of your business online.
Dave: That’s right.
Jeremy: I think you’re just thinking about how do I measure the user impact and the demand I’ve created and the conversion that I care about, and you’re also trying to measure how do I think about the brand impact that I’m creating, and I think you set up a test to measure both of those things. And for every business, the user impact and the user activity is going to be different, and whether that impact is immediate or takes time to happen is going to be variable. You have to understand what’s happening, organically, in that business and then model out what do you want to have happen.
Dave: Yup. And just to steal a little bit from your years of experience doing this, were there specific false positives or false negatives that people just ought to be aware of as, particularly, early in the process?
Jeremy: We were lucky to not run into this problem. I would say seasonality can be hard, especially, for young businesses. And younger businesses may have an initial view of what seasonality looks like in their kind of, early adopter phase, and that seasonality may not be the same as your business grows.
So we were, I guess, lucky in that we waited until we were a little more matured to do this, so we had a pretty good handle on what our seasonality looked like. But, how your business adapts to seasonality is one of the biggest inputs to the kind of a traffic pattern or a conversion pattern, and if that changes even a little bit, that can really muck with your experimentation. I’ve seen some businesses where seasonality used to look this way, but now that we’re bigger, we’re actually seeing a different behavior. And then, if you’re running an advertising test on top of that, is that because of the advertising or not? So I think that’s one of the big gushes I’ve seen a couple of times, and I think really the only way to solve for things like that is you have to just have multiple tests, you have to have multiple swings at trying to figure it out.
Dave: Awesome. So fast forward to 2017, how big of a channel is TV for you, and are there any major differences from now versus 2011? Has the market changed materially?
Jeremy: We had spent a lot of time in the early days, and maybe this is a good way to answer that question. We intentionally did really just TV plus another channel or two. And now, TV is just brand digital for us. And, yes, linear offline television is still our really big media channel for us, but we think about the campaign as TV in many, many forms, right? The traditional cable, broadcast, over the top video, video inside of Facebook, direct, video inside a publisher, right? We think about it across a mix of channels, and we have built a framework to evaluate the efficacy of both in terms of how we buy and how is that doing across all of that. So TV is still big, but how we think about TV and how we think about the creative we build and where it goes has evolved into just effectively sight, sound, and motion in a bunch of different places.
Dave: Yeah, the size and the opportunity of linear TV has, I think, surprised most digital marketers. Looking forward, do you think that goes away or slows down at any extent? It’s been the market that’s larger than people expect and it’s actually growing (is my understanding) versus shrinking. What’s your take?
Jeremy: I think it’s a popular and fun narrative for media that a channel is dying, right, or the death of X, but the reality is even with the declines that are happening, and I think there is maybe 20% of households are now, “cord-nevers”. 80% are still paying for something and seeing something and the consumption is happening. If you’re trying to reach a massive audience, you have to go with where is that massive audience. And where are they spending their media time? And to your point, regardless of what you think the trend line is, there’s a really big percentage of people that are watching, kind of classic linear television, and they’re watching it for many hours a day. And so that’s still in a media environment that exists for reach and is one of the best environments to tell a story. So it ends up being a really great channel to solve people’s problems. Now, the trend on where it goes over a long period of time I think is what everyone likes to prognosticate about, but today, in the here and now, it’s a great channel.
Dave: Great. Maybe last question, Zillow was obviously incredibly successful across a whole number of fronts, but TV was a big driver in brand awareness and over category leadership. Where does this not make sense? Where are the hallmarks of businesses that should take TV seriously — digital businesses that should take TV seriously and think through some of the same elements that you did in 2011?
Jeremy: You have to ask yourself, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve, right? And I think that the places where I see folks get tripped up is they start with a tactic, right? The tactic is, well, someone else did TV and it worked for them, so it should work for us. And they aren’t asking the question of what’s the problem, and then, therefore, what should the strategy be? And maybe the problem they are trying to solve is not top of mind awareness or increasing reach to a segment of the population that hasn’t heard of them for the right reason, or switching from another competitor, right? Like there’s a set of problems that brand building and brand awareness can solve. And not every business is at a point where that’s the right tool in the toolbox. So I think it always starts with, if you can articulate the problem you are trying to solve, then it becomes a more obvious conversation around, “Is this the right channel or the right tactic to use?”
Dave: Awesome. Thanks so much, Jeremy. Really enjoyed it and super helpful for both our portfolio and other folks who are listening today. So really, really appreciate the time, Jeremy.
Jeremy: Thanks for having me.
Dave: All right. Take care.
Jeremy: You too.
Originally published at www.tcv.com on July 26, 2017.