Building the Brand Reputation Playbook: Aligning Business Objectives to Drive Perception and Growth

Communications and marketing teams are often siloed yet need to work hand in hand to build and scale the brand perception that can hypercharge growth. In the inaugural episode of “Growth Hacks,” Kunal and Katja are joined by Gabrielle Ferree, head of public relations at OneTrust, the leading privacy, security, and data governance platform. Gabrielle reveals how she pulled in stakeholders across the company when planning a five-year anniversary campaign that celebrated the startup’s early successes, and how she aligns PR objectives with business objectives. The conversation also serves up strategy for successfully simplifying your company story, along with smart ways to work with the media. Here’s what you will learn:

  • How partnering with stakeholders throughout the organization can organically expand your campaign reach
  • How to create a PR playbook from scratch
  • The importance of aligning with C-suite business goals and marketing teams
  • Understanding the changing rhythms of newsrooms and working with media in 2021
  • Expanding the definition of communications into other arenas, including sales and HR 

For all this and much more, settle back and press play.

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja: Today, Kunal and I are joined by Gabrielle Ferree, head of public relations at OneTrust, a widely used privacy, security, and data governance technology platform. We learn from Gabrielle how her team collaborated with stakeholders across the organization to execute OneTrust’s five-year anniversary campaign, what she prioritizes when setting her communications strategy, and how she aligns with marketing and business strategy on her PR efforts.

Welcome to Growth Hacks, Gabrielle.

Gabrielle: Thanks, Katja. Thanks for having me.

Katja: Awesome. So where does this podcast find you today? Where are you?

Gabrielle: Very specifically, I’m in my daughter’s closet. I’ve learned from my favorite podcasters, when they go on vacation, they’d go in a closet for the best sound. So I’m here in Phoenix, Arizona, which is where I moved mid-pandemic, back home to be close to my family.

Katja: That’s awesome. And talking about your employer OneTrust, which is one of our portfolio companies and a leader in the trust space. How did you end up at OneTrust? What does the company do? And what do you do?

Gabrielle: Yeah. Absolutely. So OneTrust is actually the number one fastest-growing company on the Inc. 500 this year. We create a suite of technology products that help companies build trust with their customers, their employees, and the community of people who work around them. We were founded about five years ago and today have 10,000 customers, 2,000 employees, and a group of incredible investors, including TCV. Myself personally, I have a deep background in technology, PR, and communications. I worked with a lot of the OneTrust leadership team on a previous company called AirWatch, which was acquired by VMware in 2014. And now I’m leading communications, public relations, content marketing, social media and our community marketing at OneTrust.

Katja: So Gabrielle, you lead a strong team that’s working remotely. How do you drive collaboration with your team members?

Gabrielle: Yeah. First off, I think it’s important to remember that, yes, we are remote, but we still have always been a global team and have had people in a number of different offices. But one of the things I like to share with anyone who is a people manager or trying to engage and inspire a team is not to forget that these are still people. So how can you make it not just about work, but a little bit of fun? So there’s a couple of things that we do on our team. We do what we call work-from-home wins, where we talk about something what we’ve done for our mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional wellbeing that last day, just to make sure that we’re doing something besides working in our work-from-home life. Then we’ll also have a question-of-the-day, which I’ll randomly assign to someone. And we all have to sort of give our answer. Yesterday’s question was, “What is something that you used to believe for many years and then found out was not true?” which I got a lot of fun responses. And then the third is I do something called Friday fun. So we have meetings on Fridays where we do a little bit of business, but then the second part is just something completely fun, not related to work. We’ve played Scattergories. We’ve had someone make pizza virtually for us. And there’s just a lot of impact you can make when you’re giving those fun opportunities that you get in the office in a virtual sense. And I recommend any manager to try and implement some fun into their virtual meetings.

Katja: Well, thanks for the insights, Gabrielle. It looks like you got to put to the test a lot of your recommendations most recently when OneTrust celebrated its fifth-year anniversary, and you led a large campaign to celebrate that. Tell us a little bit more how you designed that campaign. Who were the stakeholders? How did you get everyone on board? And how did you think beyond communications to make this a success?

Gabrielle: One of the most incredible things about working at OneTrust is that we’ve had so many opportunities even in the last year to do a big announcement that really rallies our employees from being named the number one fastest-growing company on the Inc. 500 to our massive Series C that was spearheaded by TCV to this five-year announcement. In startup world, we think five years is a pretty big deal, and I hope that we get to 50 years. But for now, we’re very proud of our five-year milestone and didn’t look at it from just a marketing lens. We wanted to see, how is this an opportunity to thank our customers, those who’ve been there from the very beginning and those who had just joined us? How to thank our community, people within the privacy, security, and governance industry that have helped us along the way. How do we engage our employees? How do we help with recruiting? How do we say thanks to our investors?

So we brought together people from all those teams to sort of execute and hash out a plan. And what we did from the marketing communications side was build really consistent branding throughout. So we had this five-years-of-trust logo. It was included on our infographics and on our videos and on our swag that we sent to employees and community members and investors. And I think we were able to have some really great results across sales, customer acquisition, across excitement on social media and participation with our community online, as well as with our employees, and a big moment of camaraderie and in coming together, even in virtual world.

Kunal: Yeah. I love that Gabrielle. And I can tell you from a PR perspective, when Katja and I get pulled in, there’s just a lot of common myths we see where folks like yourself and Katja, and you just need to deliver really pragmatic advice. If PR were a sport, maybe you can walk us through your playbook for getting started in PR.

Gabrielle: Yeah. That’s a really great question. When it comes to a playbook, this is something at OneTrust we’re really good at mastering. When you’re growing as fast as we are, we have to create these scalable, repeatable processes that anyone can take and execute on. So the way that I would go to anyone who is starting up a PR program, a startup technology company would first be, “Where are your people? Where is your public?” Right? They may not all be reading the traditional news magazines, even though your CEO may think that’s what PR is. Your people may be on TikTok. Your people may be on Reddit. Your people may be on LinkedIn. Where are your people? And then build programs around that. I think too common people associate PR with press release. And the fact of the matter is PR is about, what do people feel when they hear your brand? What is your corporate reputation? And are you managing both the proactive and reactive communications that come with your company?

So first, find out where your people are. And then second, make sure that you are aligned with what your executive’s requirements are. Too often you’ll have a new hire or someone come in that runs in one direction, but it doesn’t align with the business goals. I think one of the biggest pieces of success I’ve had in my program at OneTrust is aligning public relations and communications efforts to marketing goals. Marketing has the budget. Marketing has the direct report into the CEO. And so when you can align your communications efforts to marketing outcomes, you are able to show even more value than the intrinsic value of, what do people think about with your brand? So then third is make a process. So write down what you’re doing, and write down how you do it. And it actually is harder than you think. If you think about your day and you’re typing out everything it is that you do to craft a pitch, find media, build a social campaign or whatever it is you’re doing, it will take you a lot of time to write it down. But as soon as you can get a process set up, then you can scale. You can bring people onto your team. You can have them replicate the way that you like to do things. And then when you get more people doing those sorts of things, then you get to think about the next challenge to tackle. And then the people you bring on to sort of follow your process may come up with new and innovative ideas to do what you were doing and improve what you’re doing even better.

Kunal: I love that. And Gabrielle, as you look back over the last 5 or 10 years, what effect has technology had on PR from your perspective?

Gabrielle: I think the best thing that has happened to PR is the ability to track the efforts a little bit better. I don’t think that it’s gotten perfect yet where you can say, “This prospect looked at this article,” or, “Interacted with this piece of content that you put out and made a business decision based off of that.” But there are certain things that you can put in place into your efforts now that can help you a little bit better understand how you’re helping build into the marketing pipeline. One of the other trends that I think is important for PR professionals to understand is just the consistently changing reality of the newsroom and how much pressure reporters are under to cover such a wide swath of type of coverage areas and how you can be even a better partner with them to deliver them really good, interesting information, really great spokespeople that help them do their job better.

Kunal: So that is a huge challenge, and I completely agree with you. Maybe you can share a story on how you tackle that.

Gabrielle: Yeah. Absolutely. One of the ways to tackle it is trying to help the reporter understand if this is a type of story that has demonstrated success. So if it’s about a topic that has already shown that it can be shared widely on social media, if you can let the reporter know that this type of topic or this type of trend has already performed well, they may be more likely to write about it since one of the metrics that they’re measured by is the amount of views or traffic that a certain article generates. That was something that I think can be a little counterintuitive. Right? If this type of concept or story has already been shared, why would anyone else want to write about it? But it’s something that works. So if you can show that this type of topic or story has good legs, then a reporter may be more willing to work with it.

Katja: Awesome. And speaking of pitching, what’s your favorite pitch?

Gabrielle: One or two sentences. My favorite pitch is the short pitch. My favorite pitch is like a good dating app intro. You want to leave them wanting more. And you want to not give everything away so they can respond.

Katja: And you don’t want to lead with, “I like your article,” because it’s pretty lame.

Kunal: I got to tell you, Gabrielle, to me, I think crafting the story is so critically important. How did you think about getting so ruthlessly simple with telling people what OneTrust does?

Gabrielle: I seem to have an opposite problem of many communicators in the sense that brevity is my magic. I have less time, but still can manage to write a shorter letter, as they say. And I think it really just goes with trying to talk with more and more people about what you do in your regular life so you can try and understand what is actually resonating. If I went up to my friends and I said, “OneTrust is the fastest-growing and most widely-used enterprise technology software to operationalize privacy, security, and data governance,” they would just look at me cross-eyed and not have any idea what I was saying.

But instead if I told them, “Look, there are certain companies on the Internet that you trust. You have no problem putting in your information on their website, buying a product from them. You think they’re doing good things for the environment. Right? My company is trying to build software that helps companies understand whether or not they’re trusted.” So how can you become more simple and speak like a human? And I think the more you practice, the more you talk to people, the more you write, the more you edit, the more likely you’ll be able to get those shorter pitches. The average reporter gets something between 50 to 500 pitches in their inbox every single day. They don’t have time to read really complicated pitches. They want to understand, “How is this relevant to my readers? And why is this an interesting story that I should cover?”

Kunal: Awesome. I would just say the other thing that Katja and I run into. So maybe I’ll ask you first, and then I’ll have Katja comment on it. But there’s just a lot of misconceptions people have about PR in general. I’m just wondering, what’s your biggest pet peeve misconception?

Gabrielle: That PR means press release. I think we as communicators do so much more than draft a press release. And the more people can realize the value that communications brings to all areas of the business and see how much of everything that we touch finds its way into what our salespeople are saying and how our support people are implementing our product and even how recruiters are trying to get more employees on, the more value that they’ll see that communications can bring.

Kunal: Awesome. Katja, I’m just curious about yours. what’s your biggest pet peeve?

Katja: Yeah. I agree with Gabrielle. One of my biggest pet peeves is that preparation for a good media interview goes a long way, and not everyone does that. And I hear a lot from reporters that they get to hear the 50th version of the same messaging that they’ve read in The Wall Street Journal. And they get on the phone with someone who gives them the same answer and make it sound like it’s new. So my biggest thing is prep for an interview. And on top of that, don’t oversell yourself. There’s nothing more off-putting when you’re trying to sell, sell, sell, but have nothing else to say.

Kunal: Got it. As we work with companies on PR, they always start strong and they have a lot of gusto and they talk about playing bigger. But it’s kind of like watching an ice cube melt. It starts strong. And then by the end, there’s nothing going on. What do you think the secret is to sustaining success in PR?

Gabrielle: You have to stay aligned with the business and understand what’s going on. The business is likely not a melting ice cube. The business is likely growing and booming and doing new and innovative things. What maybe is melting is your grasp on the innovation that’s happening or getting a seat at the table to really understand what’s going on. So I have always found, you, as a PR person, has such an incredible opportunity and that you get to work with the spokes people that’s most likely executive leadership and C-suite. Maintain and keep that relationship, continue to find ways to have a seat at the table, and the stories will be there. You just may have to look a little harder.

Katja: That sounds good. We’re going to do a quick lightning round… so Gabrielle, night out or night in?

Gabrielle: Night out. Except for all my nights are now in because I have a daughter.

Kunal: I was going to say Star Wars or Star Trek?

Gabrielle: Star Wars.

Katja: Awesome. Weekend lie-in or running for a quick 5K?

Gabrielle: No. Weekend lie-in for sure.

Katja: Okay. And how about watching a movie or watching the big game?

Gabrielle: Oh, big game. All day. Big sports fan.

Katja: Well, thanks so much, Gabrielle, for all your insights on how to play the PR game really well, but also how to create campaigns that involve many more functions and leaders across the organization. It was so nice to have you on Growth Hacks today. So thank you so much for joining us.

Gabrielle: Yeah. Thanks for having me.


Katja: It’s been fun talking to Gabrielle in this first episode of Growth Hacks. We discussed:

  • How OneTrust collaborates remotely with a team of 2,000 employees
  • How to plan for a Five Year Anniversary campaign
  • What it takes to create an impactful PR Playbook
  • What it takes to align PR and marketing with C suite goals
  • Working with the press in 2021

Thanks for joining us and stay tuned for our next episode of Growth Hacks.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at

Brands with a Purpose

Even the most hardened left-brain investor can recognize the genius of Jonathan Mildenhall. While leading the marketing organizations at Coca-Cola and Airbnb, Jonathan focused each of these brands on an authentic and emotive purpose that cut through the cynicism of modern consumerism to create connection and change human behavior based on shared values. Jonathan was kind enough to share with TCV GP David Yuan his stories and experiences leading Coca-Cola and Airbnb marketing, as well as his new venture, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.

Key takeaways from this wide-ranging conversation include:

  • Energizing an icon, helping Coca-Cola reclaim and extend its emotional core
  • Authenticity as an enduring and compounding competitive advantage
  • How aligning brands with core human needs can change consumer behavior

For this and a lot more from one of the most creative and successful marketers of this century, settle back and click play.



The statements, views, and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit For additional important disclaimers, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at

Developing Narrative to Compel Action and Drive Results



  1. A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

 What separates companies that move quickly towards a common goal from those that struggle to find unity? Why is it that some teams can routinely find a second, third, or fourth gear of execution? How do people who start with divergent objectives find common ground? Perhaps most importantly, why are some leaders successfully plug-and-play no matter what technical problem, cultural issue, or market challenge they are tasked with addressing?

In my last post on “Hiring for Leaders”, I talked about how you can both screen for and cultivate leadership qualities as your company scales. These qualities include taking positions, creating environments where multiple perspectives are acknowledged, and being adaptable. In this post I’ll build on that framework to discuss narrative – a critically important concept that is talked about often but still remains confusing for many people in business.


Why Is Narrative So Important?

During my time at Facebook and Pinterest, I noticed one element that drove successful outcomes: the connection between people and company objectives. This connection can take different forms: intuitively understanding the why of what people were tasked with, linking personal goals with company goals, creating less friction with other teams, and being resilient in the face of obstacles. The differentiator in all of this was the construction and delivery of a narrative.

Narrative creates the ability to connect people to your company and your company mission and drive collective action. The corollary to this deceptively simple statement is that narrative is not one thing – it’s not just a story. Narrative binds individuals to a living set of company attributes.

The following tenets are core to creating a compelling narrative.


Establish Clear Mission and Vision Statements

 You can think about the mission and vision as the why and the how. Both are critical to any organization, large or small, because they become the scaffolding for how teams construct their roadmaps and how leadership talks about them.

At Pinterest, the mission was to help people discover and do the things that they love. As our technology advanced and our customers engaged with it more fully, our vision of how Pinterest could change the world also changed. This taught me that while the vision of a future outcome may not stay the same, the mission – the why – should remain stable. It’s the foundation for how people and teams answer the “Why are we doing this?” questions that naturally arise. Changing the mission can create confusion about priorities.

Make sure every team creates a mission and vision statement for the work that they do. You may call it a scope doc, a PRD, MRD, or something else entirely. But if the mission doesn’t answer why people are working on something, and the vision doesn’t show how that work changes things for customers and the company, it’s difficult for people to understand why and how their work is helping the company achieve its objectives.


Develop Long-Term Roadmaps

A roadmap is a narrative about where you’re going and what happens along the way. Push your teams to create three-year roadmaps. Acknowledge that the value in the exercise is not the accuracy with which teams can predict the future, but rather the exercise itself.

Teams with a roadmap for the future end up moving faster because they have already envisioned a journey in the process of creating the roadmap. They’re not disoriented when the real road turns or twists, because they already foresaw and prepared for some of them – and anticipated that there might be a few surprises along the way. That in turn alleviates the level of oversight and explanation that leaders need to provide, because their teams are advancing within a larger, more longitudinal comfort zone.

In creating the roadmap, aim to resolve it to a vision statement. This should be a 1+1=3 exercise where individual functions intersect and combine to create an even more powerful outcome. The company vision should be a leading indicator of what teams should strive to accomplish.

A good way of thinking about this at the team level or even division level is to break out into thematic areas and assign varying levels of confidence in the work. Those confidence levels will decrease the further you get out into the future.

Even if the technology you envision doesn’t exist, writing down the roadmap is a helpful exercise to plotting out an initial path.


Measure Everything

Everything is measurable, but not everything can be measured in the same way. Create space for teams to define their metrics so that their output can be measured in ways that are meaningful. These metrics naturally generate narratives about how to meet or exceed them. They become a source of ongoing conversation within teams and between teams: Do we have the right metrics for meeting company objectives? Should we adjust them for technology or customer behavior? Do our metrics mesh with our mission and vision?

When these conversations take place, people feel naturally connected to the company and its goals. This process is so powerful that it’s essential to make sure that all the team-level metrics ladder up to company-level objectives. You don’t want people embracing their metrics (and their roadmap) and then arriving someplace the company did not want them to go.

You also need to ensure that team roadmaps do not collide and create conflict. If they do, reflect on each team independently and try to assess how it moves the company forward towards its top-level goals. If one team comes out on top, talk to the other team in the conflict about how they could adjust their roadmap and still achieve their goals and the company’s goals.

Know that there will always be trade-offs to make, and that your job as a leader is to create the narrative that keeps teams informed, aligned, and excited.


Create Cross-Functional Narrative Forums

Often as companies grow quickly, the first thing to go out the window is inter-team communication on strategy and goals. This can lead to misalignments, political posturing regarding resources, and management attrition. A great way to prevent this is to create regular forums for your leadership team to sit together and explain to one another what they are doing and why. You’re not asking them to justify their existence or run their numbers. You’re asking them to tell everyone else a narrative about their mission, vision and roadmap, and how the journey is progressing.

Smart leaders will bring a narrative that is tightly aligned with what they hear from their teams. It also gives the narrative “legs” for traveling across the entire enterprise – something that is otherwise rare.

Getting team-level narratives elevated to the leadership level, across functions, accomplishes a number of positive outcomes. First, it creates empathy among and within the leadership team about other team members’ goals, challenges and objectives. During resourcing conflicts, you want leadership team members to be able to advocate just as empathically for another team as they would for their own.

Second, it forces understanding. Anytime you have to tell a good story, you have to understand that story far better than the people you are delivering it to. The requirement to share your team’s story with other leaders forces you to master that narrative. Detailed work has to be distilled down to essentials. Technical complexity has to become clarity. Acronyms disappear, replaced by meaningful, memorable terms. Just the process of preparing a narrative about your team can help you spot work that is not truly aligned with company objectives.

Third, delivering cross-function narratives establishes trust at the inter-team level. Putting leaders in a position to explain to their teams why other teams are doing what they are, or why a trade-off decision went against them, establishes an authentic authority.

Story Time

The most successful teams have leaders that can weave a story using the foundations described above and connect it at various altitudes throughout the company. Driving board alignment around a strategic shift isn’t that different than getting your ops teams to the same place. It’s about creating shared understanding that drives people’s internal connection to the company’s goals.

Metrics, technologies and quantitative goals are important for any business to succeed. But without a narrative that makes people own them, they’re just components of a machine without a soul.



Jonathan Shottan is an Executive-in-Residence at TCV.

The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). This blog post is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified above, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit For additional important disclaimers regarding this document, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at

Leaning Into Brand: Capturing Whitespace and Category Leadership the Zillow Way

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.

In this exclusive podcast, Jeremy Wacksman discusses with TCV’s David Yuan how marketing shaped Zillow’s trajectory and lessons learned along the way:

  • 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
    • Creative
    • Testing/ Measuring
    • Linear/ OTT/ Video landscape

For the inside story of Zillow’s epic marketing journey, settle back and click play.



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, 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.



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