The Stephen Rossi AMA is happening on Wednesday 15th March 2017 at 10AM PST (1PM EST)
Stephen Rossi is a founding team member of a Series A backed stealth-mode startup building a consumer-first solution to healthcare issues. Formerly, Stephen was the VP of Product at Zillow and VP of Marketing at Trulia, the top two residential real estate sites in the US. During his 7 years with Zillow and Trulia, he led marketing, growth and ad product strategy, helping grow subscription revenue to more than $500MM annually. As a former software developer, Stephen is passionate about combining data-driven growth marketing with delightful customer experiences to build lasting and defensible brands. Stephen holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science and Human Computer Interaction from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley.
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Stephen Rossi – Former VP of Product at Zillow and VP of Marketing at Trulia – Transcript
Stephen Rossi is a founding team member of a Series A backed stealth-mode startup building a consumer-first solution to healthcare issues. Formerly, Stephen was the VP of Product at Zillow and VP of Marketing at Trulia, the top two residential real estate sites in the US.
The AMA with Stephen was held on March 15th, 2017. This transcript has been edited for punctuation, grammar, etc.
What do you look for when hiring for product and for marketing?
It really depends on the role and the stage of the company. For me, there is a certain personality type that I’m really attracted to for earlier stage companies. I use the word “athlete” — meaning someone who has a high level of accountability, who likes to take on tough challenges and who is going to stretch herself / himself to to new things.
Which do you think has the better user experience – Trulia or Zillow and why?
I certainly have a bias because I started at Trulia and then worked at Zillow after the acquisition. 😉
But in reality both sites have different value propositions. Zillow is all about transparency and shedding light on the real estate industry. Trulia’s experience is all about guiding you to make the best decision. So, in reality, they’re targeting two different segments of the market, which makes it hard for me to pick a personal favorite.
What are the most “technical roles” you have on the marketing team, Do you have to send people for training for those skills? Do you use outsourced consultants for those roles?
I’m a big fan of incorporating a ‘hardcore’ marketing analytics function into a marketing team. For example, the last marketing analytics team I oversaw took on problems bigger than just reports and dashboards. We did projects like pricing research and building predictive models that scored leads for our inside sales team. These people should be SQL and stats wizards.
As more and more companies begin to use highly targeted advertising, what sort of challenges did you face towards the assumed invasion of privacy based on the knowledge you gained from data, and how do you deal with this both from an advertising perspective, as well as from a branding perspective, as you don’t want people to find the brand creepy, or overbearing?
Not to be too preachy about this, but I feel respecting privacy is almost an ethical value that marketers need to uphold. That being said, if you truly understand your customer journey, and build highly relevant messaging that reaches your customers in a timely way at the right journey points, you can avoid that creep factor while also helping your customers trust your brand. TLDR; Don’t spray and pray.
How much did being a software engineer help with your career? I want to work with product and startups and have some downtime. Do you think it’s worth spending the next 3-4 months learning?
I’m super thankful for my engineering background. It’s helped me both A) get technical on improving the performance of channels (email especially) and B) allow me to self-serve data. For any marketer that wants to move in the direction of product or just strengthen their marketing ability, I would HIGHLY recommend going and learning SQL first. Learn how to pull data, build your own reports. Then move on to CSS/HTML, learn how to style your own emails. If you’re still interested then, take a Python class.
Do you have any interest in Virtual Reality, and if so, what are you excited about in VR?
I have a mild interest. It’s certainly in the phase where it has to cross the chasm. I’m most excited about VR for experiences that bring people closer together or allow people to consume an experience they otherwise couldn’t. In real estate, there are a lot of exciting projects right now to use VR to view the inside of homes without leaving yours. That’s a great example of an application that could be wildly useful.
Hi! How do you measure the value of content marketing? Is that something you value?
I LOVE content marketing. Both in the B2B and the B2C sense. It’s a trite phrase, but content really is king, and having great content and copywriting is the single best way I’ve improved marketing performance. But content is even more interesting / important to me because it’s one of the best ways you can really communicate your brand essence — both through topics and tone of voice.
If you were building up a new site from scratch where what would you put your first marketing dollars towards?
Timely question – I’m starting a new site/app right now. There is likely a different formula for each product, but for us our money has been spent on – technical SEO, content for social and email. Our time has been spent on developing our brand persona and talking to users to better understand their needs.
How are you doing that and also staying in stealth?
At Zilllow, what was the % of effort you devoted to the improvement of the UX on the frontend side of the website?
TONS of effort to UI/UX at both Trulia and Zillow. There are personas for user-types, ongoing usability studies, design languages and constant A/B testing.
What is the biggest problem facing marketing VP’s and what do you study and read to make sure you’re keeping up with the rapidly changing marketing world?
I’ll answer this in the context of being a Marketing VP for an internet company. The biggest challenge I see is that SEO/SEM is no longer a long term strategy for internet companies. Google is basically moving to paid inclusion. So, as our phones continue to become the remote controls for our lives, marketing VPs need to figure out how to become one of the 16 icons on the home screen. And brand-level marketing isn’t an easy or cost-effective way to do that.
What was the most essential tactic/strategy in better understanding your customers at Zillow/Trulia?
Qualitative interviews. Hands down. Nothing like hearing customers’ pain points in their own words. Back up your research with quantitative analysis too, but get out and talk to customers.
And what do you study and read to make sure you’re keeping up with the rapidly changing marketing world?
So there are the usual suspects in my daily digest (like Growth Hackers), but lately I’ve been catching up on a list of recommended books from some VCs (Bill Gurley and Scott Belsky). I’ve been really interested in the physiological factors that motivate customers. Example: Nudge
How do you decide what features to work on (product) – in early stages of growth? Who do you listen to (what kind of “leads”) and why? What in specific do you look for?
We do a ton of research (run surveys, conjoint analysis) to get a better idea of what features really matter to our users. We also look at web and mobile analytics to see where users are getting “stuck.” End of the day though, we try to run as many tests as possible and get our products into market asap. There was a great post on this lately that I would highly recommend.
When you hired people for your marketing teams, what was your favorite (and most successful) process?
I love giving small homework assignments to top candidates and then doing a working session with them. It shows you 1) how they think and 2) how you’ll work together. Key is for the HW assignment not to be obnoxious or too tedious.
What’s the number one marketing tactic you’re taking from your past experience and applying to your new venture?
One marketing tactic I’m using again at newco. – marketing specifically to early adopters to get our flywheel going. It seems so obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t go out and specifically try to find their early adopters.
Are you charging the early adopters?
Not in all cases. The feedback is more valuable than the $$.
I’m working on a prototype of a tech consumer product – really disruptive. I am also gathering a team. But ultimately, should I stay in stealth mode? Try Kickstarter? Try to directly raise funds? Marketing in mind, what are the best options?
Re: when to unstealth – Do it when unstealthing will help you with 1) raising money, 2) hiring more people and 3) you have a sufficient lead on your competition.
Do you have any insights for realtors trying to market themselves online based on your experience at Trulia?
It’s tougher for the individual real estate pro to build an independent online presence alongside the dominant portals. My top recommendations would be to have SEO optimized sites for each of your listing addresses and make sure you use photos. Photos of properties are a-maz-ing. Photos / imagery is what drives engagement in online real estate.
What tools are you using to wrangle together data from different sources for ongoing testing and analysis? Anything off the shelf or is it all in-house?
Eek. I wish I had a better answer to this question. We typically like to pull data out of individual tools and put it into our own databases.
Hey everyone – I’m going to have to run now. If I didn’t answer your questions, feel free to DM me. Hope it was helpful.