Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 106 – Edwin Wong, Senior VP of Research and Insights

Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Edwin Wong, Senior Vice President of Market Research at Buzzfeed.

Founded in 2006 by the likes of Kenneth Lerer, chairman of The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed is a digital news and entertainment company.

Originally known for online quizzes, “listicles”, and pop culture articles, the company has grown into a global media and technology company providing coverage on a variety of topics including politics, DIY, animals and business.

Prior to joining Buzzfeed, Edwin has guided market research strategy at Yahoo, Pinterest, and Veoh.


Hi. I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. My guest today is Edwin Wong, Senior Vice President of market research at BuzzFeed. Founded in 2006 by the likes of Kenneth Lair, Chairman of the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed is a digital news and entertainment company originally known for online quizzes, listicles, and pop culture articles. The company has grown into a global media and technology company providing coverage on a variety of topics including politics, DIY, animals, and business. Prior to joining BuzzFeed, Edwin has guided market research strategy at Yahoo, Pinterest, and Vio. Edwin, thank you very much for joining us today.


How’s it going?

Edwin, after graduating from Ponoma in 1998, how did you find yourself at Hall & Partners?


That’s just an awesome question. When I look at that number 1998 I think we were just joking. I feel so old. But I remember when I got out of school I was gonna go and get my PhD in industrial organizational psychology. And at the time there were two really great programs whether it was in Nebraska or Illinois, and my then girlfriend who has been my wife for about 20 years now she said, “If you decide to go you’re gonna go by yourself.” And so I chose love instead of a profession and it worked out great. I started off the first six to nine months of my graduated time from Pomona selling Glen Plaid shirts from J Crew and being a legal assistant at the LA Athletic Club. And what was so great is in the middle of it one of my friends decided, hey, you maybe want to apply what you learned in psychology, the study of human behavior, and apply it to business. There’s something called market research you should look into. And I kind of fell into this small company called Hall & Partners at the time. We were – I was one of the first of five employees on their way and I joke all the time, but we literally went from [INAUDIBLE sounds like: loading soda], answering the phones, stocking the copy paper, and then all within the same hour closing our very first global copy test deal that was multi-million dollars for one of the most respected tech companies in the world. And so it was such an amazing journey by myself and such a great opportunity to work with some of the coolest people in market research.


It was a really disruptive time in 1998. I remember I did my first online survey in 1996 and then Jimmy Plunkett and myself started Decipher in 2000, and Hall & Partners being one of our very first marquee accounts. It was a super interesting time because we saw this migration of data collection that moved from mall intercepts and phone to online and then later mobile. And it was very interesting to me how Hall & Partners was a pivotal part of that transition I think. The value that you were offering in those days was originally I think mix mode, but then you moved most of that data collection to online, correct?


Yeah. I think it was so great. It’s just like we’ve known each other or so long. Decipher was one of my favorite clients – favorite partners I should say, because of what you guys actually did for us. And we were – one thing that I always remember is how future forward that was and we were thinking about online and who does online? We need that phone caddy. The funny thing is how quickly that transition happened over it felt like five to six years everything transitioned over. And what’s been really awesome in this space is the transformation that we’re even seeing now and now we’ve got all these interesting survey platforms and the cool thing about Decipher is you guys really did start it all. And I still remember spending many late nights hanging out with Braden and asking him to help me with that self-serve [INAUDIBLE] tool and doing some interesting filters. It was such as fun moment with lots of late nights and it was such a great partnership.


It was and the CEOs that you’ve had at Hall & Partners, Chris Hubble and others, who’ve even been working closely with presidential candidates over the years they did a profoundly good job of helping companies identify brand affinity and help punch through the noise in the marketplace. So you moved from Hall & Partners and then later to Yahoo for about a decade, right?


I definitely was at Yahoo for quite a bit of time. I actually started in 2004, around that time, working in their search division in Pasadena. It was such an awesome time because I think back then most people who understood search thought of it as a last click attribution type media which it is. I think it does that quite well but there is so much [INAUDIBLE] activity. There’s so much I think even just the sheer Google trends or I think that Google launched a personal microsite because they saw such an increase in how to searches. And so we’re literally outsourcing our critical thinking to Google with their how to searches. And so really kind of crystalizing that story for marketers and helping them understand consumer behavior was my first run there. And just being – and where over a decade I had an opportunity to work with the media properties, work with folks that run video. Near the end I had such a great time building out the B2B insight space. I worked with the likes of Dave Utica [ph], Sebastian Fernandez, [INAUDIBLE], Trisha Hoff, and we really had such a good time just kind of blowing out thought leadership there and talking about new trends. In fact, I think one of my most fun accomplishments was working really closely with some key leaders to talk about the Maven strategy that we had around mobile video and social, all around what [INAUDIBLE] actually wanted to do there, and so we really looked at the space differently. And one thing I learned most about Yahoo was that things change so quickly for the consumer, and as a researcher if you don’t change along with them or observe those changes that you really do fall behind.


That’s a great point. Was there any material differences between how Yahoo and Pinterest used research? In other words, did one use qualitative more or tracking studies more?


Yeah. I think one interesting thing is just going to Silicon Valley. Pinterest was a – just a great place. Their use of data was just so strong. If you take a look at what the platform actually means it’s full of intense signals. You’re future planning and you’re aspiring and you’re being inspired into doing things that really cause you to act and such. One thing I actually felt was quite different was really me, not necessarily Yahoo, going there and being a smaller, more agile place I had the opportunity to really get deep into analytics as well. And so really thinking about consumption behavior and real analytics in terms of what is the consumer doing on this platform and making [INAUDIBLE sounds like: breeding] I should say, really telling that story of what was different for me. And so I had a great time working with some of the groups there and running those groups and really kind of bringing that story to life for Pinterest.


What were the key differences between what you were looking for from partners or vendors? So in Pinterest were you more interested in tools to empower your current team to do research or was it more full service answer these business questions for me market research company?


What was so great is I think Yahoo’s infrastructure for market research in general had been already built out and so going there was less needing to prove the importance of it versus when you get to some of these newer companies they’re just starting out and their analytics core is fabulous. And gaining an understanding of what the consumer is doing is actually quite easy because you’ve got some of the smartest data scientists and programmers that would literally be able to help you pull any data from the grid that you need. When you start to go to those places it’s really seeing there’s something kind of different when you talk about the why. And it ultimately brings in – even what survey actually can do for a business. And so building that part of it out was the most fun for me because you started to combine activity and analytics and really look at why a consumer was doing what they were doing, what they were saying about that behavior and how they actually wanted to change. And I think that actually created a really powerful narrative for Pinterest and frankly I think we started to do that at the tail end at Yahoo as I was able to work more and more with other teams as well.


Pinterest is such a great company. They’ve filled a need that I didn’t even know existed. So Google or Amazon is where you go when you know what you want whereas Pinterest is where you go when you don’t know what you want. It’s very [INAUDIBLE sounds like: dermis] driven on this discovery mindset from a consumer or user perspective. And it is interesting how you leverage more of the qualitative it sounds like in that sort of consumer discovery phase.


There is this one study that I actually did where we created this construct about access. And if you think about some of the newer platforms, Facebook is the access to connection whereas Google really is the access to knowledge and we consider Twitter the access to some sort of currency or relevance because influences are there. And you really talked about Pinterest as the access to ideas. And even at BuzzFeed one of the things that we’re starting to see is this access to humanity and identity. As we start to look at some of these newer platforms the reason why I think they’re taking off is distribution is there and the mobile device makes it easier. But we’re starting to align some of those experiences to what’s core to being human or these digital experiences to actually impact us in real life. And so as we start to do this work if you can sort of size down and say what does this experience actually even mean, you start to understand that human behavior and it gets really interesting and you start having a lot of fun dissecting what each experience means to the consumer.


If you can what would be the key three or the primary three lessons that you learned through your career whether it’s at Yahoo, Hall & Partners, etc., but then you applied to your work at BuzzFeed?


It’s funny. It’s not even at BuzzFeed but just for research in general I think that for me what I’ve learned most is that numbers they matter less than the story. Oftentimes what, as practitioners, we spend a lot of time in methodology which is absolutely critical, but the stories that we tell each other are the stories that will move us to move in business and every time you take a speaking class the first thing that the speaking instructor tells you is, “What’s the WIIFM? What’s in it for me?” In order for people to literally listen to our numbers and to our stories we always have to apply the WIIFM for them otherwise there’s no movement in our work which is why I think a lot of us do what we do. And I think the last thing that I’ve learned along the way is that as a researcher we’re hardly ever the smartest person in the room. We just better be the best listeners, and that’s basically what I’ve learned. It’s your in constant questioning mode, like why is this and what drives you? And I think that’s actually the most important thing that I’ve actually learned in my career.


That’s really interesting. Social medial has completely revolutionized where the consumer attention is. Sixish hours is what I’ve heard that a large portion of our population is spending on social media a day. Especially in the context of outside of maybe sporting events you’re not really seeing any cable consumption among – especially among younger consumers. Having said that we do see there’s a lot of spend, the majority of spend for advertisers is still in the traditional channels. Are you seeing changes? Is BuzzFeed seeing changes in terms of spend among large brands and how they’re treating social media, and is that something that’s gonna shake out in the future?


Yeah, I actually think that what’s interesting is that regardless of time spent the most important thing that we know most advertisers are looking for continues to be reach, scale, and frequency. They’ve broken it down on that end. I think as we start to see more time spent on social medial what’s interesting is even when you look at the formats of which we’re spending time on they still sort of bladder back to the same kind of experiences that are traditional. Online video as an example. I think there was a really interesting article that just came out this week that talked about YouTube’s growth even this last six months in it of itself being an interesting social platform as well. And so I do see having been in this space for 20 years the growth of search display, protomatic and even in the last five to 10 years the ramp up of social spend and interest in BuzzFeed as the cohorts, I think, start to age out and we start to see millenials aging up and even the next post millenial generation getting into their early twenties I can definitely see the marketing shift and marketing spend actually shift along with it just because I think it’s gonna be natural that partners are gonna be where the attention is for sure.


So we see it – we know that there’s been a massive alongside the digital consumption, a massive increase of digital passive or behavioral data that you as a marketing researcher are exposed to. Are you turning to outside solutions to interpret and add/create a more comprehensive consumer persona, or are you building up or using tools internally in order to do that?


I think it’s a mix of both and one of the things that Jonah Paretti, our founder, he said to me once in a meeting, he’s like, “I find that we’re data full, not data rich.”




I loved that quote and [INAUDIBLE] because that’s definitely his and he’s not even a researcher. He’s a CEO – he’s a found of all these. I really love that because I find that one thing is that as we get to all these new rich sources are we leveraging them in the right way so that we’re building the right sorts of tools and even algorithms to actually be meaningful. If you think about algorithms they’re if and statements that use historical data to actually become a thing. And so really thinking about what those statements are in the first place and the underlying data I think is incredibly important. What’s the story supposed to tell? And so we do make sure, but I think having/continuing to work with really rich partners in this space that will help us I think is important. But then teaching folks internally to not fear data, being a part of their diet I think is really great. We do that pretty well with our data science team at BuzzFeed right now. [INAUDIBLE] leads that effort and his team does a phenomenal job just really bringing to life what data ultimately means to BuzzFeed and what it means to even our group and how we leverage it to tell stories as well.


With the trend in social media increasing and now Amazon released over 40 million news blip or 40 million Alexa units have been distributed which is meaningful part of US households now voice continues to disrupt us. In fact, part of my morning routine is this, “Alexa, give me my morning briefing.” “Here’s your flash briefing. Buzz Feed News [INAUDIBLE] ” “Alexa, stop.” You know what I’m saying? And it’s – and so this has been – so my whole household literally hears that in the morning. And it isn’t that I’m going to my mobile device or my desktop or whatever. I’m just consuming that content and it even follows me through the Alexa app into my car. So how is BuzzFeed seeing this trend to a voice world?


Well, I think what’s interesting is if you take a look at over the last five years or so there’s really this whole concept of digital going analogue. And even as I was working my way from Pinterest to BuzzFeed this whole notion of digital to physical, this whole concept of inspiration to ideas to action was something that we were starting to see built out. IoT and you know what voice is? It’s really tech for the senses. We literally started off by looking for technology platforms to help us when it comes to our cerebral and eye consumption. The eye part of it and even the touch part, and if you think about it auditory was really the next thing. As I start to look at what voice actually does one of the things that actually stopped older consumers from actually leveraging digital was it’s a little bit difficult to use. What I think is awesome about voice is it is a simplification of the extraction of information through Q&A. I ask Alexa for her to answer something and she literally can do it from questions, and so I think what this ultimately does is it further democratizes our ability to connect with knowledge. And if you think about what the Alexa apps can do or even Siri or even what Google is doing they are literally changing the game of what’s gonna be possible next with voice. And I think just the Q&A piece is first and there’s tons more opportunity.


I totally agree. My whole being is saying this is bigger than mobile. This transition that we’re going through is it’s revolutionary because I can consume and interact rather, excuse me – I can interact and then consume with information in a passive medium which I just simply haven’t been able to do so far. So it’s really exciting.


I was gonna continue to riff and say if you really think about the consumer side it’s not even just knowledge extraction, it’s going to change the way we shop when we run out of toilet paper. It’s the other day my kids they found the question and answer app, the story app so that Alexa now tells them stories and it’s gonna change marketing because we were fighting the first – the golden triangle in the first three positions in search. But the future of voice apps on the marketing side the platforms are doing fulfillment when I run out of paper towels. Who’s it gonna be that I get the paper towel from and who wins out? Is it the private label app the Amazon set up or is it Bounty? And so I think there’s plenty of questions that open up as we start to see this expansion and evolution of what voice actually really needs.


I know. It’s funny. You think – I have the – when I do my employee onboarding right now we have two slides. One is illustrating the consumer journey with purchasing paper towels through Amazon and it’s really interesting because you have lots of opportunities to be intercepted. Now it’s where is the opportunity for intercept in a voice economy? And so it gets down to if I’m a brand the thing that I care the most about is becoming the Kleenex of that brand. My consumer has to love me so much that they’re willing to say me by name when they do the purchase and it’s just a – it just changes everything. How brands react to that I think is a big question that I’m sure they’re asking.


I think what’s gonna be the next wave for researches to figure out is it consumer journey market research that we’re actually looking at or is it friction? How do you remove friction? And there’s gonna be cool businesses that are just built on removing friction and really that’s gonna be the big value prop for many market researchers and the kind of thing they want to talk about. Because if you don’t understand the why and you don’t understand the friction point to your point you’re not gonna be the Kleenex of that brand for sure.


Well said. When you’re assessing new market research companies to do business with, what are some of the key characteristics or offerings that you’re looking for nowadays?


What’s great is I look at really smart minds that think out. It sounds so cliché but to think outside of the box or to think one step ahead of the consumer, but more importantly that identify the reasons why consumer do what they do to literally one sentence. We’re kind of in a place right now where we have all of this data but the key insight is still just one sentence from all of that data. And so working with people that can distill that down and really kind of create things that make it all grow. That’s so true. I think it’s really what I look for and I think it all begins with like even when we were working together back in the day Hall & Partners can decipher great partnerships. We were joking about this earlier. There’s no such thing as vendor, clients, whatever. It’s really partnerships because you want to learn and work together and build together and I think that’s the – when you find someone like that you kind of build this really awesome rapport that can actually lead you to really great answers that you have questions for.


You’re hitting on a couple points, and one I really want to hone in on is you’ve gotta be – as a supplier you have got to be there for your customers no matter what. I reflect on there was one project in Hall & Partners and it didn’t go great. It was in the field. It was a tough sample and the provider fell out and so we were literally on conference calls over Christmas Eve and then on Christmas Day getting this stuff dialed in. And there’s this whole value chain I think that’s created there because it wasn’t just us on the phone but it was also our suppliers on the phone making the save and getting it to you guys so your customers are satisfied on the post-holiday insights. So that’s a – you’ve gotta have those – when they don’t answer the phone it’s a big problem.


And I think that that’s where the partnership comes in which is there’s no such thing in my mind still as supply versus client. One of the things it’s like any great relationship you give and you get what you give. And so oftentimes I think one of the things that has been really fun to do is treat each other really well so that you would want to get on the phone over the holidays because you could have easily said, “I’m out until January 1st” which you guys were awesome to never do.


And see that point is so key. I teach an MBA course and one of my narratives is in – is on LinkedIn how important it is to connect with your peers and even those people that are just starting their careers because those are the people that are gonna be an influence over the next decade or two and so it’s vital that you treat them like that and that also you put yourself in the seat of the people that you’re serving whether it’s your boss or a customer. Because that will inform your personal brand over time.


And then I think it’s even more important when you’re on the “client side” how you’re treating your partners because what’s so great about this industry is it’s so small and in one flip it could be reversed very easily.


I have a dear friend who will remain nameless, but he wasn’t particularly kind to his vendors and unfortunately due to some layoffs he found himself out of a job and he actually said, “I really wish I would have been nicer to my vendors.” But anyway, so last question, our listeners are insights professionals. As BuzzFeed, what is the one thing you want them to know about?


I think BuzzFeed has been crating content that connects at a human level for over a decade now and there’s an accessibility to it that makes it so worthwhile to study. When you take a look at the success of some of our brands, Tasty, which is our food brand, almost every single person on Facebook has probably seen a Tasty video which is the over the head camera shot of hands making something. People ask us often how is it that you have the largest food channel on Facebook? How is that you have engaged over 500 million users, and how is it that people are coming back to this? And I think that the reason is is when you take a look at the actual design of what we wanted, we went where the consumer was at. I think that was the first thing, and we really didn’t look at controlling that brand on our owned and operated site. We weren’t where the distribution was and where the consumer behavior was. And I think the most important part was the way we actually think about content is through the lens of accessibility. When we think about that brand people liked it because it was not just accessible but inspiring and it helped them discover something. That was actually drawn up through consumer behavior studies where we really looked at what the brand meant. And I think that’s what we’re looking for today as consumers. We’re looking for brands to be next to us. We’re not just looking for aspiration but that accessibility to a brand not making us feel bad that we don’t know how to boil an egg or boil water for – and so there’s something to that that we’ve really connected on and I’m proud to actually be here because when you take a look at that whole concept of accessibility, our diverse talent, our connection in the way we actually think about news, it’s really all within what we actually stand for. And so it’s sort of a really fun thing to think about the human condition and to think about what the brand means and how to build that experience. And that’s why I’m really proud to actually be here.


My guest today has been Edwin Wong, Senior Vice President of Market Research at BuzzFeed. Edwin, thank you very much for your time.