My guest today is Rogier Verhulst, Director of Market Research at LinkedIn. Launched in 2003, LinkedIn is the dominant social networking platform for today’s professionals with over 500 million members in 200 countries.
Prior to joining LinkedIn, Rogier was a restaurant manager in the Netherlands and has worked at both Research International and Microsoft.
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Hi. I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. My guest today is Rogier Verhulst, director of market research at LinkedIn. Launched in 2003, LinkedIn is the dominant social networking platform for today’s professionals. With over 500 million members in 200 countries. Prior to joining LinkedIn, Rogier was a restaurant manager in the Netherlands and has worked at both Research International and Microsoft. Rogier, thank you very much for joining me today.
Yeah. No. I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
So we’re sitting inside of your offices in San Francisco.
Thank you very much for hosting us today. We’re thrilled to be here. For all of us, it’s a thrill anytime we can come visit a big brand. I’m sure it kind of wears off for you as you walk in but anyway, we spent a good five minutes in front of the LinkedIn signage doing selfies and updating our social media. I know. It’s just that big of a fan boy. One of our signature questions has become centric to where you come from and what has formed your career today? So could you tell us a little bit about your parents, what they did, and how they helped move you to where you are today at LinkedIn?
Yeah. So my parents are both in education. They were both teachers. And I think if you think of market research there’s a big aspect to it that has to do with educating, educating your stakeholders on what’s happening in the marketplace and doing research is sort of an academic exercise. So obviously the notion of education is really important to us when we grew up. Some of that probably rubbed off in terms of my curiosity for looking at human behavior, studying human behavior, and translate that into solving problems for the business. So I think not exactly my parent’s didn’t tell me like you should go into market research but I think there was definitely some of that was rubbing off in terms of their emphasis on my education, emphasis on studying, and which inherently is what market research is about.
Yeah, I mean market research at a fundamental level is a scientific test. So it’s build a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and then be objective in terms of the learning so that makes perfect sense. The educational component is a little bit more I guess abstract and what I mean by that is 10, even 20 years ago market research was I think more of a checkbox for companies and now it has moved a lot more into being a driver of decisions. So how does that fit inside of what you’re doing right now?
Yeah, I think market research – I mean back in the day when I was back in school you didn’t have a formalized degree in market research. If you ask one of my peers most people say they kind of rolled into it. They were either on their path to becoming a PhD or doing something academic but felt like they couldn’t get comfortable with the pace or weren’t quite ready to do publications. And so you see a lot of these people kind of move in market research but very rarely do you hear people say like I was born and from the day that I was born I wanted to be a market researcher. So it’s kind of unusual. Me in my case, I love doing – I always had curiosity and I loved kind of observing humans and studying that and I love the part of writing reports about it and sharing it with the world. I think market research here at LinkedIn has evolved quite a bit. I think it’s come from more of a, kind of like you said, a checkbox kind of thing to something that executives really look for answers on questions that quite frankly they cannot answer with just looking at data or financial metrics. More and more companies are realizing that you need to ask the questions to your customers or member to really understand what are you building and where do you find product market fit. I think we’ve come a long way. I think there’s still a lot of room for elevating the world of market research within organizations. There’s still a little bit of a stigma that things take a long time but I think that technology has come a long way in terms of being more agile and data begets data. So when there’s more data, people are naturally inclined to understand what is the motivation or what’s the why behind that data. So I think you’re absolutely right. I think market research is a growing field. I expect it to grow pretty rapidly in the next couple years.
Yeah, so do I. I’m really excited about – I feel like market research finally is having some tailwinds from a visibility perspective. It’s almost like we’ve been relegated to the kids’ table and we’ve finally gotten through college now and the parents are willing to sit and have a drink with us.
I think it’s a super-relevant.
Yeah. No. There are some great programs. We hired a few people from the University of Georgia, University of Michigan. They have very good programs among research now, which we didn’t have 10, 15 years ago. And so I think there’s much more focus around it in the same way that you see a lot of focus on product management and product managers.
And so it’s really a growing field. Yeah.
Yeah. Part of our audience is aspiring researchers. These are either recent grads like you said, Georgia, Michigan. They’re looking at how do I enter in and penetrate the marketing research world. What are some steps they could take in order to set them apart from their peers so that a company like LinkedIn, yourself would be interested in hiring them?
Yeah. I think the most important thing is kind of your heart is in the right place. I think a lot of people still make decisions in their careers with like I want to be in that world, I want to be a doctor or a lawyer just because it’s going to make me more money or because this is going to get me to where I want to be. But I think the most important thing for people to realize even if they come out of a program from University of Georgia or Michigan that they really have the heart in the right place, they’re passionate about data, they have a natural curiosity for studying human behavior, studying why people make certain preferences for certain products. So I think that’s really important. That’s number one. I think the second thing is – and I tell people this. It’s like you know rather than jumping into one of those cache brands over LinkedIn or Facebook, one of the best education you can get actually is on the vendor side and working with a variety of companies, on a variety of kind of problems to get a breadth of understanding and variety of understanding. Now what you don’t get from working on the vendor side is you don’t get sort of to see how things get implemented or how it drives particular decisions. So at the same token, I always kind of advise people when they’re early on is to look for kind of roles that are sort of related to market research but maybe more closer to the user, the end user or the end customer. For example UEI or customer success even. These roles, which give you kind of a good role and an affinity for what the customer or end user is feeling about the products. And so combining those assets will set you kind of apart from the other market researchers. But I’d say those are the most important things. So obviously you need to understand the fundamentals of market research. But beyond that it’s really looking for like experiences that will help you understand either give you sort of general business understanding or general understanding of how decisions get made within organizations.
Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of – I’ve obviously spent my career almost exclusively on the agency side of things, servicing small and large firms. And I get a massive swatch of types of project exposure, qualitative and quantitative in nature, which is really exciting. But you’re right, it’s much more of a short-term life cycle and one of the things – I used to do a lot of work with Visa. As they matured their data management systems, it was very evident to me that I was actually missing on the 90 percent – in other words, once the data was delivered and the why was declared, then there’s a bunch of things that happen and being able to – and you lose that visibility on the vendor side, which is just sort of like satisfaction I think that a person could get out of it. So it would be helpful probably to have both.
Yeah, you need to have both but I think when I look at some of the most successful hires we’ve made, I mean they have had sort of this vendor experience early on. It’s good schooling in terms of not just looking at the theory I think you learn in school but how do things work out in practice. And it gives you kind of the underpinnings and help you kind of accelerate. I think when you come out of school, you have a marketing research degree, and you go into a company often times the problems you’re facing may be more limiting. You may not be exposed to all of these techniques that you would be on the vendor side. So it’s a good first move.
There is a lot of bailing wire and duct tape on the agency side, putting things together right. So you develop this like scrappy nature of just how to get stuff done. This just came up in a conversation I recently had where the person had grown up on the vendor side, now has moved onto the brand side, and she said I can operate at a macro level. So in other words setting vision and understanding objectives but if I need to I can roll my sleeves up and get it done. Right.
Exactly. That’s the other advantage. Like you kind of know enough but you’re not just becoming a project manager, a program manager, but you actually can.
Yeah, you can add value at the logistical level as well.
For sure. Three characteristics of an all-star employee.
Well, I think this sounds kind of obvious but obviously you need to have analytical horsepower, analytical skills and problem-solving skills. That’s just like number one. I rarely would ask anyone on that that doesn’t have that capacity to do. So you want to demonstrate – this is obviously through the coursework you’ve done – being able to distill information, large amounts of information through insights. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be just quant; it can also be qualitative. I think the second thing is really I mean obviously you need to have technical skills, but more important is that you have sort of the influencing skills that you can take a particular insight and influence the organization to take action. It’s one thing to kind of understand kind of the research and what the findings are but in translating it to kind of the so-what and now-what is almost equally important than coming up with the insight in the first place. I’d say that’s number two. I think the third thing is being proactive. I think often times organizations are moving at a certain pace. And so you need to understand kind of where’s the business, what are the problems that the business is facing and look at it a little more holistically. Otherwise, often times the research you’re doing it’s kind of doing confirmatory research, just kind of validating what the executive wants to hear or know.
More of that old-school checkbox.
Yeah, versus like you want to be a little bit more provocative and looking at the data maybe from the perspective of what was the data really telling me that maybe is a little bit different than I wasn’t expecting, what was the surprise here. And so then be proactive about communicating the insight back to the organization. So the ability to have that takes a certain experience and skill set. You have to be provocative. You have to be able to sort of get up in front of fairly executive people, particularly when you go in front of sort of a big brand, you quickly find yourself actually in a room with a lot of VPs. So you need to be strong in terms of how you make your arguments and how you make sometimes very provocative statements. So it requires also to build a kind of trust and credibility.
Internally. That relationship-building aspect is really important as well.
That is one of the things I’ve seen very successful corporate researchers do an amazing job of managing their personal brand internally just handling the political dynamics of the room. So how is LinkedIn using insights today, and what I mean by that is you’re a piece of an inside of a machine and it’s driving things like business outcomes, marketing spend decisions, etc. And the second part of that is really what sort of tools or techniques are you employing?[00:11:34]
Yeah. So the way I always kind of think about our role is that we play sort of in theory. Like one is we provide metrics that are suggesting what the health of the business is. So to help us understand how strong the relationships are that we have with our customers or members to things like NPS or customer satisfaction. So metrics that are not necessarily financially related, but gives a little bit richer insight in terms of what’s really going on in the minds of our customers and members. So it’s kind of like what I found about the business health and brand metrics and brand formal metrics is part of that, but also churn and why is churn happening on our accounts. I think the second thing is kind of this deep question around where should we play, like who are the markets that we’re going after, what do the audiences look like, so segmentation will often be applied, understanding kind of the competitive landscape. So what’s the arena we’re playing in with different products. Obviously we have a lot of different business lines. The competitors we’re up against in our talent solutions business are very different than competitors in marketing solutions or sales solutions. So understanding that landscape and the board of dynamics is sort of like where to play. And then the last category is really like how do we win. So how do we differentiate ourselves from for example Indeed, how do we differentiate ourselves from Facebook or Google when it comes to ad buying in the ad space. Yeah, that’s generally how LinkedIn uses and leverages the insights that we’re producing and sort of informs those three big questions of business health, where to play, and how to win.
It’s interesting that you play such a role – you mentioned churn. So can you talk a little bit more about how you guys are employed in that proces
Yeah. So an example would be we have sort of what I call kind of foundational studies or studies that are running sort of on an ongoing basis. And so when churn is happening at an account level, we want to understand why is the customer churning. And so we would often times follow up with a survey to just kind of understand is it because of mac-economic situations; is it because of competitive pressures; or is it because of things that we are missing in our product like dissatisfaction with the product. So research is often the only way in which you can understand kind of what is the right sort of mix of variables that influence that churn decision and how much can we control versus how much we can’t control.
So just – sorry, I’m a logistics guy. So logistically speaking, the person churns for the audience means they stop being a customer. An example could be the LinkedIn business – the name is escaping me now.
Yeah. Talent solutions or marketing solutions.
Marketing solutions. That’s right. Yep. And then you follow up with a survey directly?
Yeah, so essentially someone can obviously when there’s a new – there are a lot of times the way our business works is like we have renewals. And so the annual renewal comes up and the customer is spending less than the prior year. So if that’s a significant amount less than what they were spending last year, that’s a churn signal and we call that partial churn. And the other extreme is like people completing churning and stop being a customer altogether. So both situations we want to kind of understand what the dynamics are.
So a follow-up with a survey.
Do you do qualitative in-depth interviews or try?
Absolutely. We do that as well. I mean qualitative tends to be – it used to be that quantitative was very time consuming and qualitative was fast.
Remember the good old days.
The world has changed where qualitative now is arguably actually slower than quant. So we tend to do more I’d say quantitative research than qualitative, but we do qualitative research too when we really want to get a deep understanding of the issues that people may have around usability of our site or the user interface or really try to understand kind of what are their motivations. So we definitely have a mix of things that we do. And often times we have – we have created these sort of insights communities where we can do discussion forums and discuss things fairly quickly around a particular topic or issue.
Are you using any specific technologies that might be outside of the market research arena?
I’m not sure quite how you define outside the market research arena. We obviously are dabbling in things like mirror imaging and more of the advanced ways of getting sort of signals that are not the traditional survey instrument. It’s like an online survey or an interview. And so yeah, we’re playing with some of these techniques, what are some of the logistical challenges around how do you bring people in a lab and how do you make sure it’s representative. There are some questions around that. But yeah, we’re absolutely looking at other ways of doing or doing interviews at scale where you have interview bots where the bots sort of responding and answering questions as they come in. So we haven’t done that last one yet but that’s something that I’m intrigued by as well.
That’s super-interesting. The whole qualitative at scale that’s now empowered by AI. I think that space for market research is going to solve a lot of problems because it lets you get to that qualitative why that has been – is very difficult to do.
Yeah, exactly. And then you layer in sort of sophisticated text analytics where you can look at the sentiments or you can derive what the themes are that are coming up through essentially doing interviews at scale. And that to me is really interesting. That’s going to be really interesting.
For sure. So how are you seeing tech disrupt what is traditional market research? I’ll pick on the Decipher platform for a minute.
No, the interesting thing is I don’t think tech has quite disrupted market research like in ways that it has disrupted some other industries in the sense that it’s replacing people or it’s replacing things or processes that we naturally would have done. I think what it’s doing is it’s actually adding more to the toolkit or the toolbox of the market researcher. It’s allowing us to do things that used to be harder to do. It makes us more agile. It allows us to do things in more real time. I’ve seen some disruption in terms of the digital transformation in terms of like everything is moving to the internet. So you see a lot of companies do a lot of AB testing and sort of testing themselves to what they perceive to be their perfect products or they’re arguably people recognizing you need to understand the motivation behind it. So things that we’re doing less of than I think 15 years ago like conjoint studies, like these heavy duty sort of tradeoff exercises that are lengthy and very sort of cumbersome on the respondents and you see more and more being replaced with like AB testing. But like I said, I think where technology has been really powerful in addition to the interview bots and like mirror imaging and I think it’s going to be also very interesting how it plays out in terms of plan measurement in terms of how you derive sort of the signal from a large volume of data to understand kind of what’s the brand trying to – or how well is the brand regarded when it comes to trust. So I think we’ll start to see a lot of investments in that regard as well. But again, the core idea of looking at data, interpreting it, making meaning out of it, I think that’s core. That’s sort of where market research sits and I think it will continue to play a really important role in that.
How is storytelling being changed inside of research?
I think storytelling – I mean short stories, more sound bites. And so can you come up with things that are shorter as opposed to the 20, 30 PowerPoint deck – slide PowerPoint deck. Can you – how do we know that specific insight that drives that particular action. I think that’s how storytelling has changed so the story becomes more of like a mini version of that. Also I think how storytelling has changed or what I’ve seen especially over the last 12 months is like you can’t just leave the story with cold facts. You need to make it emotional, you need to make it – you need to connect it to a more deeper emotional feeling in order for it to have an impact. So what we’ve learned over the last 12 to 18 months is that when executives look at the data and the statistics, if you can out men them, make it come alive with some of the qualitative findings or qualitative quotes or videos it just lands much more effectively.
I had a presentation about four years ago where it was an Amazon versus eBay study. And the – and actually co-presented the paper. There were slides, normal, and on every slide where we presented data we would have a video of a respondent actually addressing the point of the slide, the headline of the slide, which then informed the data. And it had a lot more impact at the executive level than any presentation I’d ever given before.
That’s a great analogy. I think the one I always refer to is the sea turtles. We’ve known for a long time that sea turtles are an endangered species and they’ve been using a lot of cold facts to make that point but people didn’t start to take note of it until they saw that turtle that was wrapped around in plastic and the whole world became disgusted by it and so many people are paying much more attention to it. So making that connection at that point yeah, is really important. And I think that’s what a quote does and the voice of a human being does.
It’s almost like in thinking about what makes a video go viral, it’s sort of that same mentality but for market researchers, which traditionally we’ve been a little bit more on the boring side I would say.
Absolutely. We’re changing that
Yeah, a little bit. What is the number one gap that you’ve experienced working on the brand side. In other words, if you wake up in the morning, gosh darn it, if this one thing was fixed or I wish somebody would address this.
Yeah, I think the world is getting – it’s easier nowadays for people to do a survey, with Survey Monkey we decipher, you have these insight communities and so it makes it really easy for anyone in an organization to launch a survey. And quite frankly what we find ourselves in is we do quite a bit of education and people think that they are a market researcher but there’s a real craft to sort of design a questionnaire, interpreting the data, formulating hypotheses. And so I think where there’s a gap is in terms of just consulting and education and making sure that market research is not confined to the market research group anymore. Market research is – it’s everywhere and it’s embedded in the entire organization. And so the ability of the market research industry on the vendor side to sort of recognize that and to be able to help the market research function, the central function with sort of like here’s how we best can equip the rest of the organization to sort of do their own surveys and get to the answers quickly.
So what is LinkedIn doing right now that has opportunity to add value to the market research space so our listeners.
Yeah, I mean LinkedIn is a great platform obviously just to find a job, but it’s also a great platform to learn. And so we acquired [INAUDIBLE] a couple years ago, which just actually we have access to a really rich library of online courses. And I happened to take a look at it the other day and we have a pretty vast sort of collection of market research courses that are very targeted, very specific, around specific skills. So that’s one thing I would encourage people to check out. I think the other thing we haven’t historically invested a lot in sort of groups, LinkedIn groups, but there are a couple of market research-oriented groups on LinkedIn. There’s the market research professional group on LinkedIn, which has about 90,000 members. And so people share interesting articles and engage in a way there to sort of get up to speed on the latest. So I’d say that’s one. And I think the last one is a lot of people think of LinkedIn again as sort of a network of people that are connected but it’s also a fantastic database of companies and company profiles. So if you’re in the market research industry and want to understand sort of an industry or particular set of companies, you can actually glean a lot of interesting information from just looking at company insights through our premier subscription.
So to that end, I’d like to give an example.
I recently created Happy Market Research podcast. I’m trying to get connected to insight pros like yourself. I reached out to a CMO, said hey, give her the value prop pitch and she responded back the following morning and said I would love to be on the show. So it would be impossible – and I know a lot of people. It would be impossible for me to be able to penetrate the corporate wall to get in front of her to even give her the idea. But what LinkedIn enabled me to do versus any other platform, and my personal network even, is to be able to cut right to it and drop that note, which she could have ignored or reported me. But she didn’t and she actually found value in what I was contributing. And one of the things that I’ve noticed being an avid user of LinkedIn is the more I invest in the platform, the more trust I build with my – and I don’t have a lot. I have about 16,000 connections.
That’s a lot.
Among that group. And that group then starts feeding on itself so I can post a question and get an answer. I can post a job and I can get resumes. I haven’t tried finding a job fortunately maybe on that front but it’s an exceptionally powerful platform. I do want to ask you a question about the groups though because – so we are in the process of trying to create a framework for insight pros to have dialogues, ask questions, etc. There’s a few different insight communities that we found that are more forum-based, old-school, forum-based. We were talking on the drive up today maybe we should consider LinkedIn. It sounds like groups on LinkedIn are a viable option.
It is. I think we obviously have – we’ve had a long history with groups and I think we’ve made investments and we’ve made heavy investments sort of in the past and we sort of dialed back the investments. And so I think we’re finally trying to understand kind of how to do this well and it’s an important piece of our strategy of creating kind of a vibrant act of community on LinkedIn. But we need to make sure – the challenge with groups is that you need to have sufficient number of moderators and people who actively manage it and want to sign up for doing that to keep things vibrant and fresh. So you’ll start to see us doing more of that and sort of injecting a sort of energy into those groups, but also integrating a little bit more cleanly into the overall experience on LinkedIn where right now it’s actually very difficult to find groups on LinkedIn. You have to go to a separate tab to actually find it. But make it more integrated with the overall experience along with another thing that we’ve launched. It’s called Hashtag so you can actually follow particular hashtags, sort of a hashtag for market research. And what that allows you to do is allows you to get sort of content that we’re sort of curating across the entire ecosystem into your feed. And so then you’re able to sort of indicate what your preferences are and what you’d like to hear of more in addition to what’s happening in the groups you sign up at where you can have that sort of intimate dialogue and two-way conversation.
And the hashtags work exactly like they do on Twitter for example, right?
I know most marketing researchers are using new MR and MRX and then I like the idea since we don’t have the character limit of also expanding that to market research. I’ll definitely start improving my posts now thinking about that.
Absolutely. I think the other thing is like the more people that are using it the more people will naturally be attracted to it. And I think it’s kind of a flywheel that we need to respectively play in and keep going. Yeah.
My guest today has been Rogier. Rogier, thank you very much for joining me today.
Yeah, you’re welcome. Pleasure.