Today my guest is Stacey Walker, consumer insights leader here at Adobe. Adobe is the global leader in digital media and digital marketing solutions. Stacey has headed up insights for Netflix, Walmart, Visa and has taught at Columbia University in the Sociology Department.
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Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted. Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another major market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses. Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today my guest is Stacey Walker, consumer insights leader here at Adobe. We’re actually privileged to be in Adobe’s office today, and I’m joined by William. Unfortunately, Chloe could not make it because she is being responsible and actually doing work. Thank you, Chloe. [Chloe: “No, I’m not.”] No, you’re not.
Adobe is the global leader in digital media and digital marketing solutions. Additionally, Stacey has headed up insights for Netflix, Walmart, Visa and has taught at Columbia University in the Sociology Department. Stacey, welcome to the Happy Market Research podcast.
I’m happy to be here. Thanks for coming to Adobe.
So, I’d like to start with the signature question: Tell us a little bit about your upbringing.
Sure. Well, I grew up in a really diverse area culturally. I grew up next to Queens, and it was a really different experience, I would think, than a lot of people have as they’re growing up. I had friends from all different cultures, lots of first-generation people, who I went to school with. And that sort of spurred my interest in learning about different subcultures, cultures, and sort of kind of got me into sociology a little bit.
So, tell me a little bit about your parents. What did they do?
My father was an insurance salesman, and my mother worked in real estate. My father was also a double-E, so he was an electrical engineer by training. And he LOVED to tinker with computers, just LOVED technology. We would have little tiny computers all over the house that he would just toy with. So I think that also encouraged me to move into tech because he got me into programming a little bit.
Back in the days of Basic? [laughter] So, your mom, was she a life-long real estate agent?
Yeah, I mean on and off for, I would say, 20 years.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you bring up that your dad is an electrical engineer and sort of his tinkering with computers. Computers were a lot more like cars back in those days, right? And, if you wanted to actually have a computer, you had to work on the computer, like literally physically do work on the computer. My first – I’ll call it real job – was managing what’s called a wang system, which was basically a vacuum-cleaner type. Literally, there was a whole room that was twice as big as the room we’re in right now that was just the main frames and everything like that. And one of the neat parts that I got to help with (I didn’t oversee it but help with) was the actual transition from that mainframe to the desktop, right? I think it was Windows 3.5 like the very first from DOS to Windows. And it was a really… just like roll up your sleeves and get stuff done – wild, wild West. You know there was no internet so you had to use different magazines to figure out how to code stuff, right? It was a fun time.
Yeah, yeah, it was.
I think that probably one of my favorite parts of that was just this… grabbing a magazine and digesting the content inside of it because you had to wait 30 days for the next issue to come out. So, do you have any memorable experiences programming or working on the computers with your dad?
I just remember when I was 12, I got so excited ‘cause I was able to do a printout of a house design. [laughter] It sounds so ridiculous right now ‘cause it was so simple but I was, you know, a kid and it was just exciting.
That’s a really big deal. It’s been interesting, that as a starting point to today driving up here to Adobe in San Jose, using Google maps. And, of course, I know the route inside and out, but the reason I use Google maps was to identify if there were any traffic pattern issues, right? So you go from that to your point – it’s like very early stage application of technology. And now, all of a sudden, it’s completely inundated everything, literally, everything that I’m doing right now. And you at Adobe, you guys have been a massive part of my life. In fact, more so than any other tech company outside of maybe Apple, which was my very first computer. My first professional business that I did in college was called Anchor Graphic Design, and I started it so that I could be able to pay off my Apple computer that I bought. And I used Adobe Illustrator and eventually saved enough money for Adobe Photoshop. Once I paid it off, I quit doing the company and just played video games on it, I think. [laughter]
Well, it’s great to hear that you’re an adopter of our brands even back then.
Yeah, thank you. But my broader point is really how this company has sustained through generational shifts, right, as being the leader in this space. Not a lot of companies can say that.
Yeah, I would say that Adobe doesn’t sit still or rest on its laurels. We really have changed as the world has changed. We see opportunities in different places like experience design now, really designing for customer experiences, and moving beyond that to marketing and marketing experiences. So we’re kind of the experience company now.
Yeah, it’s a neat transformation, meanwhile still having the underpinnings of the tool set enabling other companies – like even Happy Market Research – through Audition and Photoshop and Premier and so on and so forth.
It’s really great to hear that.
So, and incidentally they didn’t pay me to do that nor did they give me free software. In 2003, you were at Netflix. I remember 2003 really well; I remember Netflix at that point in time also. There was a lot of buzz. You guys had a million users; that was just like this break-through moment. And then, at the same time, you really started seeing the phoenixes come out of the ashes of the dot com bust that had happened just a year or two earlier. Can you talk to us just a little bit about why you joined Netflix in those days and what it was like working in the Valley?
Well, at that point, it was a huge opportunity and a great product. You mentioned 2003… I still feel like I’m dating myself by saying this, but we were mailing DVDs at that point. And some of the research that we did was on the mailers themselves and how to get people to not rip right through the entire mailer so that they can mail back the DVD. But it was pretty heady times. We were a very scrappy team in marketing and also really rigorous at the same time. So, it was very focused on really understanding the customer, getting a sense of how the brand was performing, especially in relation to Blockbuster.
But always really metrics-driven and conservative in a good way with cash so that we could eventually realize that dream of becoming Netflix being available on the internet. That was always Reed Hastings goal.
And, of course, absolutely one of the most difficult transitions ever that I’ve heard about and to navigate that as successfully as he did, especially with Blockbuster declining the acquisition opportunity. He is probably top 3 for me. [laughter] It’s just epic. What an epic story! The point that you brought up just now about cash is really interesting for me. I’m exposed to a lot of start-ups, and they’re burning cash right now. And it feels to me at a tangible level a lot I saw in 1989 and 2000 where people were a lot less concerned about burn rates and a lot more concerned about user acquisition. And I just wonder if you’re getting that type of feeling with being in the middle of the Silicon Valley.
I’m not going to say that I have complete déjà vu, but I have a little bit of déjà vu right now, in part, because the “not” part is because it’s not completely based on eyeballs, which it was if you remember.
Yes, I think user acquisition, monthly active views, those are all metrics now that companies focus on. And they’re a little bit more tangible, a little bit more concrete than just getting eyeballs. But it still feels a little…
It feels a little frothy; I guess is how I’d put it. [laughter]
Not exactly bubble territory, but it’s frothy.
Yeah, exactly. Then, of course, we recently saw a change in the market, a little bit of a correction over the last few days. And I think that’s been healthy, kind of seeing that – just not explosive growth. But it is interesting to me that you have companies that… and I’m talking about not that are publicly traded but are really sort of at that early stage that are closing 10–20 million-dollar rounds. I’m sure they’re earning it but on a lot of faith that things are going to go great. So run to cash. That’s it, right? Actually, it’s run to revenue; race to cash. That’s my mantra in start-up land. So, recently you did some volunteer work, trying to raise awareness of housing issues in San Mateo.
Yes, in San Mateo county. It was a program put on by Joint Venture Silicon Valley with Adobe and myself and three other marketeers put together a program for the San Mateo Department of Housing to help them come up with a marketing strategy for second units. Driving adoption of second units, which is a pretty big commitment if somebody is building on their property.
Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that? I think maybe most of the audience isn’t from the area, so…
Sure. So, here in Silicon Valley, we have a hugely disproportionate jobs-to-housing ratio. We have a housing shortage. I’m trying to avoid saying that it’s a crisis because that’s language that sort of turns people’s brains off.
I think mathematically… I just saw this statistic. I haven’t validated this statistic, but it’s like 3 to 50. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s a big… my eyebrows went up. [laughter]
Yeah, and it’s a tremendous problem for traffic, for people moving out of the area. And it’s not great for communities. So that really struck a chord with me in terms of a passion project where I could help the community, get involved, and, hopefully, drive some people to build on the land that they own so that they can accommodate either family members or rentals or teachers who can’t afford to live in the area.
It’s a worthwhile cause. There were three colleagues – is that correct? – that you partnered with?
And all Adobe employees?
They were all Adobe employees.
Does Adobe help sponsor your time or other materials in that or…?
Yes, they do. So, they have a very generous volunteering program. You can volunteer some of your time. And the hours that you put in to community service, they will actually match donations for charities. Adobe is a great place to work; so, if anyone is thinking about it, they should really consider it. It’s a great place to work.
We just did an interview (I think it’s publishing in about six weeks.) with the founder and CEO of Research for Good. And they are a panel supplier that has a double-bottom-line approach to their business. And they actually started out with that as the thesis. So, for every dollar of profit, 50 cents or 50%, is donated to a specific non-profit that is feeding the hungry. It’s a very worthwhile cause. And it was interesting in talking with her about the tension between balancing a mission-driven company against profit, right, and especially in the context of… She’s not a billion-dollar company. They’re privately held; they’re in a highly competitive marketing research sample providers. It seems like it’s a decreasing asset, right? But yet, having said that, they’re doing well. I don’t have visibility on the books, but my point is that the communication, what I see in the market place is very positive. And their claim is that “our employees and our customers get behind the fact that we’re a missions-driven organization and also, we deliver best-in-class quality etc., etc. So you CAN have both, right?
I believe that you can. I believe that you can do well and also do good.
Right, well said. So, we have a little game we want to play. This is going to be an experiment. This might get cut if it blows up. [laughter] So, in this kind of made-up narrative, you’ve got ten Stacey bucks and you get to invest in a marketing research technology that’s going to pay out in five years. So, what is that? 2023, I guess? I’m going to hand you the list, and you’re going to tell me where you’re going to distribute your ten Stacey bucks.
- You’re not going to set this up as a conjoint? [laughter]
I just blew the mic. OK. I thought about that, but I felt that it would be less… less exciting for the…
This is probably less time-consuming.
Maybe. It’s going to be full factorial too. Really exciting. Big data, social listening, traditional focus groups, survey tools, voice (that would be like Alexa, Google Home, etc.), blockchain technology, AR, VR, machine learning and AI (which, for some reason I put those together, right?) and then brand trackers. So, you’re going to invest in a company with ten Stacey bucks, and these are your ten products. So, you’ve got the pen. And I’m super interested to see where you put your ten Stacey bucks.
This is a tough one.
You’re trying to maximize your outcome. But also, you know, of course, you have the risk mitigation factor as well.
Wait, I’m a venture capitalist. I might get fired, but I’m not putting my own dollars on the line.
You do get fired or you’re rehired somewhere else, just keep being promoted by accidentally being right. One in forty.
Right, exactly. I don’t have to have a great track record. [laughter] OK, here we go.
I normally hate asking respondents to do zero sum questions. It’s the highest dropout rate. So, anyway, I apologize about the poor survey design. So, for the record Big Data got 0; social listening got 0; focus groups got 0; survey tools got 0; voice got a 4 – and that was the first one you wrote down, I think.
Blockchain got 2; AR got 2 – and that was the last one that you wrote down. And AI/machine learning got a 2. Talk to us. What was resonating with you?
Well, it was a toss-up between voice and blockchain, two technologies that I see as really emerging, especially when you think about Amazon putting products out these days: hardware that can listen and respond, Google etc. So I think that’s going to be pretty huge. Blockchain… I’m excited about blockchain. But I do feel like there’s a lot of investment that’s happening in it. I’m excited as a market researcher because it will eventually give us a real fidelity into who is taking surveys and doing research. It’ll tie it all together. So I’m actually very excited about it, but I think maybe the opportunity is starting to crest and likewise with the other plays that I have there. AI/machine learning – I feel like that’s on its way up but also cresting. And virtual reality… I don’t know how I feel about it. I would invest more in augmented reality. That’s where I see things going versus virtual reality.
So, yeah, those are my ten-dollar plays.
Let’s piggyback on voice for a little bit ‘cause I’m super-passionate on this particular subject, especially relevant to market research, ‘cause I’m not seeing a lot of market researchers thinking about how they can help their customers navigate the data divide in a voice-only world, right? So, we start moving more and more towards a or away from a traditional… Wherever I am I get exposed to something if somebody pays for it, right? So, if you’re wealthy enough to brand, you get to buy an endcap in the grocery store or whatever or a big billboard, or you can get on the front page of Google AdWords, Amazon search results, etc. But in a voice-only world, the transaction is: me in the kitchen, “Alexa, buy paper towels.” That’s my favorite go-to example because I literally do that. But it’s something… buy something that I’m out of, and then Alexa fulfills that. And in that world, I think marketing research has an important job to do to help inform brands today before it’s too late, before they’re completely disrupted because of this massive change in the user journey…the user-consumption journey. So, as you kind of work through where your bet was, what were you thinking? As I totally screwed up that question because I answered it before. [laughter] Market researchers don’t do this.
I believe that’s called leading the witness. [laughter] What I was thinking is a few things. We have technology now that allows video and audio capture, and I’m seeing that really come to the fore. Just think about research, not necessarily about brands, but also about brands because video and audio is prevalent everywhere. We also have technology that helps us analyze what we’re hearing. So I see this being the perfect moment to talk with people as if they’re people and not ask them to type and write in surveys but to respond in a more natural way. So I see that emerging for doing studies but also how we interact to order products. It’s more of a natural way to get things done.
I love it. You’re right because you start moving away from the 10-point scales. And the way that we can do that is qualitative scale, right? And that’s exactly the point: that we can process not just ten conversations, but we can process thousands of conversations and then make decisions as long as it takes out the conversations. Super-powerful stuff. Well, I’ll let you know in five years how your Stacey bucks have evolved. [laughter] So, what is the function inside Adobe of market research?
Ahh, market research helps the company make decisions. We help inform whether or not products should stay in the market, come out of the market. We help product marketeers with their positioning and messaging. We, of course, do run the business activities; so, we have more programmatic research as well that helps us understand the customer journey. So, as they come to our website and visit us, who are they? What are they doing there? What’s their intent? How can we improve the website to help them? Once they sign up, we figure out where they’re coming from how their experience is going. And then we have other touch points. Because we have a subscription model, we want to understand how people are doing as they leave us and if there’s something we can do to bring them back again. So we have programmatic research but we also have strategic research. We do all kinds of research: qualitative, quantitative. And we’re embedded in a larger analytics team, which is really powerful because we can connect actions with “why?”
Talk to me a little bit about the larger team. This isn’t the right way you guys frame it, I’m sure but sort of this data ecosystem. Where does market research fit? Who’s inside of that sphere?
Inside of the data ecosystem’s sphere?
Does that make sense? That’s silly. I didn’t mean it like that.
[laughter] So, that contains behavioral data – so actions that might have been taken in the product (product launches, etc.). It contains data about website visits. It’s pretty much what you would expect from a digital company. The benefit of being collocated with an analytics team is that you get access to the data and you’re able to put everything together.
Got it. So is the role of like UX sitting inside of market research or is that a different division?
It’s actually a different division. They are really pretty focused on understanding the product as it exists today: user actions, and work flows, and generating ideas for building new products.
Is there overlap in the types of projects that are done between what I think of as traditional market research versus UX?
Yeah, most certainly, and there are times when we work together.
Got it. So there’s part bridges that are built.
Yeah, we are a very collaborative and highly matrixed organization.
You have to be.
Yep. [laughter] As most big companies, I think, are. And so we work together: there are areas of expertise that they have, that we don’t have, and vice versa.
Totally. How do you guys practically navigate that? [laughter] Do you have an example of a project where there was some sort of collaboration?
It’s funny I don’t have… The reason I chuckled a bit is because I don’t have a standard, pat answer for it. Every project is different. There are meetings with a variety of stakeholders that come to them. And we typically will hash out some kind of a project plan, based on that. But there’s no one right answer to that question.
So, in that sort of framework, how do you guys handle… (This is like super inside baseball) how do you guys handle corporate budgets?
That is super inside baseball. [laughter] Delicately. [laughter] I mean we do touch base as teams to understand what the road maps look like, and we try to allocate accordingly… but, yeah, delicately.
Yeah, because you have to be agile, based on whatever the specific needs are at that point in time. Interesting stuff right there. Market research has got a ton of buzz around blockchain. You talked about it a moment ago in your investment thesis. [laughter
I like that it’s a thesis now. That sounds smar
I guarantee you everyone is going to be looking for this online. We’re going to start a fund on Stacey bucks. Yeah, the new cryptocurrency. But, as it relates with blockchain, are you seeing any very specific applications of it where you guys are paying for it or other brands are paying for it?
I’m not seeing it realize its potential right now, but I see the potential. Obviously, in currency, it’s real, but in market research, I think it’s pretty nascent.
What is the tipping point or what do you think the tipping point is for blockchain when it becomes part of our consideration as researchers? Is it specific just to the panel quality. The first company that actually introduces… (We’ll pick on Research Now.) If Research Now launches a new blockchain technology, is there a big differentiation there?
I think if a research panel company were to launch something like this, market researchers would be pretty excited about it. So, when you said “tipping point,” I thought that there were a bunch of different things that could come into play, one of them being consumers’ willingness to put themselves out there and be identifiable and opting into that. So, I think we’re at a point where that could happen. People are fairly identifiable now. So it’s just making it a bit more of a formal way of doing it.
And then making sure that the monetization model makes sense ‘cause that’s part of the choke point, right?
Yeah, one of things that I would also be excited about is people actually selling their data. We’re kind of getting it for free right now. I’m sure that you’ve heard the expression that “data is the new oil.” Right? It’s just out there and go for it. But I think that is a more fair and more equitable model.
Yeah, I totally agree. The problem is that the economics start changing obviously if we have to go to the pump versus the ground. And that sort of starts for me thinking about where the big disruption is going to be inside of our space, right? That is going to be for me the next three-year window: who brings blockchain to market? Because it will be disruptive. And then also is the market going to be willing to pay for it? Because right now you might have an average cost per complete of, (I’m making this up; I have no idea what it is.) we’ll say, hypothetically, it’s $3, or $5. I’m talking about if you go directly to the panel company that’s the cheapest. For GenPop. But in that world, I’m going to sell you my data my three bucks for a 15-minute survey? Probably not. I’m going to charge something for my time and then also the extrinsic value of all the stuff that is tethering to it, whatever that is.
You know, considering the magnitude of the decisions that get made off of that data, I think having valid data is really crucial to organizations.
So your value there is trumping the cost ‘cause it’s still the tail wagging the dog. You mentioned Adobe is a great place to work, and you’ve worked at a number of other fantastic places. In fact, Netflix, they produced one of the most famous HR decks. I don’t know if you ever read…
Yeah, of course, you did. [laughter] So, when you think about – given your breadth of experience, especially in the Silicon Valley – what do you see as the characteristics of an all-star employee?
Oh, well, I can name a few things. Specific to market research but also more broadly: broadly, somebody who is flexible and agile, can work through change (that’s really important in Silicon Valley), and, for market research, I will say that some of the best researchers I’ve hired have been excellent communicators. I fundamentally believe that market research has a marketing problem sometimes. So it’s great to get these “ah-ha” moments but, if you can’t communicate them effectively, they fall flat. And so I look for people who have really, really good communication skills – verbally and visually.
Have you… Do you have specific resources you use to help train market researchers on storytelling?
We have internally at Adobe used Duarte for storytelling and data visualization. And that’s been very helpful. A lot of the folks who come in… We have templated decks that they can use and start from, but it does take some training to get people up to speed.
When you think over the last few years, do you find that corporate researchers are bringing more of the research function in-house or moving it out to vendors, specialized vendors?
It’s a mix. I’ve seen it go in both directions just like I’ve seen departments centralized and decentralized. It really depends on what you’re trying to tackle. I’ve seen hybrid models that work as well. I’m not necessarily seeing a trend one way or another at least in Silicon Valley. I think, historically, companies here have in that sort of scrappy way taken on work internally. But even companies that have professed, “Oh, we don’t use outside research” – I’ve eventually found out that they have used outside research. It’s really about how you want to spend your time and how you want to spend your budget. We get value from using external resources. But what I find… Where they can’t bridge that last mile is really telling the story. They don’t spend time within our walls; I find they don’t know our issues quite deeply enough. And that’s not to say that they can’t get better, but it’s really hard to keep apace of all the nuances and change that happen within an organization. So you do need somebody on the inside to bridge that gap and tell a story.
Do you have then partners who have desks here or some regular sequencing?
We do from some of our vendors. And that goes so far, yeah. It’s still not going to get us to the last mile because they’re not in every conversation that they could be in.
Right, and the obvious point being that you have to have that research owned internally in order for it to have the impact on the organization to effect change.
And we would prefer to be the ones who are driving the change and not have an outside vendor do that.
Yeah, I mean it makes perfect sense. Are there any other gaps that you’re seeing? If somebody’s listening to this podcast, for example, is there something you’d like, say, “Gosh, shout out, I really wish somebody would do this. Fix blockchain or whatever.” [laughter]
Yeah, fix blockchain would be one. More, more video analysis: that’s another one that we’re always on the lookout for; really showing the human side of things. Those are some of the things that we look for ‘cause we’re awash in data. We need to be able to pull it together and show the human aspect.
I love that: “awash in data.” I mean that’s an exact depiction of it. We’re drowning in the oil, right? It’s the formation of the oil. And you guys are doing a lot of work on that too, right? The formation of the data and then taking it to that full life cycle of feedback from the user perspective.
Yeah. It’s not to say that we don’t generate insights from the data. Of course, we do. But there’s a lot of information out there. We need ways to distill it and put a face on it.
My guest today has been Stacey Walker from Adobe, Head of Insights. Thank you very much for joining me today.
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Next time on the Happy Market Research Podcast, I’ll be joined by Mark Ziontz, CEO of Automated Insights. This is a great opportunity for you to be able to learn from a seasoned CEO how he applies his two decades to drive very fast, rapid, healthy growth in our industry. Have a great day! Hope you can tune in.