How The Growth Role Has Evolved And Will Continue To Do So (With Will Wong, VP Lifecycle at Disney+ & ESPN+)
How The Growth Role Has Evolved And Will Continue To Do So (With Will Wong, VP Lifecycle at Disney+ & ESPN+)
Will has had a storied career across tons of cool companies (Disney, Twitch, Dropbox, Etsy, Ebay, Oscar Health, and more), where he's worked on many different aspects of growth. Throughout the years, he's seen the growth role from many different perspective and watched it evolve and change over time. In this episode he shares insights on where growth has come from, how different parts of the role have been commoditized, and what we can expect of the growth function in coming years.
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Matt Bilotti: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Growth Podcast. I am your host Matt Bilotti and I am really excited today to dig in and talk through how growth has evolved over the last 10 plus years, how it will evolve in the coming years. And I am joined today by Will Wong who is a VP of lifecycle at Disney + and ESPN +. Will, thanks so much for joining.
Will Wong: Yeah, Matt. Great to be on the podcast.
Matt Bilotti: Absolutely. So I connected with Will a couple of weeks ago and saw his background and it's a very storied background through all different aspects of growth, channels, tactics, different places, different business models and contexts. And we talked through what a good topic might be and it really seems like he's seen all the pieces of growth over the years and I figure we can dive in on what's the same, what's different, all that. So, I'm going to give Will a little bit more time to intro himself then other folks usually get on this podcast because I think it is critical to the topic at hand and then we will go ahead and jump in. So Will, why don't you tell the folks a little bit more about your background?
Will Wong: Yeah, yeah, awesome. So the quick intro is today I lead up the lifecycle team for Disney + and ESPN + working specifically on notifications and messaging to engage and re- engage subscribers across all our streaming services around the world and in specific incidences more recently even driving upsells. McGregor had a big fight this weekend, unfortunately he didn't win, but our team was really responsible for driving existing subscribers into purchasing that fight as well. I think before I got into this space I'd been in growth professionally for 13 years but started way before that. I grew up in the Bay Area right in the middle of the dot com boom. Built my first inaudible site when I was 13, built it on Nintendo 64 cheat codes and I just got hooked on the web counter back then, change the site design, add more content, get more traffic. When it was time to start a career I was just lucky that growth, digital marketing, internet marketing was just the thing back in 2007 when I entered the workforce. And just been really lucky with the amount of experience I've had. Starting early on in SEO, really understanding how that works directly with ask. com. I was a search quality rater, it was my first job out of school. Learned from the inside out how a search engine works and therefore that led to SEO. Spent time at eBay on their SEM team, one of the biggest spenders across paid search. Back around 2009 got to really learn the ropes on Facebook ads at Bloom Spot, a daily deal site that was competing with Groupon and Living Social back in the early 2010s. Moved to a gaming company, Rumble Games, really at the heyday of Zynga and Farmville and all the notifications that you would get and really understood how the drive K factor and viral growth through that means. Early days at Dropbox when they launched the business product really understanding SAS and then more recently at Disney right in the middle of the streaming wars and we're off to a great start with$ 86 billion plus in just a little bit over a year.
Matt Bilotti: That is super exciting and it must be such a fun place to be and a fascinating place to work. Cool. So why don't we just go ahead and dive right in. Something that we talked about a bit before we jumped on this podcast here was you had mentioned that you feel like a lot of core growth tactics have gotten and will continue to be commoditized which I thought was a really interesting way to put it. Can you tell us a bit more about what that means to you like how you think about that and where you see this commoditization of growth tactics going?
Will Wong: Yeah. Yeah. So something I noticed when I began my career in this space in the late two thousands heading to early 2010s everything was new. No one knew how things work. Platforms didn't even know where they would be. Platforms I mean by Googles, Facebooks of the world because they were really just still growing at the time. And so a lot of the keys to growth in those early days was really just finding the inefficiencies in the market, finding out how a system works and really building your acquisition or retention programs around that. Now for SEO back in'07 it was as simple as if you want to rank for podcasts, not that podcasts were available then, put podcast in the title, put podcast in the content of your page. It was simple as that. You do that and you're almost guaranteed a top 10 spot because not too many people know how to do it. And nowadays all the tactics are well- documented, it's well shared. And an analogy I like to give is in the beginning it starts with understanding inefficiencies and figuring out how to take advantage of it. And the example I like to give is my favorite team, take a look at the Golden State Warriors. They drive to Steph Curry, they drive to Clay Thompson, best three point shooting back court, and it was a time where NBA players didn't really take threes and just threw that and luckily actually drafting the two best three point shooters ever. They ended up winning three championships. You fast forward to today, three point shooting is a commodity. You look at a player like Brook Lopez who's a seven foot center. This guy didn't take a single three or even make a single three in the first five years of his career. Now half the shots is from the three point line which is insane because it's gone from," Oh hey, this is inefficiency, people aren't taking enough threes in the NBA," to," Oh, that's the thing that we need to go do. Let's go train everyone who can take threes." And if I think about growth that's where things were in the early days where channels were still new, channels was still emerging. It wasn't really clear how to win and how to actually grow your product or find users for your product. So a lot of it was just testing new things, testing wacky ideas. But today I think for any company I've worked with or have worked with you can come up with all those ideas on the whiteboard. The growth tactics themselves, in my opinion, has really become commoditized. And it's really about you actually line up your team, line up your resources, get the marketing product, data analytics and tech works to all work together so you can actually go down that list of commoditized tactics as quick as possible to figure out what the right portfolio is for your product.
Matt Bilotti: One of the other things that you had brought up when we were talking through a topic was how when you think about Facebook and Facebook ads and other platforms that will probably follow suit it used to be you have your money and then you completely figure out your own way to invest it in ads. But now it's much more so they're centralizing it and saying like," Give us your money and then we will do it for you." How do you think about how that shift is going to happen across all other channels and platforms?
Will Wong: Yeah, absolutely. So, in those early days of Facebook, of Google and running ads on those systems, so much of the efficiencies and so much of unlocking how to drop your CPA or increase your reach was from a search instance how do you build your campaign structure? How are you looking at negative keywords? How are you up on your quality score? It's a lot of detailed minutiae where you just really have to tinker and tinker and tinker and over time you're going to see that in your overall performance and how you optimize your spend. To use a non- paid example, SEO is the same way. How do you structure your site? How do you list your XML inaudible It's basic as things like that. How do you make it easier for crawlers to go through your site? And then even in the early days of Facebook a lot of that was also how do you structure your audiences? How do you actually upload your own list to create the lookalikes? To if you look at Facebook today it's so much more about you just giving them a list of your best audiences and they will through their algorithms and through their internal tools and not even give you so much control helping you find the customers. And so, it's shifted from you as the growth practitioner in terms of cracking the code, in terms of figuring out how these platforms are built and how to take advantage of it, to getting a better understanding of your own data, your own customers, giving that data over to them and letting them run their magic so to speak. It takes a lot of the challenge away but it's also why I'm more and more believing that tactics themselves are moving more in this commoditized space and a lot of it is really just shifted to you understanding who your best customers are, your ability to log and track the appropriate data so you can take advantage of these systems and the way they're moving towards.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah and at that point the efficiencies get tackled by the platform themselves, right? Presumably Facebook is taking all your money and investing it because they have just figured out their own inefficiencies by people finding them and exploiting them and they're just saying," We could do this. We could just handle this. And so it gets exponentially harder to find those efficiencies on your own.
Will Wong: Yeah, absolutely. And another point to maybe think about too, and this might get a little bit overly meta on the first principle side of things, is that and I've worked with the client on this and I can't share the client's name but it's a pretty big one and they've grown pretty fast over the past few years. But when I first joined they didn't have much of a big Facebook presence. They're a leading e- commerce brand, they're probably one of the top five traffic e- commerce sites today. And they could make search work, SEO work, but they couldn't quite make Facebook work. And one of the things that we've understood after a little bit of research is that at the end of the day they're targeting a customer that's female but lives in the U. S., in a major city, high earning between ages of 25 to 45. And the challenge that they ran into is that everyone is targeting that group. There are so many startups, DTC companies, big businesses, small businesses that target that same group. And because of the systems now hey upload your audience to Facebook and they will go find you your customer. One thing to keep in mind too is it's now a battle who has the biggest LTV going after that same market. And this business had very low LTVs in terms of what their take rate was from their e- commerce site. And at the end of the day, we couldn't really afford more than four or$ 5 a CPA or an e- commerce purchase from someone who's female 25 to 45. If you take a look at any other service they're targeting three times, four times, five times that amount and sometimes even more. And so a lot of it in terms of," Well, how would you make Facebook work in this instance," is," Well, how do you actually drive more engagement? How do you actually drive more repeat purchases and e- commerce sites to increase your LTVs and therefore make this whole system work?"
Matt Bilotti: One of the things that you had also mentioned which I think ties into this whole efficiency thing and finding what works in the channel is that the first mover in a new channel is something that consistently makes winners. And being the first mover in a channel is absolutely critical and that has been pretty consistent over the past decade plus in growth. Can you talk a little bit more about what you meant by that when we were talking about it?
Will Wong: Yeah 100% and if I were to draw off the similar example is once everyone realizes that a channel is profitable or that you can drive growth there and today that's going to be your Facebooks, your YouTubes, your Google searches, affiliate, things like that, it becomes a big battle of who has more dollars to spend and those that have more dollars spent it on LTV. During the instance where efficiency is important, you don't have a big budget, or you really need a big driver that doesn't require a ton of resources channels are always changing. It's going to hop between it started out of home and then it moved online and in the early days of online it was all display ads and then it became all SEO and then it became all paid search and then Facebook and then mobile and then so on and so forth. Is that eyeballs continually like to move to different and if you're able to invest early, try things and even try things before tracking or analyses is even there a lot of the first movers tend to get the biggest advantages because it's a completely green field and not a lot of people have figured it out. You want to be the practitioner or the company that creates the case study not following others. Because generally if you're following a best practice that someone else already established it's already really late in the game and someone else is already taking a lot of the market. And if you were to jump in then it comes down to who has the biggest wallet at that point.
Matt Bilotti: Do you think that there is a playbook where you can approach a new channel in a similarly methodical way and then that helps you crack it or do you think that all these new channels are just so fundamentally different from one another that you have to start at brand new first principles?
Will Wong: I definitely think it's not always a new channel. I mean, I think a good point you bring up there is it's also really important to reevaluate past assumptions because as time goes on some of the previous assumptions just don't hold true anymore and all of a sudden a previously inefficient channel all of a sudden works again. An example I can think of is when I worked at Oscar Health they were one of the leading self- insured health insurance spaces right in the launch of Obamacare. And two examples there of a brand new channel and us making an old channel work was that when the health exchanges launched healthcare.gov for nationwide and then if you take a look at the state by state exchanges, for example here in California it's covercalifornia. ca, is that the health exchanges where an individual can go and find healthcare that was basically like the app store. When the Apple app store first launched a ton of ads could launch and that was a huge source for organic growth. A lot of Oscars signups came from that channel. What will really surprise you is what one of our second largest growth channels were and being one of our largest subscribers base being in New York it was actually subway ads. And at the time, no one would have thought that subway ads would be a huge growth driver but at that point so many advertisers in the New York City subway system had left to move online that it was actually dirt cheap to buy out a train car or a full 10 car train. Because if you were taking the subway then every single ad there was essentially DUI lawyers or clinical trials so very sketchy companies looking for people to test certain early stage drugs. And if you go in New York City a subway, well maybe not today but maybe before the pandemic, every car basically looks like the website of a VCs portfolio page. And what we actually found in those first years is that a ton of our sign- ups came in and, or claimed that they came in through a subway ad. But as you went through year two of open enrollment, year three, year four, it became a best practice. More and more people started buying up and actually by our third or fourth year subway ads we still ran them but they were by far not as efficient as they were year one. So, I think that's a good example of trying a new channel, healthcare. gov, when a new opportunity opens up take advantage of it and also reevaluating older channels too that have a good fit for what you're doing but also may become efficient because things have changed over time.
Matt Bilotti: It makes a lot of sense. It makes me think of TV advertising as an example of that. One thing that you mentioned at the end there was that you could evaluate those old channels when something in it shifts and over the past handful of years we've seen such a massive shift in TV going to all these streaming services and that fundamentally changes the way that you might want to think about advertising on it.
Will Wong: Yeah, completely. It's something definitely worth revisiting. I mean, I know out of home became the big thing over the past five years too, not subway alone but billboards, things like that, because you have to recognize when too many people right off a channel that that's an opportunity for an efficient way to grow your business.
Matt Bilotti: So, shifting a bit away from tactics and more about growth philosophy and mindset how consistent do you think the growth philosophy has been over the years? Has it always fundamentally been the same thing, are people that are doing growth work on your teams today are they thinking in the same way that they were thinking 10 years ago or are there just such fundamental shifts in the thought process around it?
Will Wong: I mean, it's certainly ebbs and flows but one thing that I can say that's always been true is the good growth marketers know which tactics works. And what I notice is the really great growth marketers or growth product people or any type of growth practitioner they know which tactics worked and they know why they worked. Because if you understand the why, the why stays true because the why represents why your customer, why the user, why that tactic even worked on that user. And that it will apply across different channels, different tactics, different products. And I think that part always really holds true. I would say from a team skill perspective this is my perspective and I always think this will be true is the best growth marketers and the best culture for growth success is to understand that growth isn't a marketing thing, it's not a product thing, it's not a data thing, it's all of the above. And the teams are able to pull those different parts of the organization together and work seamlessly across those parts of the organization. They're going to be the most successful and they are going to find the most success.
Matt Bilotti: Thinking a little ahead, do you think that growth itself will end as a dedicated discipline?
Will Wong: That's actually a really interesting question and I've talked to some colleagues about this and we pontificate about where it could go. Because, and I can say this for myself too, it's in the early days where I would call it before growth became commoditized as it is now, if you could get permission or pull an engineer aside or pull a little bit of test budget aside, a handful of wins will get you more engineering time or more budget. These days what I've found that what's been really missing in this space is really just more traditional management, managing up, managing across, managing down in terms of how you actually build the culture and actually align the organization to go drive growth. And I think one of the things today is the swing is away from tactics and into how do actually align the organization.
Matt Bilotti: Right. It's going to be less about the independent actors like maybe back in the Dropbox days it was more of a, correct me if I'm wrong but it was more of you have this team that's doing some really cool stuff and other people in the company are watching it and saying," Wow, I can't believe they're pulling that stuff off." But now it's going to be shifting more towards a everyone is in the know, they understand it and everyone thinks about the systems the same way.
Will Wong: Yeah 100% and I can say even from just leadership teams it's gone from how do you grow to how do you test faster and how do you do more things faster and we've gotten to the part where people understand how inaudible work, they understand product market fit. It's really all about speed.
Matt Bilotti: If someone's listening and they're just getting started in their career and growth, maybe they're doing some growth marketing work or they're doing growth on a product team, they're thinking about how they want to view the future of their career in this space that is weirdly different in every single company... I think product management was like this 10 years ago where and even still is. The title product manager generally means something pretty different in a lot of places and growth I think even more so means a lot of different things in a lot of different places. What advice would you give to someone that's early on and thinking about how they're going to find their way?
Will Wong: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think there's maybe two pieces of advice that I would give and it's biased because I think this is what's really helped me along the way. Number one, always make sure you know how to access the data and get access to the data. And I would say for the past 10 plus years or so there's been new systems and tools but if you can write SQL, if you know how to use Looker or Tableau or whatever your company's BI system is, don't wait for someone else to tell you what's happening with the business, learn how to get to the data and learn for yourself. Because most companies these days, they're going to have open access to anyone who knows how to access the data and if you're working on growth you're going to have access. So, really spend the time to learn the core skills so you're always in the know, not depend on another team or a dashboard to tell you what is going on. And I would say the second is interdisciplinary skills across the tech orgs, the data orgs and the business/ marketing orgs are always going to be key. And so, to really get ahead of that understand how the other organizations work. If you're in marketing understand how sprint planning works from a product perspective, understand what the tech stack is for the data org and things like that. Similarly if you're in product management, it's going to go a long way to understand how does marketing work? How do they do user research? How do they allocate their marketing budget? How does targeting work across various paid and organic channels? So on and so forth. And so, growth is going to continue to become more and more interdisciplinary and it's not going to matter which org you are. It's going to be these three combined. I can't urge enough understand how all three stacks work. And you don't have to be an expert on it but having a cursory knowledge at least of the others is going to be key.
Matt Bilotti: Do you think that the deep skill set in any given tactic is and will become less and less valuable or do you think that there will still be a really high value opportunity for someone that is legitimately better than everyone else in the market on paid ads or anything like that? I would have to imagine based on what you were talking about earlier the efficiencies are going to shrink and so it's harder and harder to get there. So maybe it means that if you go really deep on SEO and you build your career there for 10 years and you can actually stand above the rest you're more valuable than you would have been 10 years ago because a lot of people were still operating on inefficiencies. How do you think about the deep skill set versus that broad range that you were talking about that you feel is valuable to get the exposure but how do you think about the career growth for that type of role?
Will Wong: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So it's interesting because one of the biggest lessons I learned is when I started my career digital marketing was this new thing, the key advertising or growth channels, it wasn't even called growth back then yet, was print, and magazines, and TV and radio spots. And everyone in that space just looked at anyone working on the digital side like," Oh, that's cute. Call us when you become a much bigger business." And if you look at it today there is no one on the other side and everyone's completely shifted onto the digital side. And so with that said, I think it's definitely very important and whoever's the best at any given channel is always going to be critical to their company. Their skills are going to be critical to wherever they go if they start their own thing or go to another company. But the one thing to kind of keep in mind is that you could be great at a channel but if that channel does not become important or the channel just devolves or switches over to something else it's important to diversify your own skillset and not be tied at the fate of a single channel. You see this in a lot of businesses today that completely grew on SEO. You're going to see and hear a lot of this in the news around Yelp's complaints, Airbnb's complaints, a lot of folks in the travel around how much they're dependent on Google for traffic. And as Google changes their algo, shifts more to paid ads or shifts more to here's the answer right away you don't even need to click to a site to go find an answer, recognizing that the channel itself could change it's good to really diversify out of that channel as well. And just keep the core skills but not be too married to a specific channel because things are going to keep changing.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah, I love that. So it's think about not only the new and evolving channels from a perspective of your company having success in them but also you in your own career success by trying to see what channels are coming down and how can I get ahead on that one and become an expert in that one before everyone else jumps on it?
Will Wong: Yeah, absolutely and I think at some point you're having enough exposure in different tactics or methods or channels patterns are going to start to emerge and those are going to be your core skills you're going to carry throughout wherever. I think when I started out focusing more on SEO and SEM I felt very knowledgeable in this space and I felt I could have kept diving into that space. But having entered the search marketing space and having seen what just happened to the print and radio side of things, an important lesson I learned is hey if there's a new channel go learn it. You just never know when things changed and just keep learning new things
Matt Bilotti: Makes sense. Anything else that comes to mind that maybe you wanted to talk through that we didn't have a chance to talk about yet, maybe things that have been clearly consistent or very different or any other thoughts about where the function of growth is moving in the future?
Will Wong: I think the only thing I would just reiterate is that the great idea or the great growth tactic or case study about who really scaled up from channel X, Y, or Z a couple of years from now that idea right now sounds silly. So, go learn Clubhouse, go learn TikTok, I think snap there's still a lot of opportunity there. Not a lot of people really quite figure that out too. But in a couple of years there's going to be a lot of channels or products or businesses have really grown by being one of the first to figure out that TikTok or a Clubhouse.
Matt Bilotti: Makes sense. Those are very exciting platforms to watch and I agree that there's going to be some cool stuff that comes out of it. Well Will, thank you so much for joining. I learned a bunch. I really appreciate your insight here and your thought process and talking through all of it.
Will Wong: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me on.
Matt Bilotti: Of course. So, for all of you listening as always I really appreciate you tuning in. I know you have so many other things you do with your time, things you can watch, things you can listen to, all that. So, I super appreciate it. If you liked this episode we've got a bunch more with a lot of really cool people on other topics so hit that subscribe button, check them out. If you're a fan, leave a review. My email is always open to you if you have any feedback or anything of the sort. It's matt @ drift. com. Thank you once again and I will catch you on the next episode. Bye.