Raj De Datta, CEO of BloomReach, discussed the user experience for consumers on the Web and how to best increase content relevancy and action.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Can you start us off with a little background on yourself and the path that led you to founding BloomReach?
RAJ DE DATTA: I started my journey as a lab researcher, where I worked on a bunch of early Internet problems, and then I spent a couple of years on Wall Street before starting my first company at the age of 23. I built an Internet service provider business in the 1990s on broadband across Europe, which grew into an $80-million-a-year business. I sold that and went back to business school, and then I started a second business that was eventually rolled up into Cisco. I then helped build a load-balancing business over at Cisco for a couple of years and spent a bit of time with a venture firm. So this has been Round Three for me. I fit squarely in the category of the serial entrepreneur, of which there are many out here in Silicon Valley.
Obviously, serial entrepreneurs are very good at identifying an unmet need in the marketplace. How has your past experience influenced the success you’ve had with BloomReach, and how did you come up with a solution for an unmet need?
When I was looking into starting this venture, I wanted to move the needle for businesses in a fundamental, top-line driven way. I also wanted to do that in a way that would improve the lift. Those were my two criteria. So I started talking with a number of CMOs of large Internet commerce businesses doing billions of dollars of transactions online about how they were marketing.
I began to see how little science there was around the construction of content that would drive clear marketing outcomes. This was a real problem that, if solved, could really move the needle for the largest commerce businesses on the Web at substantial rates.
But we had to do that in a way that was fundamentally driven by algorithms and technology.
Around that time, I met my co-founder Ashu, who had spent the previous five years at Google building a lot of core algorithms for their Web search. He was very focused on improving user experiences on the Web, including making it easier for people find what they need. We came together and decided if we were to build an engine to drive consumers to highly relevant websites, it would have the dual effect of making it easier for consumers to find what they need and drive revenue for businesses. That way, we’d be able to hit both objectives with the same vision. That’s what led the two of us to start the company.
Was there any concern at the time that this would be an obvious extension of Google’s capabilities?
Not really. They’re focused on helping billions of consumers find interesting things on the Web. Google calls it “finding and organizing the Web,” but they are very much a consumer destination in themselves. Ours has always been a B2B business focused on websites and content for large commerce businesses, whereas Google has been focused much more directly on the consumer and offering a consumer-facing experience. We’ve always been pretty clear that those are very different and complementary businesses.
You’ve obviously enjoyed a lot of success in the past two years, including being honored as one of Silicon Valley’s 40 Under 40. When you spoke to the heads of marketing and saw this need for relevancy, how did you come to the conclusion that it intersected with big data? How do those two relate to each other?
The best way to think about that is in the context of specific websites. Let’s say that I sell thousands of pieces of furniture on my website. Each of those products can be described in the English language in hundreds of different ways. If I’m selling a sofa, I could call it a two-piece sofa, or a leather sofa, or a sofa with an arm rest, and I might be referring to the same sofa. If there are a thousand products – each of which could be described in 10 different ways – that amounts to 10 to the power of 28 possible combinations of Web pages that I could create. The issue is that no human being can do all of that to determine the most relevant Web page.
It involves processing billions of units of data on what people are looking for and how they express what they’re looking for in relation to all of the products and services I sell, and then processing all of that data on a very large scale to define the perfect Web page that a business can deliver to a consumer that will get that consumer to buy. That’s very much a needle-in-the-haystack problem, and it requires the use of certain technologies that have made it possible to sift through and organize very large amounts of data in order to extract valuable and relevant information.
When you look at the timeline associated with the whole movement around e-commerce, why do you feel that content relevance is now at the top of the list of priorities for successful e-commerce strategies?
Let’s take a moment to define what e-commerce really means. If I have a billion-dollar e-commerce business and I want to grow my top line, there are really only two ways I can do it. I can either get more people to come into my store or I can get the people who are in my store to buy more. How do I do either of those things?
If my Web content is not relevant to what users are looking at on the Web, then fewer of them are going to walk into the store in the first place. At the same time, if they walk into the store and don’t see something that’s relevant, they are not likely to buy. So relevance is at the heart of any e-commerce company’s entire business, and those two factors drive a business’s top line in the end.
The interesting thing is that people have mostly tried to tackle acquisition of users by advertising, but while some consumers on the Web click on ads, that’s not usually the case for most users’ Internet browsing experience. We’re just looking for stuff that interests us – and that is the heart of content relevance. It’s about presenting information and products that interest your target. It’s our view that content relevance is the heart of marketing.
When marketing organizations start focusing on content relevancy, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges that they run into, and how do they overcome those challenges?
The first thing we tell a lot of our clients is that if you don’t already have good content, good products, and good services, we can’t help you. So it’s important to invest in making sure that you have those things from the beginning.
Lesson number two is isolating the role of human beings and the role of technology in helping you scale your business. Human beings play an important role in the creation of the content, and they play a very important role in the generation, editing, and publishing of that content. But machines play a very important role because they can view relevance at a very granular level in a large set of data much more quickly. So it’s best to harness the best of both worlds. That’s the lesson we’ve learned in our journey through marketing organizations.
From the technology perspective, the whole movement around data analytics has taken on quite a bit more importance in terms of finding that needle in the haystack and allowing technology to do what had previously needed to be done manually. Is that correct?
Yes, and data analytics has been at the heart of it. I would even go further to say that analytics by itself is a necessary but insufficient condition for success – meaning that it’s great in providing insights, but you’re much better off when you provide a platform that creates action.
One would argue that the science of marketing has created the need for a different relationship between the CMO and the CIO. What should CMOs be aware of with regard to technology and big data, and how have you seen them manage that function and interface with the technology office?
We are seeing that situation more and more. The marketing executives that we’ve met are more technology savvy than they used to be. They may not be technologists, but they do understand the importance of technology and electronic systems in helping them accomplish their marketing objectives. Sometimes there is a technology arrangement in an organization that is handled solely by a marketing department, but most of the time, it’s just great collaboration between the CIO and the CMO, where the CMO understands that great technology is essential to their success and the CIO understands that technology must drive top-line relevance. There’s a sense of shared destiny. And every project is evaluated in terms of its impact on the business’s top line and marketing goals as well as its impact on their technology stake. The more successful companies have that rhythm down.
Have you seen the emergence of some of these new titles, like chief digital officer, chief customer officer, chief relevance officer, etc.? If so, what role are you seeing them play?
I don’t know that we have enough organizational data to know where the trends are in that sense. We certainly see all of those titles. We also see that an area of intersection in e-commerce is often taken up by a role called the VP of e-commerce, and that person is usually a peer of the CMO. But, of course, each role is necessarily co-dependent in order to be successful. So we’ve seen a lot of blurring-of-the-lines across various leaders’ responsibilities. The need for silos that existed several years ago no longer exists now.
What kinds of data and tools should marketers focus on in order to attract new customers, and how could BloomReach help?
I have a couple of observations. The first is to recognize that there is much more data outside of the four walls of a business than there is within it. If you are trying to acquire new customers, there is much more data about those customers out on the Web than there is within your company. A big part of what BloomReach brings to the table is that we recognize that. We have built an entire database with the intent to help you understand what your target is looking for and then map that effectively across the products and services you’re selling.
The second thing is that the key to utilizing data and technology is scale. Anything can be done at a small scale by a small group of people, but the combination of man and machine – having human beings curate at the top level while letting machines do the hard work underneath them – can add a lot of value in identifying the answers to the questions at hand. So, in any project we undertake with a business, we make sure that our approach will scale.
The third point concerns ways to accommodate the myriad user experiences happening on the Web. We call our vision “big data marketing” because, ultimately, our focus is to create marketing that works seamlessly across channels so that the user is not conscious of whether they’re opening an email message, searching on Google, clicking on a Facebook newsfeed, browsing through a website, or using a mobile app in a store. All of these are just different interaction mechanisms, but many businesses still operate as if they are completely separate silos of separate projects. We believe in creating a big data marketing platform that synthesizes the data from users across these channels, combines it with data across the Web, and then delivers a relevant experience across all platforms.
You mentioned how BloomReach brings data to the base of intent. Can you share some of the elements that factor into your ability to determine consumer intent?
Sure. When we are trying to identify what people are looking for, we look at the searches made in search engines across the world. Those are expressions of intent in the form of user browsing behavior. What do they click on? What do they buy? What have they looked at?
It also includes geographic data. For instance, we have a geographic database, where if somebody was looking for sushi in the Bay Area, it would be relevant to show a sushi store owner in Mountain View, California, since Mountain View is within the Bay Area. So we can bring a geographic database to the table.
We also have a product database that understands key attributes. Using a previous example, leather is an attribute of a given sofa, or as another example, the size of a screen is an important attribute for a flat screen TV.
Given that so much of the shopping experience is moving online, with mobile as the device of choice, how should marketers approach mobile marketing to maximize revenue per click?
There are a couple of issues here. The first is to recognize that user behavior on a mobile device is different in a number of ways. For one thing, people are much less patient on a mobile phone. They can’t type very well, and they don’t have a big screen to view things with. So the quality of the relevance of the experience has to be off the charts. It has to be very easy to find anything. It also has to be personal, where user identity is recognized on a given personal device.
The first step is just recognizing the attributes of mobile users and how different they can be from users on other platforms. If I were designing my experiences with a mobile-first contact in mind, would I design it the way it’s done today, taking a 15-year-old website and repurposing the skin of it to look appealing on a phone? No, I would fundamentally rethink the search, the discovery, the navigation, and the entire experience to be more mobile-centric. The consequence of not doing so is lost revenue not only on the phone but also as a whole. There’s a pretty high likelihood that if someone has a poor mobile experience while they’re away from home, they’ll shop on a different website when they come home and get on their desktop computer. In that case, the business would lose both a mobile customer and a desktop customer in the process. So the importance of mobile is very high, and we have really doubled down on mobile as a core part of our RMB strategy. We have almost 40 percent of our research and development resources focused on the mobile problem, and I believe it is the top marketing problem of the next 10 years for those marketers who are trying to cater to increasingly mobile users.
It sounds like BloomReach has extended its influence into the mobile space, and based on what you said earlier, it’s almost as if you’re in a position to spot the differences in relevancy as users go from one platform to another. So it sounds like the science behind BloomReach is to understand that relevancy and serve it up in a highly customized manner.
Exactly, and it manifests on mobile experiences in many different ways. It manifests through a much smarter search box on a mobile site; it manifests as smart recommendations formed by browsing behaviors on an iPad or desktop. It manifests by giving accurate location information, smarter navigation through visual browsing, and a whole series of capabilities that are all about mobile relevance.
Do you see any themes coming up on the horizon that would be worth paying attention to as a marketer?
I think we’ve hit on the two big ones – big data and mobile. Those are the technology trends and consumer trends that are driving the future here. I feel like we are at an important point in the e-commerce industry, where the first innings are behind us and a new level of intelligence systems will have to be acquired to deliver the same kind of growth we have seen of over the last 15 years.
Before we conclude, is there anything else you would like to add?
Just that the future is exciting. It should be exciting to large Web businesses, and it’s exciting for the consumer who will have an increasingly relevant and overall better experience across platforms. And it’s exciting to us as technology providers because it’s opened up a new set of problems that we feel make up the blueprint for Web innovation over the next 10 or 15 years.
Raj De Datta
Raj founded BloomReach with 10 years of enterprise and entrepreneurial experience behind him. Most recently, he was an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Mohr-Davidow Ventures. Previously, he was a Director of Product Marketing at Cisco. Prior to that, he was part of the founding team at telecom company FirstMark / LambdaNet, which grew to $80M in run-rate revenues. Raj also worked in technology investment banking at Lazard Freres. He holds a BSE in Electrical Engineering from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Raj was recently awarded Silicon Valley’s 40 under 40 award.
Chris Williams is the Chief Marketing Officer, leading the strategic positioning of the company; driving marketing execution and advancing the company’s strong focus on B2B executive thought leadership communities.
Chris has more than 30 years of experience in sales, marketing and business development for Information Technology and Professional Services companies. Prior to his current position, Chris held executive leadership roles for technology solutions and consulting companies including Avaya, Capgemini NA, Expand Networks and Fujitsu Consulting, where as a member of the executive management teams, he was responsible for developing the global strategy and increasing revenue streams across each company. He has also served in a variety of technology sales, marketing and business development roles for hardware, software and professional services firms including Sun Microsystems, Cambridge Technology Partners, and was a cofounder of Netigy, a professional services firm focused on eBusiness Infrastructure Consulting in Silicon Valley.
An industry – and thought-leader, Chris sits on the Board of Advisors for the Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA), and has been a contributing author on topics such as sales force automation and consulting services trends to publications including CRM Magazine and ebizChronicle.com. He has also presented twice at the World Innovation Forum. His last presentation can be viewed at World Innovation Forum.
Chris, who grew up in Europe, attended Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., where he earned a Master of Business Administration in International Business and Finance as well as a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing.