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Onto Part II. of my interview with Jason Goldlist, former head of marketing for WealthSimple. Yesterday’s Part I covered Jason’s career. This part of the interview dives into the (unusual) marketing channels and techniques Jason used to scale WealthSimple into the largest “roboadvisor” in Canada. I particularly like the billboard stunt. As always the entire transcript of the conversation is below, but I recommend listening through your podcast player.
Edward: This is part two of my interview with Jason Goldlist. Today, we're going to dive into his experience as Head of Marketing at Wealthsimple. First, Jason, can you describe what Wealthsimple is for those who do not understand?
Jason: Wealthsimple is a leading financial technology player in Canada that helps make personal finance really simple and really powerful. It's a robo-adviser, so it helps automate investments. It's a savings platform, helps you save your cash for the future, it lets you buy and sell stocks, and even buy and sell cryptocurrency.
Edward: Is it like a combination of Betterment with Robin Hood?
Jason: And Coinbase.
Edward: Got it, and is that a good description or is it something different? Again, if those three companies were to merge, that's Wealthsimple?
Jason: Sure. Wealthsimple operates predominantly in Canada and the Canadian financial services market is totally different than in the US. What happens in Canada is you've got five big banks that completely control Canadians' finances.
Wealthsimple is hoping to be that sixth alternative bank that's going to come in and shake up the entire industry. We think that there is a whole slew of financial products that consumers need, that they want, but they aren't getting from the big banks.
Edward: Got it. I think that's super helpful and sets the groundwork. I want to dive into your biggest marketing channels, which I think are fairly unusual for a company of that size. Let's start with offline partnerships. What were you doing there?
Jason: I was lucky enough to join Wealthsimple at a very early stage. I was the 10th employee of Wealthsimple, leading marketing, building that team essentially from scratch, and when I left Wealthsimple, it was several hundred employees managing billions of dollars with a really large, robust marketing, product, and brand team.
The channels that we focused on changed throughout the evolution of Wealthsimple. You can imagine at the beginning when I joined, we had only raised, I think, less than $ 2 million Canadian. There wasn't a lot of money to go out and spend. We were really scrappy with each and every customer. At that time, adding 10 customers, adding 100 customers was a big win.
Later to the end of my 10 years at Wealthsimple, of course, adding 10 or 100 customers happened in the blink of an eye. We were looking for new ways to grow customers by thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands at a time.
What we looked at evolved over time, but we've always been looking at channels that aren't the easy ones. I've always had this feeling that if it was an easy channel, the return isn't going to be there. You've got to pioneer a channel in order for it to be really unique and interesting to your business. Because every business is a little bit different, I also think you want to create your own little bit different channel. Just because these big channels, whether it's traditional channels like television, Facebook, or Google work for other people, doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work for you.
I think the process of thinking deeply about what it is that makes your business and your customers different and then going out and creating your own channel for it, can make a world of difference.
Edward: When you say offline partnership, what does that mean?
Jason: One of the channels that we cultivated was, as you mentioned, offline partnerships. What that means to us is how could we find other brands or other organizations that had large customer bases that wanted to share those customers with us. This would be not through a platform, not through a marketplace, but actually going directly to other brands, finding, and building relationships that were win-win and mutually beneficial.
As an example, one of the earliest partnerships we did was with Airbnb. We looked at the landscape of brands and said the brand that we aspire to be and that our clients aspire to use would be a brand like Airbnb. I think I went on LinkedIn and I think I just typed in Airbnb and I use the geography filter for Canada. I was like, who is running Airbnb in Canada? We traded some emails and we sort of said we think there's this opportunity. Let me understand your goals better and maybe there's something that we can do with a campaign to actually go out and help you with your goals, and at the same time raise Wealthsimple's brand awareness with our target market and also acquire new customers.
They said one thing that we're really trying to do is get people to use Airbnb for the first time. I think this was in 2015. They were still growing in new markets. We said, okay, cool. Do you have a financial incentive for new customers? They said, yeah. We pay $200 to acquire new customers so we can pay that out.
So I said if we were to go out and spend some money on channels and incentivize people to try Airbnb, that would be helpful for you, right? They're like, yeah. And we were able to make this channel. We're able to leverage Airbnb's brand to go to market with an offer to attract people to use Wealthsimple and it became a new Wealthsimple client that got some of that and an Airbnb client. They got some of that Airbnb money deposited directly into their Wealthsimple account.
That's an example of an offline partnership that worked really well for us and not only did it work in the direct channel and that there are lots of customers that responded to campaigns that we were able to attribute to that partnership, but also in the mind of the market. We were now hanging with the Airbnb brand and it set the idea that we were an innovative company, a young company, an emerging company that had the same brand DNA as Airbnb, and opened up the floodgates of being able to partner with lots of other organizations in Canada as well.
Edward: Sounds to me that there are two parts to that. There was the halo effect or the fact that your brand is getting affiliated with Airbnb, and then there's Airbnb giving you the $200 or whatever you negotiated that you could go and drop into your customer’s accounts. But you still need to have a marketing channel now to go and attract that customer. It just makes it easier to make that marketing channel work now, right? Now you have $200 additional monetization for any customer that you attract.
Jason: That's right. Now we've got a great concept for a campaign and the question is, how do we want that campaign to live in the world? Most of my campaigns are going to be across multiple channels. There'll be different places that I'm going to share that with the market. The first place that I'm looking to, especially with a partnership like this, is to leverage Airbnb’s channels. Now, here's an opportunity for them to also incentivize their followers. Maybe it's an email list of non-converters, maybe it's their social media to go and check out Wealthsimple for this benefit.
At the same time, I can also go to the market and put some money behind it. Maybe we'll even co-market it together in the sense that maybe Airbnb will chip in some marketing dollars for me to go and put this on Facebook and retarget some visitors, or put it through a social channel like Twitter in order to get more people, or run an email campaign or something in order to get people to convert.
Certainly, there's a bunch of different moving parts here. I love that you brought up that there's the halo effect and there's the direct effect. I think almost all of my campaigns fall into one or the other or a combination of both. Starting with what you think success is going to be on those different dimensions can really help you make sure that the campaign from end-to-end achieves the right objective.
Edward: Let's talk a little bit about that. So you're Airbnb, Airbnb has a list now of users that have not converted. What's their incentive to target that list with a Wealthsimple offer versus just saying, hey list of people who haven't converted, we’ll give you $200 that you can spend on Amazon. Why partner with you on that deal?
Jason: There's a bunch of different ways that the value gets created. One of them is that there is a bit of a quid pro quo when you're negotiating a partnership like this. At the time, our Canada list was a lot bigger than their Canada list. For a brand like them who's trying to build a new market, we're excited to reach their list and they were excited to reach ours.
So there is a bit of a trade that happens there and it's a win-win as long as the brands are aligned and customers aren't confused as to why it's happening. You need to create a great story, a little bit of a landing page collateral to make sure that the story's well-articulated.
But there are other offline partnerships that were really successful where it's even plainer the benefit. I'll give you an example of a partnership that we did together with Zipcar, Ontario.
Zipcar has members and they have a specific member benefits portal. They're always looking for interesting opportunities to put into their member benefits portal that's going to reward Zipcar members in Ontario. That was an easy one where they actually have planned activities to email their entire base about new offers in their members’ benefits. They're just looking for the right members' benefits to be there. We were able to approach Zipcar and show them how our audiences would overlap, and we had a really interesting and compelling on-brand offer for them to share with their mailing lists.
Edward: How many of these types of partnerships did you have? Between Airbnb and Zipcar, how many of them existed at that scale?
Jason: Well, in the beginning, there was the first one. Of course, we found success with them. One of the reasons that we did find early success with them is, as we were growing, we were trying to convince larger brands to use us and to partner with us. We were able to reach wide audiences without typically a cost of acquisition.
Now, the cost was the hustle, originality, creativity, and the relationship-building that it takes to make this, but there wasn't an incremental cost to it, which is why we liked it. What happened is as we got bigger, first we expanded the portfolio and then we actually contracted it. The reason that we contracted it is that as we grew bigger, it was no longer so helpful to get dozens of new clients from a channel.
It was only really worth our time to get larger ones, so we had to create partnerships with larger organizations that had a broader reach. Now when I think about the partnership opportunities in the landscape for Wealthsimple today, they look a lot more like large telcos, other large financial institutions that maybe aren't related, other consumer retailers like a grocer, gas, or pharmacy that really reach millions and millions of Canadians. That would be an opportunity that would get me excited today, but it just started with members’ benefits of Zipcar.
Edward: That makes sense because I think initially, if it's quid pro quo, if you have no email list, you don't have anything to offer a really big partner. Then, as you get bigger through leveraging, it's almost a ladder up strategy of starting with smaller partners, use that to get to scale so you can trade for bigger partners.
Jason: That's exactly the strategy. What's interesting about this is that there isn't a website that you can go and log into, then just put your credit card down and get these partnerships up and running. These are partnerships that require you to go and meet with real people, create something out of nothing, and you've got to demonstrate and establish trust. You've got to follow through for your partners. You've got to do awesome tracking for them. You've got to make them feel really special.
I think to my point I made earlier, they're not easy because there isn't a directory of them to take off. But I think to the point of creating new channels, I think these are the kinds of channels that I love creating. Something that didn't exist before, something that's uniquely your brands and something that's really effective for both sides.
Edward: Let's talk about public relations. That was another big channel for you.
Jason: It sure was. One of the things that's interesting about public relations or I call it earned media, is that similar to these partnerships, you're not paying cost per acquisition for each customer. Of course, there's an investment that you make in time or if you hire an agency and you can tie it back, but ultimately if you do it well, you're able to get low cost, ongoing inbound traffic.
I remember sitting around the table with the early team, and if we would just get a mention on the national news, in Canada, it's the CBC. The phone would start ringing. It was like magic and we didn't pay anything for it. A reporter got us, we reached out to a reporter, and then suddenly we got new clients. It was always exciting to see the traffic volume spike on the website when something as boring as an article in the local newspaper came out. But I think that showed us really early on the power of doing this well.
Edward: How did you do it well? PR is one of them, obviously. You can optimize page search to death and there are agencies that can optimize television spend. How do you optimize PR? How do you know you're doing it well?
Jason: First we didn't do it well. I think sometimes it takes not doing a channel well first to learn a little bit more about how to do it better. The first thing that we did is we hired a firm that specialized in financial services public relations, to help us with this.
I think that playbook was irrelevant to us. We paid them a retainer every month, and every month they've got to get some relationships with the journalists and they go through all their client list. At the end of the day, that wasn't differentiated, it wasn't interesting, and it didn't get us the results that we needed, but we had that early taste even before I think we were working with an agency of what PR could do.
So when we set out to do a real earned media campaign, we tried to think a little bit differently. We try to think about a couple of different ways to do it. For example, you can create data and then share that data back with publications. You can capitalize on emerging news trends and then use that to get into the news cycle. There's a whole bunch of different tactics and we would think of interesting and differentiated tactics to do it.
I'll give you one of my favorite stories. One of my favorite stories of an earned media tactic that worked really well for us was in Canada, there was a large tech company that had IPOed called Shopify. We, of course, in the wealth management business, love when big tech companies IPO because that means a lot of wealth is typically created. We'd like them to park their wealth with us. During the IPO, it was really hard to cut through the clutter of that news cycle and get earned media for different tech companies’ IPO.
What we found was there was going to be a different date that was less celebrated and it typically is never celebrated in the media, but it could be, which is the expiry of the IPO lockup period. Not a super sexy date, but nine months after the IPO, that's when the insiders can actually sell. That's when the wealth is realized, not just created. What we did is we created a campaign around the expiry of the lockup period that would educate Shopify employees on how to get a diversified portfolio out of their holdings.
We created a little ebook, we made a landing page on our website, and we actually took out a billboard across the street from Shopify so that you could see both the billboard and the Shopify building in the background. We hired a photographer to take the picture, and then we shopped and pitched that story to the media.
We said, hey, are you covering the Shopify lock-up period? You should be thinking about what happened nine months ago. Now is the time all this money is liquid. Oh, by the way, here's a photo, a Wealthsimple guide that we've made to help Shopify employees manage their wealth.
Can you believe it? Articles were written about the story, we did the journalists’ work for them, our photo ran as the photo in the article, and there was a great mention about how companies like Wealthsimple were helping employees at Shopify manage their wealth.
Edward: That's fantastic. I believe that there's something to this new way of marketing, which is this combination of PR and paid media. In that example, you use paid media to presumably acquire some Shopify customers but then accelerated with PR.
Jason: And the loop doesn't even end there, Ed, because once that's done, you take that article that's being published by reputable news media, then you go and you put some dollars behind it on social media to amplify it even more. That, actually, I think goes beyond that. From there, we actually got some inbound traffic.
I believe Toby, the founder and CEO of Shopify, messaged us and said, "Hey, great campaign." That opened the door for us to actually get into Shopify and start managing their employees’ retirement plans, which was fantastic and it involved us bringing out our wealth advisors to help manage their employees.
I believe for a long time, Shopify was the number one source of clients at Wealthsimple by employer by a large margin, even though they only employed several thousand people, our percentage of Shopify employees using Wealthsimple was astronomical.
Edward: If we were to break that particular campaign down into (say) four parts, which was number one, was the billboard and the marketing to get Shopify customers to come on board. Number two is the PR push around that was targeted more broadly and far more than just Shopify customers. Number three was the paid acceleration of number two and then number four, was the enterprise sale effectively that you got to Shopify. Roughly, how much impact did those four things have? Was it 25, 25, 25, 25? What's your best estimate?
Jason: I love that you say best estimate because some of those things we can directly track and of course many of those things we can't, but we know they're there. If I were to do my estimates, I actually think the last one, the halo effect we got inside of Shopify’s hallways, of them talking about us, of them referring their friends, of them trying us, and then bringing and consulting their wealth with us over the years was so much bigger than the direct effects of (say) having the billboard in the first campaign.
I think that the fourth one is only possible if you get number two. So, you need that multiplier. I think if you have that campaign without that endorsement or thought that earned media pick up, I think that would be a failure of the campaign. But once you've got number two that allows you to unlock number three and number four (if you can), it becomes even more successful than you imagined.
Edward: If you hadn't got them all, like if you'd only gotten number one or only gotten number two, would it have been ROI positive or would have been negative, and you needed those three and four in order to get it over the top?
Jason: They're not really expensive ideas and the truth is, we're talking about one that works for everyone that worked. Of course, there's a whole bunch that don't work and that we don't talk about as guerrilla campaigns or earned media opportunities that didn't work out.
But if you look at the direct costs of doing that, we recycled some content. We wrote some original content. We're talking about hundreds of dollars, not thousands of dollars. We chased down that billboard. Hard work especially because we need it on short notice, but we got it. We're talking about single digits, thousands of dollars. We're talking about a campaign that was a few thousand dollars. At the time, if that hadn't worked out, we'd be totally fine. But I think there was an ROI on that that was well beyond the five digits or maybe even six digits on it, so the percentages return on that campaign like that were fantastic.
Edward: What does growth hacking mean to you?
Jason: I've never described myself as a growth hacker and I don't have a stock definition. But what it makes me feel is that how do we do alternative things to drive the adoption of the product. One of the things it does sort of bring up for me are the viral loops. How do we get the customers that we have today to maybe adopt another product, increase their usage of the product, or tell others themselves about the product, too?
Edward: So when you talk about growth hacking at Wealthsimple, is Shopify an example of that or is there something different?
Jason: Probably in the broadest sense, but I think in the more narrow sense of how do we have a virality coefficient that supports growth without (for example) creating new campaigns or without (for example) spending money on social channels. That is sort of what growth hacking would mean to me more so.
I think we are really lucky at Wealthsimple in that for whatever reason, your wealth advisor and some other financial products do tend to be products that people talk about, and especially if you do them different or better, save people money, and make their life more effective and efficient, you share it with family and friends. For a long time at Wealthsimple and hopefully to this day still, that was the number one way that people found out about us, by referring Wealthsimple to their friends and family.
Edward: That's great. Hey, thanks so much for coming on today, Jason. Before we go, tell me about your “quake book”.
Jason: My quake book, of course. I'm always thinking about my quake book. What did I tell you my quake book was, Ed?
Edward: Fooled by Randomness.
Jason: Oh, yes. Are you a fan of Nassim?
Edward: Nassim has blocked me on Twitter.
Jason: There you go. Well, that's all you need to know. Hopefully, he hasn't blocked you from reading his books, though. What I love about Fooled By Randomness is that sometimes we see patterns where there aren't patterns. Certainly, as an analyst starting my career, all the time I think we talked about things that maybe weren't there, but we hoped were there. I think reading that book is one of the eye-opening opportunities, along with the rest of Nassim's writing, to help you really understand the way the world works and not the way that you hope the world works.
Edward: Thank you for that, Jason, and really excited to have you on the show.
Jason: Thanks, Ed.