Episode 25: SEO Product Management with Arun J of Zoom Apps

We're back with The Marketing Hero podcast. I'm your host, Maia Wells. Today's episode is bringing you some important insights about SEO product management. Arun Janakiraman is one of the most accomplished guest we've ever had on The Marketing Hero podcast. And he comes from a side of software that many marketers see as a dark cave of mystery, the product side.

Arun is currently the lead product manager for Zoom Apps, where he's helping to develop cool stuff you'll see on Zoom, like social games, and the ability to connect third party apps. But that's not all. Arun J, as he's known, also helped on the product side through mergers and acquisitions, like SlideShare's acquisition by Scribd, and its previous acquisition by LinkedIn. How's that for full circle? And the acquisition of Lynda by LinkedIn. He's worked in product management at Pinterest and SlideShare. I mean, I feel like I'm in a top apps of all time page on G2, right now. We are so honored to have Arun joining us today. And I can't wait to get into detail on how our favorite products grow, scale, and exit. Arun J, welcome to the show.

Arun J:
Maia, thank you so much for having me on. It's a real honor to be on this show. And I can't tell you how excited I am for the conversation we're about to have.

Maia Wells:
Me too. I mean, we, marketers don't often get to hear insights from leaders like you, so I'm excited as well. Now, before we get too far into anything, I want to start off with a question that we ask all of our guests, what's your favorite part of your career, and how did you figure that out?

Arun J:
This is a great question. And it was a few years ago that I had this aha moment of sorts. And for me, it was about building a bridge between data and design. And what that meant for me was, data is all about looking at what happened in the past. It is historical events attributed to timestamps in many ways. And design is about how you leverage data, how you leverage insights, both qualitative and quantitative, and how you shape the future. And so, this perspective of design being a lot more forward looking, and data being a lot about a record of what has happened in the past. And being able to bridge the two to make product sense, was an aha moment I had. And since then, that has been the most exciting part of what I enjoy in product management, it's that bridge between data and design.

Maia Wells:
So can you tell me more about that aha moment? Where were you working? What were you looking at? What really gave you that aha moment? I mean, were you on like a trail run somewhere, like not thinking about work and it just kind of hit you? Tell me more about the aha moment.

Arun J:
Absolutely. I don't know if it was on a trail run, but I think this was when I was a designer and a design manager at SlideShare. And a lot of what I was doing predominantly was search engine optimization, and front-end markup, and front-end user experience. So while I was doing that, as a company, SlideShare was very metrics-driven, and design was very metrics-informed. And for me, I was looking at how can we bridge the product design world with designing experiences that can be crawled by a user agent, like Googlebot. And I was trying to figure out what were the commonalities. And what I quickly realized was, you've got Googlebot, which is in some ways a single user, if you were to think about it, and if you were to personify it. It is a single user that is crawling a giant website full of pages and URLs.

On the other hand, when you think about human users, you have lots and lots of users who are visiting a very finite, or a very specific set of pages, and then navigating across these pages. So that's where I found these common elements, where if you were to design for humans, you can apply those principles to design good experiences for Googlebot, or Bingbot, or what have you. And essentially, craft the information architecture, the site structure, the navigation, and the overall user experience for your search engine colors, applying those same principles. So that was how I got to that aha moment in a way. And I think it was a series of aha moments that led me down there.

Maia Wells:
Yes, I would be willing to bet that you've had a lot of those moments in your career. I mean, it was really hard to prep for this interview, honestly, Arun. Because there's so much in your career that I want to know about. But let's focus in first on what it was like to work on the product side through some of the biggest mergers and acquisitions we've ever seen? Now, I know this is a bit of a transition of topics here, but I want to know what that was like to work within SlideShare, as they were acquired, and then work on the other side on LinkedIn to incorporate SlideShare. I guess we're going to start with that experience. So you were at SlideShare for what about 10 years? Did you know at the beginning what the exit plan was?

Arun J:
I did not. I did not know at the beginning what the exit plan was. I had no idea that LinkedIn would acquire SlideShare, or if it even made sense way back then. However, SlideShare, interestingly now, it was one of the first and most popular apps on LinkedIn's app marketplace way back in 2009, I think it was. When Facebook was experimenting with an app store on Facebook, LinkedIn was also experimenting with an app store on LinkedIn. And SlideShare built an app that was very quickly popular. And I think, that built some prejudice with LinkedIn, and it resonated with LinkedIn. And eventually, it paved a way for acquisition by LinkedIn. SlideShare was a user-generated content site and it still continues to be so. And that helped with LinkedIn's content strategy. It helped bring a professional audience that was interested in presentations to LinkedIn, and SlideShare also had really good SEO at that point of time. I believe around 80% of SlideShare's top of funnel was SEO driven.

Maia Wells:
Wow. That's remarkable.

Arun J:
Yeah. So SlideShare was a very pivotal part of LinkedIn, getting into content, it was also when LinkedIn was exploring their feed, they were exploring other content products, like LinkedIn publishing, and the LinkedIn influencer program. So it was naturally a very good fit there. And a few years later, LinkedIn also acquired this other company, called linda.com; which was, at that point of time, a 20-year old company that had made some really good progress in delivering online courses to their audiences. They started off as a DVD or CD-based medium, and then, very quickly moved to the web. But Lynda had established a really good brand equity with their audiences, and they were well known in the online courses and online education space. And it made sense to extend LinkedIn's content strategy with linda.com. I was involved in transitioning Lynda's SEO traffic, which is also a significant contributor of Lynda's top of funnel, into what is now LinkedIn Learning today. So that's how I started merging these different functions of design, product management, SEO, and it made for a really good convergence at that point of time.

Maia Wells:
Well, I think that's just such a wonderful topic to talk about, because don't a lot of us wish we could work with big names like that? I mean, SlideShare, LinkedIn, Lynda, all three of those are very well known products out there. So I know that you worked at SlideShare as they were acquired. And then, right after that, did you go to LinkedIn? Was that the next thing?

Arun J:
Yes.

Maia Wells:
Okay. And then after that, you worked on kind of incorporating Lynda after it was acquired.

Arun J:
That's true.

Maia Wells:
So what was the experience like? Was it different or the same between incorporating SlideShare versus Lynda? And how did your role change from being on staff at an app like SlideShare, and then moving into sort of the other side of it, the acquirer, and incorporating those new acquisitions in. Was it a lot different when you made that transition career-wise?

Arun J:
It was, Maia. And I think it was different in two respects. So one, SlideShare, at that point of time, even though it was a monetized product, monetization was not a big focus for SlideShare. It was monetized with advertising, and lead generation, and a little bit of subscriptions. But these were not the predominant reasons why LinkedIn acquired SlideShare. Whereas for Lynda, Lynda was a fully monetized product, you had to pay to watch these courses on Lynda. So the eventual goal for an SEO or anyone interested in the top of funnel at Lynda, was to map it to monetization, to map it to both success on the consumer side, and also on the enterprise side. Because Lynda was also selling seats to enterprises, and universities, and institutions like that. So that was one key difference.

The other key difference between SlideShare and Lynda was of course, when LinkedIn was doing the Lynda acquisition, I was on LinkedIn. So supposedly for me, I was on the side of the acquirer. And we also had a product that was being built up, called LinkedIn Learning. So our goal was to transition lynda.com into what has now become LinkedIn Learning. So there was that aspect, and there was also the aspect of integrating lynda.com into LinkedIn's social and economic graph. We had instructors who were on LinkedIn, who had LinkedIn presence. We had to tie that to their content that was on lynda.com and LinkedIn Learning. So I would say, the integration of these two products was also very interesting.

Maia Wells:
Yeah. It seems like it was a big endeavor. Arun, I want to back up just for a moment, and talk about a little bit of the basics here. Because I keep hearing you talk about SEO in relationship to product, right? And that's a little bit different than, I think, a lot of marketers think about it, where we're thinking more about which keywords do I need to focus on in my content, in order to set myself up for organic traffic success, for example. Is there a different approach to it when you're thinking of SEO from a product perspective?

Arun J:
Yes, I think there is. And my hypothesis on that topic is this. So let's take, for example, a site like Pinterest, I was leading SEO product management at Pinterest. And if you look at the site structure as such, there are only about four key pages on Pinterest, your pin page, your collection page, where you have a collection of pins, AKA the board page, and then you've got profile pages, people's profiles, and then you've got the homepage. There are a lot of other peripheral auxiliary pages, but those are not that important for SEO. So if you really think about optimization, you're only optimizing four pages. However, these four pages manifest as 9 billion URLs.

Maia Wells:
Wow.

Arun J:
And this was a few years ago, and I think that number has grown since then. So I would think, the difference between product-led and marketing-led SEO would be really scale. And how you can build and solve problems around scaling, around things like technical debt, or optimization of a high volume of pages, that may already be driving a lot of traffic collectively.

But then, when you look at the distribution of that traffic across these URLs off the same page type, you could see a lot of variations. So you would have a pinned page on Pinterest, for example, that gets one visitor every year. And you could have another page of the same page type, it's effectively the same template, that page could drive like millions of use. And the difference is not in the structure of the page, but in fact, what the content is on the page, how relevant it is to the person who's searching, but also how it is interlinked, and where it shows up, and the information architecture of the entire site.

So now, you're talking more about problems of crawl efficiency, page performance at scale, and also the relevance and the quality of keywords that you have, and the quality of content, effectively. Because when you do have user-generated content, you run into issues like spam, piracy, or just content quality in general, and content moderation. These become the problems that you deal with. Which, I would think, are very different from the problems that you deal with when you are writing curated content that may not be user-generated, and may be first party generated. So effectively, I think it's the difference between content that is first party generated versus second or third party generated. And then of course, problems of scale.

Maia Wells:
Thanks for explaining that. And that does make sense. It's amazing that you were working with billions of pages in that way. Can you dive a little bit deeper into that difference with user-generated content? I guess I'm thinking about questions like keywords, you were saying, having effective keywords, having effective ways of categorizing content. If users are making that content, or let's say pinning that content in this case, how do you deal with that as a product manager with that user-generated content?

Arun J:
Yeah. So the goal of leveraging that user-generated content, what you leverage the user-generated content for, is usually an acquisition goal, or it's an engagement goal, or it could be down funnel retention. And that is, if you were to think of the ecosystem in the form of funnel, you could also think of the ecosystem as a growth loop. So for example, at SlideShare, and Scribd, which are both user-generated content sites, the growth loop, effectively, started with a person uploading a presentation or a document to one of these platforms, that document then gets converted into HTML, effectively. It's a webpage, so from a PDF or a PowerPoint file, it becomes a webpage that is displayed to users, and also to search engines. When search engines crawl this, they index it, it gets ranked, and it acquires traffic, It attracts traffic. And then, some of that traffic can go on to becoming creators or uploaders of content themselves. And then, that loop continues.

Of course, you don't have every visitor going on to contribute content, but you have a set of creators, and you have a set of viewers, and the viewers incentivize the creators. But the more content you have in that flywheel, the more traffic it attracts, and the bigger it becomes. So this core flywheel can manifest in different ways, depending on different products that you have. And as a product manager, what you're interested in is starting that flywheel. So there is a cold stock problem there, and you need to effectively start that flywheel. You can seed it with content, for example, or you could seed it with some content that it may not be user-generated, or third party-generated, could be first party-generated. As an example on SlideShare, in the early days, we were uploading our own presentations and talks that we were giving, and employees were doing that, our friends would do that, and people we knew professionally were invited into a beta to upload presentations.

So those were some ways we seeded the content. And of course, when you optimize those pages on which the content is displayed, it attracts traffic, and then you get more content creators and, of course, more viewers. So that's kind of how we got involved as product managers in that flywheel. And the incentive was to grow that flywheel and increase distribution. And then down funnel, you could assign other goals to it, like re-engagement. So as an example, on LinkedIn Learning, someone might not end up on a course that say, for instance, teaches an Excel shortcut directly from LinkedIn. They may not be on LinkedIn, looking for a course on how to solve this problem in Excel. They might rather go to Google, and they'd be searching for different terms, and they see a LinkedIn Learning course or a video page, and they end up going to that page. They may already be a LinkedIn user, but now you're re-engaging an existing LinkedIn user using SEO. So SEO also contributes to goals, like free engagement, and of course, down funnel that can be monetization, and retention as well.

Maia Wells:
Wonderful. So a lot of what you're talking about, seems like it bridges a little bit into marketing, and you know, this is a marketing show. So I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you personally, or the teams you've worked on interact with marketing. I'm assuming there were big marketing teams at pretty much all of these companies that you've been mentioning. I feel like it overlaps a lot. You know, we're talking about the same thing, we're speaking the same language. And I think increasingly, as I talk to more and more people, product and marketing are really starting to converge in a certain way. So can you tell me a little bit more about your experiences, either specifically at these companies, or just in general, your philosophy on interacting with marketers like me. How do you do that?

Arun J:
Absolutely. I think there are a couple of ways that happens in the day to day. To use an example, at LinkedIn, you have consumer audiences, you have enterprise audiences you need to sell to. And we partnered very closely with product marketing, and marketing in general, in terms of positioning the message, and finding what the market needs, and delivering it to them. And of course, channels were a part of that. So you had different distribution channels, and different mechanisms of distribution, including SEO. Really identifying who we need to market to, what their needs are, how we distribute the content, and in between enterprise and consumer audiences, really differentiating their needs, their pinpoints. Those were areas we collaborated very closely with marketing.

To use another example, at Zoom, I'm currently leading the Zoom apps platform. And one of our customer types happens to be developers who build on top of this platform. And we need to market to our developer community as well, get them excited about building on this platform. And also, really understand their needs, and understand what they want, and what they value, and determine how we can set them up for success. So the messaging, the content delivery of that content, but also most importantly, understanding developer needs is something we collaborate very closely with marketing on.

Maia Wells:
Yeah, I think especially in the SAS world, product and marketing are just converging in so many different ways. I actually asked one of my colleagues the other day, do you think product marketing is really going to be the future where we don't really have anything else? Like demand gen becomes part of product marketing, for example. I think that's a really interesting conversation a lot of us are having in the industry right now. And that's a perfect example as it's product-led marketing, sort of. You know, people like me are just contributing to what you are doing on the product side. So it's very interesting. I don't think marketing and demand gen is going to go away by any means, but just thinking of it differently, thinking of it in terms of product first, I think a lot of companies are going that way. Do you think that that might be a trend that we will see more of in the future?

Arun J:
The way I see it, I think there's always room for cross pollination of ideas. And you have certain types of innovation that happen in different verticals and different functions. And you can take ideas and mix and match from those functions, and learn from some of those, and apply those learnings in a different way. And what I mean by that is, let's take, for example, the use of data and metrics. The way a product manager uses data, may be a little bit different from a way a user researcher uses data, which would be different from the way a market researcher uses data. A user researcher might focus very much on an individual user, and their pinpoints. Whereas a market researcher is focused a little bit more collectively on the market, and less so on an individual's needs, but more on the market's need and how that can translate to business needs.

So I think, what I'm seeing now is a growing trend to be a lot more data-informed. And I emphasize informed because there is a growing distinction between being data-driven and data-informed. And sometimes, when you operate in a data-driven way, whether you're in product, whether you're in marketing, or in another function, what happens is when you're data-driven, you end up with hyper optimization, one way or the other. But when you're data-informed, you can balance that with qualitative insights, and have that outcome be a little bit more holistic.

So circling back to product marketing versus demand gen, was this content marketing in different functions like that. I think at the heart of it, there is room for cross pollination of ideas, where you can be more data-informed, and apply data in different ways, because when people say data-informed, it's very proud and it's very general. But I think you can take that and apply it in a very tactical way, within that function. And that, to me, is a learning that started off in product management. And I think it's being applied to other functions as well.

Maia Wells:
I love the distinction you're making between data-driven versus data-informed. I see a lot of that in all kinds of different contexts, where we try to be data-driven at the expense of user experience, for example, or things like that. What are you doing with Zoom apps, right now? Are you being data-driven or are you being data-informed?

Arun J:
That's a great question. I would say with Zoom apps, we are data-informed. I would like to believe so. And we are, for the most part. Our goal with Zoom apps is to build for builders, and the builders effectively being developers who build Zoom apps on the platform. So we want to set them up for success, we want our app developers to get distribution, to get to gain adoption, and have apps that really transform the meeting experience, but also impact the experience before and after the meeting.

In some ways, the premise here is all about disrupting the web browser, in some ways. The web browser, as of last year, turned 30 years old. And the browser was a construct that is made for very personal individual use. Whereas on Zoom, when you're meeting with someone, as long as you're meeting with one normal people, it is a social construct. You're not meeting by yourself. So when you bring apps into that construct, now you're talking about collaboration, you're talking about how you can creatively work with another person. And the app becomes a tool for not just communication, but also for collaboration. So that's, effectively, the premise. And in order to make that happen in a quantitative way, we are leveraging data to drive growth, to drive adoption, to drive engagement.

Maia Wells:
So is Zoom apps right now in beta? Do I have that right?

Arun J:
That's right. So Zoom apps, is in beta as far as developers go, and as far as someone wanting to build a Zoom app. But for customers, we are out of beta, we launched on the 21st of July, and anyone who has the Zoom client on Mac and Windows can use Zoom apps.

Maia Wells:
Very cool. And so, what are some of the more successful apps that people are using? I mentioned in the intro social games, other things like that, what are you seeing that people are using out there so far?

Arun J:
Yeah. So we have a handful of apps, and I would say all of them are quite exciting. And there's enough differentiation in terms of category and taxonomy within these apps, and the jobs to be done that they solve for. One of my favorite games is actually Ask Away, which is a Fun Trivia type of game that you can play with groups of people. I also like the Virtual Backgrounds app that we have, which is built by Zoom. It's a very simple app that lets you search for, and set a virtual background while you're in a meeting. We have a handful of other apps that solve different needs. We have whiteboarding apps, collaboration apps, apps that let you do meeting stand ups, or standup meetings, and things like that. So we do have a whole bunch of apps.

In fact, one of my other favorites is an app by Pledge, that lets you make donations in a Zoom meeting. And when we had our initial launch, we did a little launch party that was on Zoom and it was virtual, we raised funds with that app. And in a matter of minutes, we were able to... Or less than a minute, we were able to raise about $500 or something, in a meeting of 50 people. So that app very effectively solved a real user need. And so we have a handful of such apps that solve very clear needs of users. And then, they also have room to expand and to solve other user needs.

Maia Wells:
So Arun, how far away are we from getting a virtual pants app for Zoom? Because that's a problem out there, right? We stand up from our desk and we're like, "Oh, I'm wearing sweatpants, or I'm wearing basketball shorts." How far away are we from that?

Arun J:
I don't know, but I'm sure, an app developer who's there, listening, might go do that. And I think that's the beauty of taking a platform approach with product is effectively, you are building for builders, and what you're building is a blank canvas that others can innovate on, others can create on. Our goal here is to provide a canvas for creators, for builders to build whatever they think makes sense and solve user needs, like a pants app. So that's what a platform approach is all about.

Maia Wells:
Well. Arun J, I really appreciate you coming onto the show today, and talking with us about what it's like to be in product management for some really big name companies. Do you have any last parting advice for any of the marketers out there working in SAS?

Arun J:
I'm not sure this is advice, but I would think that the more you can talk with your counterparts in product, or data science and design, the more successful we can all be together. And I would say that data is definitely the new oil, and the more you can leverage data, the more you can be data-informed. And balance data with qualitative insights, that always goes a long way in making your entire product, or your ecosystem, or the service that you're building for, successful. So I would summarize it as just be friends with your data scientists, your product analysts, or just data in general. And I would just add that it's not just advice for marketers, but anyone who is in any way involved with products and product development.

Maia Wells:
Wonderful. Well, once again, thank you for coming onto The Marketing Hero. I appreciate your time.

Arun J:
Thank you so much, Maia. Thanks for having me on

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