Adapting to new formats and products with Aarti Bhaskaran of Snap

On our podcast, we were recently joined by Aarti Bhaskaran, who is the global head of research and Insights at Snapchat. She has over 15 years of experience in consumer insights and media effectiveness measurement. In her role, Aarti leads a team with a mission to educate the advertising industry and marketing community on new ad formats, audiences, and platforms through data-driven insights and empirical evidence, and be a voice of Snapchat at industry forums and conferences. She has a rich and varied background in the multi-national insights industry, working for some of the world's leading brands. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation with her. 


Aarti, what's the most significant thing you've got to talk to us about today?
Well, you see, I have the privilege of working in the tech industry that's always changing and evolving. And with it, I think the research that we do also evolves.

So what I'd love to talk about today is some of the work that we have done in understanding new products, new formats, and how you need to either think of a new approach or adapt what's existing to research about things which are not yet commonplace.

Reflecting on your introduction there and the fact that you've lived in such different environments, places around the world helps broaden your view as a market researcher as well. So that helps feed into the perspectives that you can share as well.

Absolutely. You know, the U.S. is like the fourth country that I've lived in. And obviously technologies are at different stages in different markets and so are audiences, so are their motivations. So it's very interesting to study the same thing across the globe.

Let's talk about your background in market research. Perhaps some of the key moments in your career that we didn't touch on in the intro that lead to you working at Snapchat. 

I accidentally discovered market research right out of university. I didn't know what I was planning to do. I went for an interview and then here I am, like 17 years later. So I started my career in India at a time when a lot of brands were entering the market, at which time I was doing a lot of innovation research and audience understanding - like trying to explain what 'mobile wallet' was 15 years ago and assessing if it had potential.

So that was my entry to market research and that's what fascinated me in this particular field. But when I moved to Singapore, it was a switch and we worked with more mature brands. It was a lot more about brand strategy and creative development. So a completely different space. And again, I was lucky enough when I moved to Canada with a completely different geography, but also different line of research, which was all about media planning and effectiveness. So now I'm kind of moving downstream, if you will, along the product funnel - the final stage of delivery to the consumers and convincing them to buy. And then proving that the money that you spent, whether it's marketing on media was working. So now I'm able to bring, I guess all of these elements that I've worked on to the work that I do at Snap because my team looks after the who, what, when, where, how, why of Snap - right from the audience that uses the platform to the ad products which are developed as well as talking to advertisers about effectiveness. 

So what about some of the newer formats and products that you've been working on at Snap?

I think there are several aspects that I can talk about. One is, of course, Snap being a technology platform. We are always innovating. And that's one of the things I like about the platform that attracted me to the role to begin with. And obviously, you know, we are considered to be leaders in augmented reality, which is essentially the app open up to the camera and through the camera, you can apply effects or a digital overlay on the real world, whether it's you or your surroundings.

That's the simplest way to explain it, but conceptually, it's easy to think about it, but to research, it is challenging. Because  the way in which we do our research is through the device, but the device itself is the format, right? So often when we are trying to understand, not just what people think about the format - because some of them don't even know they're using AR - to even measuring its effectiveness. We are constantly thinking about either adapting current technology methodologies or trying to invent new ways.

We are typically first to market when it comes to establishing benchmarks for augmented reality. And the other space in which we have done a lot of work I would say is the audience space because we are a platform that does attract and retain quite a fair amount of younger audiences. And there's always a lot of interest. I know people do a lot of generational research and I just see it as looking at a decade because each decade you're influenced by what's going on in the world and technology. So trying to understand you know, 13-year-olds today, the way you speak to them, the way you understand them is very different from research when I started out.

Snapchat's undoubtedly doing some groundbreaking work in the digital space. As we mentioned as well, you work with a lot of marketers and advertisers to help them understand the space as well. Now, this might be more skewed at marketers because I know as advertisers, I worked in advertising as a creative for several years. We've been trying to sell in AR augmented reality ideas for the better part of the decade now. So I'm assuming that there is some resistance to newer technology like AR and what and whatnot. How do you tend to show people the value of being present in this kind of medium?

There are several dimensions that we look at. I think the first is to establish the case for new technology and make sure that people don't think it's like the next shiny thing without depth. So a lot of research that we do sometimes is very foundational in terms of how consumers are thinking about the format. And typically we also ask marketers what they think about the format and we kind of expose the gaps if you will in perception right in what marketers think about augmented reality versus consumers. 

So we've done like research now for three years or so and every year it was fascinating to see the adoption of AR and how it's changing. So the broad utility people are seeing when it comes to AR and shopping, you know, in terms of convenience as an in-store substitute, as well as providing more confidence when it comes to decision making and reducing returns.

But what we also observed and this was through what I would consider a very traditional technique of MaxDiff, if you will, and the analysis, we wanted to understand how important AR is in the purchase journey. Like we know people from last year or a couple of years ago, people are starting to use augmented reality in their shopping journey. Brands are providing it. But we wanted to understand where are you in the hierarchy? Is it like a nice to have? Is it something that you definitely rely on? And what we noticed was once people started using augmented reality or used to those features, they might not call it AR but they know, 'oh I want to try on, you know, I want to be able to change different colors in the outfit before picking.' And so on once they started using those kind of features, like seven out of the top 10 features that would help in brand decision making where augmented reality influenced features and it actually varied by purchase journey, which I was not expecting because I was like, well try on and you know, you would buy.

But when you're at brand discovery to when you're considering what to buy to the final journey, the features that consumers were looking for varied, which I thought was fascinating. And what that means for marketers is we, we don't say do AR right now. It goes down to OK, what's the purpose of your campaign? What's your audience, what do you want to do and accordingly design your AR? Design the experience. If you're at brand discovery, then it's better to do a more complex AR experience with several clicks where people are like playing around and discovering the brand. And you know, it has features which enable them to check the various options which are there and so on and so forth.

But if you are very much towards a lower funnel kind of campaign, then make sure you have a try on feature. So that you're able to convert them at the moment of purchase. So that's something you know, we discovered in the retail process and I'm sure as we do more research in this space, we will continue to discover more things.

I'm assuming you've been able to have a bit of a key role and influence the brand awareness, brand tracking side of things as well for big Corporates too.

Yeah, definitely. I mean, we obviously we have to prove the value of the platform which also means measuring what they do. And that's why I told you, I think that when we did like a huge analysis, we realized that you can't just ingest impressions and costs of AR like you would other formats, you also have to look at things like share and play time because it's a format that's meant to be engaged with.

It's not just a reach format, you know, if you're thinking as a media planner. So even the best practices when it comes to how to ingest data and how you judge how effective AR is, needs to be thought a bit differently? It's just reminded me of one of the Marvel series Loki and how there's Miss Minutes and it's almost an M&M that just could pop up everywhere. I love that.

So one of your key audiences is Gen Z. You've spent some time studying their behavior and a lot of people are interested in what this generation is doing online. Are you able to share some of the findings that you've found for them?

We do a lot of work around Gen Z, depending on who is listening in. Because it's just like how, there were so many headlines on millennials in every category in the world. I feel like this generation, they are the first digital native generation, they are the most multicultural of generations and they're also  getting the tail end of all of the crises that the millennials faced, right?

So, and hence, you would expect some seismic shift in their culture and their values and the way that they interact and the way that they shop. So obviously, we want to understand them because they use the platform a lot. I think in the US, about 90% of Gen Z use Snapchat. So it was very important for us to understand the understand the audience. And what we realized was that while their values are quite unique, some have some overlap with millennials, which is expected. Then the way they interact with media and with brands is different.  Marketers need to take into consideration when it comes to culture, I think some of the stuff that's spoken about them is true. Like their approach to work is different. They don't want to be that competitive. They focus more on sustainability and so on. But what I found fascinating or what caught my attention was they're very much focused on self-improvement and self-experience. So I always say Gen X are the the strivers if you will - the millennials are OK, what else am I gonna face? But is Gen Z  in a way a bit more optimistic in the sense that they want to work on themselves?

So they're constantly looking for learning experiences and looking to better themselves. So that's how, you know, brands need to think about them. So, from a cultural value that was different, we call it like 'self in progress', I think. And I think that leads to why they want better future, a more fair future. The other value that kind of stuck with me is this need for community, but there's a need for the community to be interactive and playful which we don't see in, that's the difference in other, you know, compared to other generations.

And I feel it's because they are digital natives. So they're very much used to  texting from whenever they were younger. I'm not Gen Z, I'm a millennial so that, that kind of entered into my themes. But this is how this generation grew up. And they love the avatars, they love the bitmojis, the fact that they can be different people in different times, which I think has implications on how you think about them and how you're thinking about creating content for them.

And when it comes to media, obviously, they're used to short-form content. Every generation has shorter attention span than the previous generation is just how things are part of it, I believe. I'm not an expert on the physiological, neurological, part of it is cultural, but some of the attention research that we have done proves that their attention span is lower, but the amount of information they process in the first four seconds is higher.

So even the way they are thinking and processing information is different, it's because that's what they're used to, right? From a media consumption perspective. And they're very much very visual people as well. So I'm I'm just giving you broad strokes. I can talk about them for like hours on end. But I'm talking about some of the big things that stuck in my mind that I feel will define how brands approach them for messaging and content.

Yeah, and that's a really fascinating point, the attention and how much this generation can consume and compute in that short period of time and then the impact that that has on brand loyalty as well. So what do brands have to do in order to keep staying relevant and in the minds of consumers?

You actually triggered something in my head because yes, we do a lot of attention work but we, we had this hypothesis that this is headline: Gen Z, it's all about purpose. So we were like is it really did it say it's for purpose. So we wanted to test the hypothesis and we actually did what we call immersion research.

So this was looking at heart rate variability and it is a technique that was developed in a university in California. And the number is validated to sales. So if the immersion is higher, it's predicted towards higher sales. So we thought, OK, it's a valid measure to look at and we have done already a lot of cognition research around generation. So we were expecting immersion rates perhaps to be lower among the generation, but we did not know what the outcomes would be like you said, how do brands reach them?

So we tested different types of messaging. So we tested like purpose-driven messaging. So this could be either like a social message, you know, in this case, we use the same brand. And we tested messages around 'it's sustainable, it's good for the environment, but it's also a good employer' which is very critical for for this generation. And then we had  brand messaging and position, and messaging about like new product pricing. So we had the range of messaging.

And what we discovered was that it peaked for the younger generation when purpose-driven messaging came on screen. Whereas millennials, if you grab the attention kind of stays flat and then it goes away and that translated to outcomes. So they think better about the brand if they think the brand is being genuine about the message, but if it's not, they just rip it to shreds.

So that's that's something that we discovered. So Gen Z truly, you know, walk the walk. So I think brands also have to genuinely walk the walk and not just do it for the sake of. And the other thing about this generation is we realized they know a lot about media and brands because they already talking about, 'I'm a creator, I have followers. You know, what's my reach.' They're way more educated in this field and you can't put pull the wool over their eyes. So if brand needs to connect with them,  you have to be genuinely purpose-driven, don't just manufacture it. And then as a brand walk the walk then and the generation will reward you. And that we actually saw come through in several pieces of work we did because apart from immersion, I've also done the attention measurement through eye tracking as well where we tested and one of the hypothesis we have is do we need a one minute kind of anthem to deliver brand purpose or can it be done in a shorter And what we realized at least on our platform was that you could deliver a brand purpose message within six seconds and get people's attention and it does lead to more than short term sales - long term loyalty measures were much higher.

Oh, wow, good. It's good to hear. Interested to hear how Snap or what makes Snap different to other social media platforms out there.

It so happened that the marketing team was working on brand positioning for the year, which gave me the chance to research that particular area a lot for the last year or so. And this is also one of the reasons why I chose to work for the platform is because we're not a 'platform,' we're a platform I would say that's built for relationship. And I, I can now say it more with more confidence because I've seen the evidence as well when I do the research, you're not chasing followers, you're not chasing like, so you don't have like thousands of people in your network on the platform, it really is your close friends and family.

And you, you can't comment on a lot of things, you don't like a lot of things. So there's not a lot of vanity involved in it. In fact, the platform opens up to a camera and then you have like your chat and then the other tabs as well. So, that's a huge differentiator and that also came out in what people thought about the platform. And again, you know, you do a lot of research, it can prove or disprove your hypothesis.

And one of the hypotheses we have is that it's really about close friends and families. Perhaps Snap is a happier place compared to other platforms, in a world that's not always happy. And I think the numbers were astounding. It's like 90% of people on the platform like Snapchat are on the platform because they feel connected and they feel happy and they feel that they have a personal relationship with people. The other thing that I really, really appreciate about the platform is its private by default.

So once you sign on the platform, you don't have to go to settings and make everything private, it's already private. So random people can't come and friend, can't follow you, can't send you snaps. So your messages do disappear and no, we don't keep it anywhere to bring it up many years later. And if somebody is taking a snapshot of that snap, it actually alerts you. So that's another aspect of the platform I think is unique in the world today.

No, it's very nice. It's good to hear its the Happy platform. That's nice. So look, we've talked about some really interesting things today Aarti. Was there anything you'd like to add or leave us with before we wrap up today?

So that's like an excellent question. I think I need to like almost a minute to think about it because there's so much more that the team's doing that we can talk about. So let's, let's just narrow the focus down.

So, advice for market researchers and how they could potentially utilize based insights as along with the traditional research methodologies, et cetera as well. Yeah.

So I would say advice for market researchers is, you know, be open to experimentation when you are studying new technology or new audiences. I think often we are like in a rush to execute the brief, but sometimes it does help if you can just spend a little bit of time figuring out how and what are the various ways you can do it. Then find great partners. If you're like me on the advertiser or platform side, we're willing to do that experimentation with you,  that would be my advice.

The other thing is if you're using a new technology, test a lot, test and learn. And as you learn, keep iterating, how you would think about measuring how you think about researching. I think that's something that we have learned. Like even now, if I look at some of the work we've done two years ago, I'm like, oh, did we do this? You know, we are now doing it in a different way. But if we had not done that, we wouldn't be where we are today.

So there's no silver bullet to doing this kind of work. And I'm a global researcher and I like the fact that I have a worldview because it's not just technology, but the culture and the current situation also impacts the way you would do research and the outcomes that you'd get out. And I think we kind of forget and we think that, you know, one methodology or one type of questioning applies to all. And that's not the case.

I think, especially if you're working in multimarket, you need to be mindful of the nuances of not just the culture but the stage of technology in each of the markets. Sometimes your lead market might not be your largest market when it comes to how advanced the technology is.

Yeah, very interesting. Well, I look forward to hearing more with Snap and what you're doing with them. Thank you so much for sharing all the insights you have today and your perspectives. We're very appreciative of it.

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