May 1, 2018

JF1337: Talking Growth & Branding With Inman?s CPO & CMO - Matthew Shadbolt

As the Chief Product & Marketing Officer at the popular real estate publication, Inman, Matthew knows a thing or two about how to brand properly. From drawing people in to keeping them engaged, we’ll hear amazing marketing tips from one of the best in the biz. If you enjoyed today’s episode remember to subscribe in iTunes and leave us a review!


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Matthew Shadbolt Real Estate Background:

  • Inman’s Chief Product & Marketing Officer
  • Oversees all growth, user experience, product, off-platform, brand development and marketing initiatives
  • long-time supporter of Inman’s journalism and events, Matthew works closely with the editorial team to shape and enhance the reader experience
  • Based in NYC, NY
  • Say hi to him at
  • Best Ever Book: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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Joe Fairless: Best Ever listeners, how are you doing? Welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Joe Fairless, and this is the world’s longest-running daily real estate investing podcast. We only talk about the best advice ever, we don’t get into any of that fluffy stuff. With us today, Matthew Shadbolt. How are you doing, Matthew?

Matthew Shadbolt: Hi, Joe. Great to be here with you.

Joe Fairless: I’m glad that you are excited to be here, and looking forward to diving in. Matthew is Inman’s chief product and marketing officer. He oversees all growth, user experience, product, off-platform, brand development and marketing initiatives for the company. He is a long-time supporter of Inman’s journalism and events, and he works closely with the editorial team to shape and enhance the reader experience.

Also, they just wrapped up a Capital Connect event, that we’re gonna be talking a little bit about. With that being said, Matt, do you wanna give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and your current focus?

Matthew Shadbolt: Yeah, sure. I’ve been with Inman for about six months; I’ve been a long-time friend of the brand, but moved across into a more formalized role with Inman as the chief product and marketing officer about six months ago. Before that, I was at the New York Times around the real estate section. I was there for almost four years, which was a ton of fun. obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of change going on inside of that news organization and it was a fantastic opportunity to be a part of that, especially through the election cycle, as I’m sure you can imagine… Just sort of see that engine work from the inside was an incredible experience.

Then before that, I was almost ten years in the brokerage world, where I headed up digital for the Corcoran Group here in Manhattan.

Joe Fairless: Okay. Let’s talk about your experience at New York Times, and we’ll spend most of our time talking about your experience at Inman. With New York Times you wrote the real estate section for four years… How did you decide what to write about?

Matthew Shadbolt: I wasn’t on the editorial side. I served as like the general manager of the section; so I’ve worked really closely with the journalists, but I’m not a journalist. So I worked on the business side, on the growth side… So a lot of what we saw there was really this tremendous transformation of the newsroom, from not thinking so much about the production of a printed newspaper, to more about the use of data, the smart use of audience insights, and the general sort of muscle-building that the newsroom needed to go through in order to really sort of significantly modernize. And I saw that accelerate at a tremendous pace while I was there.

So I was a huge part of how the real estate desk within the newsroom started to really think about what was resonating with users, outside of just anecdotal stuff that they would hear on a Monday morning after people had read the paper on a Sunday. So a lot of use of data, a lot of modernizing of sort of process and practice, and then building tools and building services around that journalism to help people really understand and sort of bring to life the journalism’s stories.

Then ultimately rolling all of that up into the business and making sure that we can monetize that from the sales perspective, either through sponsorships, or native content, or any kind of other sort of articulation of how a brokerage may want to reach this particular audience.

Joe Fairless: What tended to resonate with the users?

Matthew Shadbolt: That’s a really good question.

Joe Fairless: I’m glad I asked.

Matthew Shadbolt: Yeah, it usually goes two ways. There’s like the recreational stuff – it’s sort of what we actually refer to as floor plan porn… So super high-end, really bonkers listings, amazing homes, celebrity homes… Things like that. Things that you would imagine on like an HDTV or something like the [unintelligible  [00:04:32].12] something like that. So like the really trophy, voyeuristic kind of homes. That stuff always did really well; it was great at getting scale of audience, but it wasn’t very good at retaining audience.

So the retention of the audience is the much more interesting thing from the business perspective, just getting people to come back over and over again, because they want to sort of consume the content, and the content is helpful for them.

If you heard of like service journalism – it became really powerful for us as a team, inside of the New York Times. So the more helpful we could be, the more we could dispel myths, provide guidance and insight, really sort of hold the user’s hand through “Here’s the nightmare of renting in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and here’s how you can navigate it [unintelligible [00:05:16].17]

The service journalism was really where we landed in terms of the stuff that perpetually brought people back to the website over and over again, and there’s  a very large set of initiatives at the New York Times around service… So a tremendously successful cooking product, where you can learn to cook or you can just search recipes, that kind of thing. A similar product for movie and TV recommendations… But informally, inside the New York Times, it’s called “The Guide to Adulting.” It was like, how to get a mortgage, how to think about buying your first house, how to think about wealth management – all of these kinds of things that grown-ups do, but nobody really teaches you at school.

So it became a lot of this sort of service-oriented journalism, and it became very popular, an incredibly powerful tactic for retaining subscribers and growing subscribers. So it was really powerful on the acquisition and retention front.

Joe Fairless: So you’ve got some candy that you offer them to come into the Times, and that’s the recreational stuff, and then you give them some vegetables once they’re there, and you feed their mind, not only their instant gratification sensors… How do you determine what ratio you should do candy to vegetables?

Matthew Shadbolt: That’s a good question, I should clarify this. Ultimately, people are at the New York Times to read the news, right? People are not specifically coming to seek out the recipes, or do the crossword, or whatever. The primary function of the New York Times is to report the news… But there’s other things that users do in their lives, that the New York Times provides – and historically provided – a lot of advice on. So it’s not all just sort of candy and vegetables. All this stuff that I’m talking about sort of wraps around this core experience of explaining [unintelligible [00:07:00].04]

But I think over time one of the things you realize is it’s not really like candy, it’s more like fast food. It sort of tastes really good, but then you’re hungry again 30 minutes later… This sort of quick hit of audience. You can get very seduces by that, I think, and a lot of news organizations really sort of grapple with this idea of immediate, short-term gratification around audience lift, versus longer-term retention and subscriber-driven behavior. That’s the more interesting thing for growth. So just like my mother told me, you’ve gotta eat a lot more vegetables than candy.

Joe Fairless: Yup, it makes sense. Now that you’ve taken your experience, not only at New York Times, but before at a brokerage and whatever else you were doing before that, and you’re at Inman as the chief product and marketing officer… What learnings are you applying to Inman that you’ve come across before?

Matthew Shadbolt: It’s a good, timely question for me as well. I think one of the things that I think Inman is uniquely positioned to do is to really act as a very helpful, essential service in realtors and brokerages’ lives. We’re a 25-year-old organization, and thousands of people come to our conferences every year, whether that’s in San Francisco or New York, and hundreds of thousands of people read our journalism every month, so I think there’s a tremendous sort of moment right now where technology is sort of colliding in terms of like the influx of capital into the real estate category, whether that’s through startups, or investment, or even different ways of handling the transaction… So we hear a lot about things like people buying homes with Bitcoin, or this sort of ongoing cryptocurrency conversation as it relates to real estate and investing. That’s like a fascinating thing for us.

But on the other side, you have this sort of legacy technology system that’s sort of struggling to consolidate and struggling to remain relevant. So all of this is sort of colliding with increased disintermediation of the actual agent themselves. The value of the realtor is still very much in question, especially with younger users, who are able to do a lot of what a realtor exclusively used to do. Younger users are more than happy to go do all this work on their own; they don’t really want to, but they do. And there’s this sort of amazing collision between the new way of thinking about transactions and then sort of the existing way of thinking about transactions, and I think that Inman as a news organization that also provides service journalism and guides and insights and events and all those kinds of things – we’re uniquely positioned to pool those conversations together and sort of be able to help chart a part for the particular individual that has questions.

This stuff comes with a tremendous amount of questions, so a lot of what we’re doing at Inman, especially with our conferences, for example – we’re actually doing less of this sort of focused on people talking from the stage, although that’s still obviously something that we do, but we’re inviting a lot of people to come up from the audience and do live problem-solving, as well. [unintelligible [00:10:08].09] inside of the New York event in January, and actually having experts on stage, and having people from the audience just come up and be able to ask them stuff and solicit a more organic conversation about “What do I do with social media?” or “What do I do with first-time buyers?” – all those kinds of things. That is where it can be incredibly valuable.

So a lot of what I’m talking about is really informed by the service journalism stuff that I worked on at the New York Times, but applying it to a very specific moment within the real estate industry is for me a very exciting thing to work on.

Joe Fairless: It makes a lot of sense… I could see easily how that would fit into a conference structure. How do you fit into the more organic conversation approach with writing stories and posting it online?

Matthew Shadbolt: Yeah, that’s a good one as well, because there’s like the daily beat, with covering the news, and that’s our core product (“This is what’s going on in the world…”), but then there’s also other things that we do. There’s other aspects in terms of like service journalism; it might be just “Here’s the guide to working with first-time buyers” or “Here’s the specific set of recommendations surfaced from our community about whether you should start forming a team or not”, or “Here’s the latest thinking around commercial real estate investing”, that kind of stuff.

So there’s the daily beat, but then there’s other sort of pillars of [unintelligible [00:11:32].08] we do, whether it’s service journalism, we do a tremendous amount of opinion work as well, or sort of just more experimental things like things with video, or things with visual forms of storytelling… There’s a very healthy mix between all of these things. The core daily beat is something that the editorial team is very focused on, and then the service journalism is something that we leverage specifically on the subscriber side, as well. We think that there’s a really strong correlation between not just understanding what’s going on in the world, but also having a strong sense of actionable, helpful advice available to you as a subscriber as well.

Joe Fairless: What are those categories? You said daily beat, experimental things, opinion…

Matthew Shadbolt: And service journalism.

Joe Fairless: And service journalism. Those are the main categories?

Matthew Shadbolt: Yeah, I would say so. There’s other things that we do, but those are the four broad most important ones, I would say.

Joe Fairless: And are they all 25%, or what’s the percent breakdown, would you say, that is maybe not where you’re at now, but what’s your ideal breakdown?

Matthew Shadbolt: It’s a good question, and obviously, it’s a really hard one, too. It varies day by day, depending on what’s going on in the world… But I’m sort of hesitant to give percentages, because it depends on the specific realtor. A specific realtor or a specific brokerage may be more interested in service journalism, and they may have a greater use for it than an understanding of sort of an opinion piece; that might be less important to them, less relevant to them.

So the degrees of helpfulness – we try to sort of take a broad approach and be as helpful as possible to as many people as possible, but it really does depend on who you are in terms of like your use of the product and where you fall in terms of like percentage breakdown of what you engage with.

Joe Fairless: Fair enough, fair enough. If you’re okay with this, I’d love to do kind of a pretend scenario… And the pretend scenario is you no longer work at Inman; you left on great terms, all good, so no burning bridges there, but instead you’ve moved to partner – for whatever reason – with a company that does not have the reach that Inman has, it doesn’t have anywhere close to the reach that New York Times has… It’s just a small brokerage, and for whatever reason, you’ve decided to join this small brokerage, and they said “Matthew, we’d like for you to be chief product and marketing officer and help us with our approach, and maximizing the exposure while maximizing the revenue along the way. How do we get started?” What do you do?

Matthew Shadbolt: Wow, that’s a very big question. When we think about that kind of problem, it’s like “Where is the unique value proposition? What is it specific to that particular brokerage that you can sort of really lean into?” I think when I was in the brokerage world, a lot of where we landed — there’s a lot of opportunity to be unique as a brokerage. There’s lots of customer surveys that sort of reinforce this idea that customers don’t really understand the differences between brokerages, whether they be big or small; there’s like a red one, a blue one, a yellow one… Things like that. And I think there’s enough surveys to really give weight to that kind of argument, and I think it really starts with the agent.

I’ve always been a firm believer that the core of any sort of brokerage brand really lives and breathes – or dies – with the agents. If the agents don’t buy into it, you don’t win, and I think a good example of agents buying into a brand at the moment is something like Compass. Those agents really believe it, and they really live it, especially online. So I think that that’s a good case study, for sure.

But I think finding the unique proposition is like a really interesting thing. When I was in the brokerage world, for example, this sort of unique idea that we worked with when I was at Corcoran was “What is around the four walls of the apartment building is just as much an important part of that transaction as what’s inside the four walls.” It’s a very, very simple idea. Going beyond the four walls of the apartment is the thing, right? And when you think about Zillow, Trulia, or even just like a regular brokerage website, there’s isn’t a whole lot that really answers the question “What does it feel like to live here?” And if you can answer that question, then you really have something powerful.

I still think that this is a massive space of opportunity, for brokerages in particular, and I think that there’s a wealth of stuff that you can do with that one idea… The idea of really helping people to understand “What does it really feel like to walk my dog on a Saturday morning and go and get my coffee? What’s my commute gonna feel like? How far away is the grocery store and what kind of things do they have there?” These are very simple, very regular questions that inform the home purchase, outside of the zeroes and ones, the prices and square footage, the room count, things like that.

But I think that there’s this sort of database-driven stuff that is informing search, but there’s a very high emotional quotient that goes with that stuff as well that is never really tapped into, and it’s something that realtors know very well. So this when I say — when I start with the realtors, digitizing what’s in their heads, in terms of like “Which bar is the best one to go to on a Friday night? How do I order off the menu at the local Italian place? How do I cut the line to get into that particular store?” – all those kinds of things, realtors know this, but none of it really translates to something like a brokerage website. So the idea of really investing in that kind of approach is really exciting for me, and the nice thing about it is the smaller the brokerage, the easier it is to do, because you have more available materials to work with. That’s really hard inside  a big brokerage. If you’re at an international brokerage, like a [unintelligible [00:17:26].06] or Sotheby’s or something like that – that kind of project is really challenging. But if you’re in a small brokerage, that would be something that would be of interest to me, I think.

Joe Fairless: How do you identify what that value proposition should be?

Matthew Shadbolt: For me, I always start by talking to customers – understanding where the pain points are, understanding really the questions that they have in their heads and trying to sort of synthesize that kind of stuff into (I’m speaking as like a product person here) a series of “How might we…” statements. So like “How might we take the pain out of a realtor not being able to call somebody back in time?” That’s like a good problem to solve. “How might we help people understand what it feels like to live there and what their weekends are gonna be like? How might we help people understand what travel and commuting is like if they live in this particular place?”

These kinds of things all come out of just simply talking to users, so the more transparency and visibility you have into being able to talk to users — this is one of the things that got me really excited about joining the Inman team, is because we have hundreds of opportunities throughout the year, but specifically the events in New York and San Francisco where we have 4,000-5,000 users all in the same place, and you can just soak it up for like a week, and you really hear “Well, I had problems with your website” or “I couldn’t read this”, or “Wouldn’t it be great if you guys did this?”

There’s tremendous opportunity to learn from the people that interact with your staff every day, and as a product person that runs a team here at Inman, to poke holes in all the assumptions of what we think is cool and to actually have users tell us what they need, not just what we think is cool – number one, it’s very humbling, but it also is incredibly useful to hear what’s not good. We kind of wanna hear all the stuff that’s broken. That’s the best path to actually just making a great product, I think.

Joe Fairless: For Inman, the focus is acting as a helpful service for realtors and brokers… What is your best advice ever for real estate agents and brokers?

Matthew Shadbolt: I get asked this one surprisingly frequently, and what I always say is just be really good at saying no to stuff. Your time is the most valuable commodity, and I know a lot of people sort of say that, but it’s really true. The customers is sort of paying for your time and attention. That’s really sort of what the commission consists of.

They’re paying for that service, which really means time and attention, and I think having a very acute understanding of the value of your time and how you translate that to the customer is really key. That does mean saying no to a lot of things; it does mean saying “You know what, I’m not gonna spend quite as much time on Facebook and Twitter as I used to, because I really need to just get back to that customer…”, things like that.

So you have to sort of give up a tremendous amount as a realtor. It’s a very challenging profession, I really believe that, but time is really the most valuable asset – not just for you as a realtor, but also for the customer as well. Their time is very valuable, as well. So just having a very clear understanding and awareness and sensitivity to that I think is key.

Joe Fairless: We’re gonna do a lightning round. Are you ready for the Best Ever Lightning Round?

Matthew Shadbolt: Okay, what is this – like, saying the first thing that comes into my head here?

Joe Fairless: Sure thing. You betcha! [laughter] Does that work for you?

Matthew Shadbolt: I may filter at times… [laughter] But I’ll do my best.

Joe Fairless: We’re about to get a good glimpse inside your mind, which sounds like it’s gonna be very entertaining. First though, a quick word from our Best Ever partners.

Break: [00:21:09].18] to [00:21:54].02]

Joe Fairless: Alright, Matthew, best ever book you’ve read?

Matthew Shadbolt: Best ever book I read… Recently, I really enjoyed Ready Player One.

Joe Fairless: Ready Player One?

Matthew Shadbolt: Yes, it’s by a guy called Ernest Cline. It’s gonna be made into a Steven Spielberg movie later this year.

Joe Fairless: Oh, sweet. Okay. What’s a mistake you’ve made in business?

Matthew Shadbolt: Not realizing that I have two customers inside of a brokerage. There’s a real customer – the actual person selling their house – and then there’s the agent, and not realizing that everything that we built had to reconcile for both people.

Joe Fairless: Best ever way you like to give back?

Matthew Shadbolt: I really like to pay it forward at either the grocery store, or at the drive-through.

Joe Fairless: How do you do that?

Matthew Shadbolt: I pay for the person behind me.

Joe Fairless: Best ever way the Best Ever listeners can get in touch with you or learn more about what you’ve got going on?

Matthew Shadbolt: I’m an easy google. I’m @MatthewShadbolt on Twitter, or, or at

Joe Fairless: Outstanding. Matthew, this was a much larger conversation than just brokerages and what you’re doing at Inman. You provided insight that can help any entrepreneur, real estate or otherwise, create a brand – or at least create the structure of a brand – with the value proposition… Because regardless of what industry we’re in, we need a unique value proposition, and you talked about an example of that – what is around the four walls is just as important as what’s outside of the four walls of the apartment, and tapping into the emotional quotient of the customer, and talking about what does it feel like to walk my dog and get coffee around this neighborhood… And really honing in on that as a focus. You can then use that for the content that you create, which you talked about with both recreational stuff and service journalism at the New York Times, as well as the four categories that you have at Inman: opinion, service journalism, experiential things like video and visual forms of storytelling, and the daily beat.

Thank you so much for talking to us about your approach, sharing your expertise, really grateful for that. I hope you have a best ever day, and we’ll talk to you soon.

Matthew Shadbolt: Thanks so much for having me, Joe. It was a pleasure.

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