Intro: Discover how you can green your life by building a knowledge base of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends. This series will delve into hot topics, current standards and practices, ways to design better spaces and specify materials that benefit not only us as consumers, but the world as a whole. Members of CaraGreen, as sustainable material distributors, and other industry leaders weigh in throughout the series. This is Build Green Live Green.
Jessica: Hi, this is Jessica with Build Green Live Green and today we have a special guest who is also another Jessica, Jessica Jenkins from ThinkLab and she is in charge of research and content. Hey Jessica thanks for coming on.
Jessica Jenkins: Hey Jessica thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jessica: It was so cool to be in Florida at the event down there and I’m glad we finally got together to do this so I’m excited.
Jessica Jenkins: Yeah, me too.
Jessica: So okay so can you tell us a little bit about ThinkLab and also about your background because you do come from the materials side of things. So if you want to just kind of give us a little bit of your background, how you came to ThinkLab and what ThinkLab is.
Jessica Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. So, Jessica Jenkins I’m on the research and content team at ThinkLab as Jessica mentioned. So ThinkLab is the research division of Sandow Design Group. You may be familiar with media brands that we have like Interior Design Magazine, Lux Interiors and Metropolis. So some of those brands are very very familiar to the A and D audience and then we are kind of this nerdy underbelly, we like to say, of everything. We are the research arm. So we really focus on architecture and design and the whole industry ecosystem and how it relates to one another and we focus our industry research really to help manufacturers brands and also architecture and design firms leverage some insights and how this world that we work in is evolving and changing and really how to stay ahead. So that’s really our focus and my background is in material sales like you said I worked for two flooring manufacturers, previously and I also studied interior design so kind of a typical trajectory into the interior design sales side and I met Amanda Schneider, our founder and president, at a industry event and through some of our design hackathon research process. I was on one of the panel groups that we had looking at or focus groups that we had looking at research for the B2B sales industry. So kind of a funny way to get into research but I was just so excited about well how can we do things better? How do we really dive into understanding the nitty-gritty of the industry? I think there is a lot of information out there. But there’s not much truly focused on the architecture and design industry as far as it relates to B2B sales as far as it relates to how specifiers want to select product, what they’re looking for beyond trends but really how they want to be served as clients as well and how that’s evolved with really digital. and how we can look to really consumer brands to do some of that so that is a lot in a nutshell.
Jessica: Yes, yeah, no, no, no, no, you know as a manufacturer and a distributor you know trying to sell, you’re making a lot of assumptions about the A and D space and I think we’ve always done that. And I was laughing the other day because I was thinking about the assumptions we made about how long it takes from when you meet someone to you know when a project actually closes and I remember saying 12 to 18 months and then saying 12 to 24 months and then now I say no less than 36 months you know as a standard rule of thumb. And it’s just part of that comes from some of the research and information that you guys are putting out there and polling this large group to find out what the reality truly is and what that means to manufacturers. So I love that you guys are doing this and anything that we can do to kind of help propagate some of the research you’re doing I think it helps the industry as a whole because there is a massive void there when it comes to vetted data directly from you know the people that you’re marketing to, the A and D community.
Jessica Jenkins: Absolutely.
Jessica: So with that and with your kind of as you guys have sort of come to the forefront here in the last several years, the market changed dramatically during that time too. So what have you seen kind of along that vein because when in 2019 while there was conversations about digital, our strategy was still get a lunch and learn with a firm, go in there, buy them lunch, drop a few hundred dollars, cross your fingers, hope they take some of your samples, and then go back in six months and see if anything happened. Rinse and repeat. That was our strategy leaving 2019 so I’ve got to imagine that with all the events of the last few years that has changed quite a bit.
Jessica Jenkins: Absolutely and I lived through that, right. I was a rep during that 2019 pre pandemic I hate to use that word going into 2020 and how really that shifted and I think a lot of people have said this right that it just accelerated where we were likely headed but it really rapidly changed the relationships that we had and how we talked to these clients, right? And we actually studied just this. So we had the same question of well what’s evolving in the B2B sales world? And in 2020 we did our first design hackathon research process where we studied just that of how is that evolving. And what was interesting is what we found was yeah people still want to do business with people so that’s good news right? People still want to do business with people but they do also want to digitally self-serve information and be able to find information faster, more efficiently and also know that it’s trusted on what websites and information that they’re getting from the websites that they’re researching from if that makes sense. So it’s kind of this ‘yes and’ right? Like people are not going away. We still want those relationships. No one wants to call a one-eight hundred number that has a robot that they can never speak to a real human but they also don’t want to have to call a human for some of the more basic information.
Jessica: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right, right?
Jessica Jenkins: And taking it a little step further so we kind of had this big aha in 2020 and last year in 2022, I’m like what year is that 2022, we took it a step further and said well we know that people want to do business with people and we also know that they want to be digitally self-served so where in the process, especially for specifiers, where in that design process do they want those relationships? And what we found was really five unique personas that really came out of that research that no it wasn’t a one size fits all. While all 5 definitely want digital and a human. Where they want it in their process is different and varies by those persona. So there’s personas like ‘rep first’ which is one that I think we’re all very familiar with, very comfortable with. That’s one that’s tried and true in our industry but there’s also one like ‘brand first,’ ‘digital first,’ ‘data first,’ and ‘sustainability first.’ And what’s really cool is we’ve been tracking that since we started and launched that industry research and ‘sustainability first’ has really grown and that is the one that actually wants the most digital content out there and I think it’s because it’s so nuanced. It’s so technical they don’t necessarily need a coffee and a happy hour to get the information.
Jessica: Yes. Right
Jessica Jenkins: They need like the nitty-gritty true information for sustainability. So really interesting as you’re looking at how do you sell to 5 different personas. How do you really understand them? How does your marketing strategy align with that along with your sales strategy and how do you kind of create that what we love to call that phygital journey? That physical and digital.
Jessica: I was gonna ask you about that term. I like that term, it’s a combination of physical and digital and you guys use that phygital. So, yeah I’ve seen that research and I think it’s, is it publicly available? That personas?
Jessica Jenkins: It is, parts of it are. So we have 5 different ways that we really like to get information out there and I would say if you’re not following our Design Nerds Anonymous podcast, that one follows along post-research. Amanda Schneider is the host of that podcast and what she does is really interview people and take the concepts further so you get this conversational, outside industry inspiration, inside industry inspiration to further understand what that research means in a day-to-day context. So really great way to understand some of those personas, understand that research. We also have an on demand learning tool. It’s on teachable course and it’s a one hour self-guided course with video and one of the researchers, Meredith Campbell, is actually the host of that where she really runs through and takes you through the entire body of research. This year we did something a little bit differently like you were saying so where can people get this information. For the Hackathon research we did this year, we’re actually publicly releasing the findings. So that’s kind of a new push for us too because we feel like some of this research is just so valuable and while we kind of give out nuggets here and there we feel like these insights are so valuable for industry and then “all boats rise” mentality that if we all embrace these, our whole industry can grow in a positive way. So that one will be coming out in August.
Jessica: Right, yeah, that’s great and I think that people should look out for that. And the Design Nerds Anonymous podcasts are generally pretty short. They’re a quick listen but very very informative, right?
Jessica Jenkins: Yes, exactly. Yep and very conversational so they’re easy to tune into and if you are a rep on this call and you have any driving time they’re easy to tune into. Great little insights even bring to clients and also they’re just they’re kind of just fun I think.
Jessica: Yeah, yeah, so the podcast is Design Nerds Anonymous. And then you also mentioned that you know these personas, these 5 personas, and I don’t want to get off that because I think it’s really important that you guys have profiled the A and D industry to find the 5 types of people that manufacturers of any building materials are actually marketing to and seeing how if you’re really dependent on this ‘rep first’ model and you’ve just relied on that for so long, which there is a lot of old school mentality with some of these more kind of commoditized building materials, and people can’t get away from that thinking that everyone’s the rep first, it’s really worth looking at the way you guys have broken out these personas because every manufacturer could really tweak the way that they market and sell if they really pay attention to who the people are because they’ve changed dramatically. And you know not in not just the people I mean you can probably talk to this too. But the workplace itself and where people are has changed dramatically as well. Have you guys done any research on that?
Jessica Jenkins: We’ve done a lot on Gen Z but I want to go back to this persona thing before we finish that as that goes into like a whole and other animal of inclusivity and understanding more of these other you know differences because, to your point, it’s like if you’re designing for inclusivity for selling for inclusivity, you kind of have to understand who these personas are.
Jessica: Yeah yes.
Jessica Jenkins: If There are designers listening too, it’s not a ‘hey this is who you are’ and this kind of label of you but it’s more of a ‘hey when do you really like to be served by a human? How do you like to specify? Where do you want those relationships? Where are the bottlenecks too of where you’re not getting that information?’ And for reps, as a traditional rep, I mean ‘rep first’ was the way that we always thought every specifier liked to be treated and also it’s quite time consuming, rep first can be time consuming for the Rep. So I think in a positive way understanding, “Oh they really need me in this phase.” This is when they really expect me to be there, show up.
Jessica Jenkins: It also saves you time because what we also found was that no one has extra time and, reps especially, do not have extra time to send an email that may not get read if that’s not the preferred method for those specifiers.
Jessica: Right. Yeah
Jessica Jenkins: So it’s harder to probably narrow down. You know you have, I think there’s over 90000 designers in the US from our USDIBR research, our US Design Industry Benchmark, that is also public if you want to dive into the demographics and understand more of the industry at large. What I love about that though is as a rep, how do you reach all of your clients and where do you spend your time?
Jessica: Yeah, yeah.
Jessica Jenkins: And that’s always the eighty-twenty rule right? Like where do you really focus your time but understanding those nuances can also help narrow that down and not feel so overwhelming. Which is great from the rep side.
Jessica: Yeah, and I think again I think for someone like myself who, you know with CaraGreen, I kind of it’s easier for me to have a process and say you guys follow this process rather than let everyone kind of willy nilly do things their own way. But the problem with that becomes if you have one process for communicating with these 5 different personas it’s not going to work right? So it’s really interesting and it puts the onus back on the manufacturers to really make sure you are understanding kind of at almost the individual level how those people want to be talked to or met with and when. And I think that’s just only going to continue to evolve especially with this kind of work from home, hybrid environment.
Jessica Jenkins: Completely.
Jessica: You know people just, they’ve really just changed who they want to be communicated with and how, right? I always get mad when people are texting each other but some people want that. I think “oh my God how?” You have no traceability, right? You can’t go back and look at that price you just gave them over text. But you have to find ways to navigate that.
Jessica Jenkins: Yeah, you do it I think to your point that personalization is huge and having choice. So even from a marketing standpoint you have to build in so many choices, right, of well do they like the email communication, do they like the text message communication, what is that? And it’s interesting, even when we talk to architects and designers, even internally, for them it’s well why don’t we just ask the question and I think it’s you know you don’t have to know all this, you don’t have to assume you understand all of your clients nuances of how they prefer to communicate but even asking the simple question of how do you prefer and then documenting that and understanding that is a huge step to really personalizing your communication and it’s kind of a simple one that can often get overlooked.
Jessica: Well and it’s easy to think that you ask yourselves, you ask your team “hey how do your designers want to be communicated with?” So you’re trying to pull this information out of clients that you may be meeting with but you guys have already kind of done a lot of this groundwork, right? So one question I have is: me, if I try to go ask architects and designers, it’s going to take me ages to get the right contacts, the right people. What channels are you guys using so that you’re getting this large amount of feedback? Is it your relationships through these other affiliated companies that give you that connection to all those people that they’re willing to give you that feedback?
Jessica Jenkins: Yeah, that’s a great question. So we have a few different ways but we also have our own bank now. So designers can opt in, if you go on our website you can opt in to be part of our survey database, our research database, and really our last survey that went out we had over 1800 architects and designers respond. 2500 total of the industry but 1800 specifiers I should say, not just architects and designers, but really anyone that specifies and is a designer whether they’re an end user, traditional A and D firm or other. So 1800 in just one survey that really collects a lot of information. To your point, to do that many focus groups, to do that much voice of customer for one client is really challenging and it’s taken years to really build that database but also build that trust with the A and D community that we’re not…I think because we’re kind of this middle ground and we’re not necessarily selling them a product but we are understanding them to help manufacturers help them as well right, help get get their job done, I think there’s been a lot of trust that’s been built.
Jessica Jenkins: But to your point that would, it’s challenging and I think that’s one of the biggest benefits of having a true research firm that’s focused on our industry. It’s not just that every few years we do something about A and D, it’s that really our bread and butter is this industry.
Jessica: That’s great and I think it’s a huge service to you know companies like mine and manufacturers in general to you know, look into that data and really use what’s publicly available to benefit our companies. It wouldn’t be a real business if there was not some monetization aspect of ThinkLab.
Jessica Jenkins: Sure
Jessica: So do you guys do private studies or contract work like that? What’s your revenue stream?
Jessica Jenkins: We do. So we have a couple different ways. So we’re very fortunate to have amazing partners when we do our design hackathon research. So typically we have around 9 to 10 research partners during that process. That’s a big one for us. But also we do focus groups. Really individualized client work. So if a client has a specific need whether it’s their website or marketing strategy or sales strategy, we can also do smaller, real workshop type of consulting as well. So those are kind of the main two. I would say we have a few other ways as well. CEUs are a big one for us. We understand that thought leadership is huge and designers do need that technical information and that inspiring information to get their job done so that’s also bigger kind of client based work that we do.
Jessica Jenkins: Yes, I love that. Okay, so we have a, I’m now going to fire hose you with a few different options. So we have, if you’re a designer, The Learning Objective is a great one. That is our first ever CEU accredited podcast but I would say that the conversations are just so interesting. So if you are a rep as well, I highly recommend tuning in because they’re very hot topics. Just to get yourself knowledgeable about what the A and D community is really interested in. Things like designing with equity, data and design. So they’re really interesting topics beyond just the CEU accreditation. But it’s a bonus that they’re accredited. And then if they want to contact someone about our Insider Portal which is really where we house a lot of our exclusive information and data, whether that is product studies and product category studies and then any additional research that we do on top of that. That would be Insider and you can contact Mary Kate Mccarthy. Also you can look at ThinkLab Design and you can also find that information there as well. But Insider is a great one as well if you’re looking for more heavy duty equipped with insights on a daily basis.
Jessica: Okay, and then last question: what’s the next field to study for you guys? What’s the next kind of big research project?
Jessica Jenkins: Yes, okay, so we just got done with our, and we’re kind of in the ending of it, but we’re going to start launching this now. This is the one that I got to be a part of so this was our last design hackathon from this past six months where we studied Gen Z and it was truly a six month research process around Gen Z. And the reason why is because we’ve heard this across the board from the top 200 design firms that recruiting, retaining and connecting with talent is so challenging, especially for the firms that are still working in hybrid which seems to be the case for majority. Not seems to be, 75% are in that based on research. I shouldn’t say seems. But what’s really interesting is what we found and I’ll give you one of my favorite ahas that we found was you go into these research projects thinking, “Okay, I’m assuming it’s going to be like this,” right? or “we’re testing this” so we thought that Gen Z would be very similar if you look to kind of like a trend line. That their preferences, behavior would be very similar to millennials and what we found was it was more of a boomerang. And where their preferences, behaviors and kind of perceptions were more similar to Gen X and sometimes even baby boomers. So really interesting and that will come out in different ways. So we’ve really tackled kind of how do you have creativity in hybrid? Not just hybrid, but how do you have creativity today with digital mentorship, career paths. What does that look like? How do you retain talent?
Jessica Jenkins: We also talked about loyalty. Is that dead or is that you know a possibility to have loyalty to a company today? So we’ve really tackled some of these heavier hitting questions for not just firms but really for companies looking to recruit and retain their talent.
Jessica: Yes, that’s great. That’s great. Well I’m looking forward to seeing that when it comes out as well and I know you guys do, generally send out announcements when you’re kind of presenting that research to the industry. So, I’ll look for the webinars on that too.
Jessica Jenkins: Yes, please do. We’ll have a lot of ‘diginars’ which are digital seminars that are available for everyone. Please tune in. We’ll be dishing out a lot of interesting information.
Jessica: Awesome! Thank you, Jessica, this has been really great.
Jessica Jenkins: Thank you Jessica.
Jessica: This is Jessica with Build Green Live Green.