Tech in check: PropertyGuru Group's CMO Bjorn Sprengers

As chief marketing officer, Bjorn Sprengers (pictured) is responsible for "value creation" for property seekers, real estate developers and property agents. Since joining PropertyGuru in 2013, he has been focusing on brand growth, site visitors and enquiries, marketing effectiveness as well as building Southeast Asia’s marketing team.

With over 15 years of experience across Asia and Europe, Sprengers is a seasoned marketer and entrepreneurial business leader. He has previously worked as a strategy consultant at Arthur D. Little, marketing lead for Philips Consumer Lifestyle in Southeast Asia, and co-founded a series of start-up businesses.

We talk to him about his marketing journey in the industry.

Marketing: What was your first digital role like?

Sprengers: My first digital role was in a start-up in the legal tech space, back in Netherlands around 2012/2013. There, I was responsible for product and marketing. I was super hands-on – we did a lot of trial-and-error.

I was a part of the founding team and was trying to educate myself on digital principles, figuring it out on the fly. What was good about this stint was that product and marketing were developed concurrently with good solutions. I guess what I was doing then, nowadays is called “growth-hacking”. It allowed me to develop a very solid digital core; something very helpful as developments in digital are so fast. I believe strongly that my hands-on experience in those early days make it easier to stay in-tune with latest developments now.

Marketing: What was your biggest tech booboo/blunders?

Sprengers: On the personal front, it would be my wrong bet that "Commodore 64" coding experience would carry me well into the 21st century. On the professional front, this would be once, when the PropertyGuru team selected automation technology without fully understanding what was needed for it to be successful.

Marketing: How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?

Sprengers: From this experience, we learnt not to rush into vendor selection and the importance of taking the time to do our own homework – studying relevant use cases and understanding what are the actual requirements that make something successful.

The other thing I learnt, is that technology buys are very much team decisions and should never be rushed. This is especially so when you have complex buys, which need to take into account data complexity, Application Programming Interface (API), the need to train a lot of people; the engineering capabilities involved.

It is important to use teamwork to arrive at decisions, especially as marketing sits at the nexus of so many disciplines – sales, data, engineering.

Don’t be too taken by vendors who may be inclined to say that their solutions are easy to implement, that these can be switched on in the matter of 24 hours. We need to make sure all the dots are connected internally towards getting the most benefit from the selected solution.

Since this experience at PropertyGuru, we have adopted the habit of taking complex tech decisions collaboratively. The alignment amongst different departments is very strong – this allows us to avoid some of these pitfalls.

Marketing: What are some of the common challenges you face with digital today?

Sprengers: One challenge is data validity gaps, which creates risks that teams spend too much time looking for insights or patterns when none can be found. Digital is completely dependent on the validity of data in the absence of which, it would be powerless.

PropertyGuru decided to invest and build strong data science capabilities about three years ago. I personally think it was one of the best decisions we made. It has enabled higher-velocity decision making and has opened up innovation avenues that were previously closed, for example, the AI-based property recommendations engine launched earlier this year.

Within the marketing discipline specifically, we developed our own methodology towards fact-based media optimisation called BEAM - Brand Equity Attribution Modelling. BEAM relies on heavy quantitative methods that rely on clean data. If you do not have the underlying data, you do not have the ability to build powerful attribution models. In other words, a strong data backbone is the key enabler to advanced marketing effectiveness.

My second challenge is around technological fragmentation. Martech has hugely cut up the digital value chain. This translates into a lot of risk for tech-misses. At the core, PropertyGuru is a tech company. Our DNA is wired towards taking consumer insights and looking for ways we can leverage technology to address those consumer pain-points, and help people make more confident property decisions. This has honed and given us solid competency to be able to navigate the fragmented martech space effectively.

We have a sizeable and very capable technology team that is a good partner to me in making complex technology decisions. I can imagine how complicated it must be in less tech-infused environments to make the right decisions in the martech space.

Marketing: Are there any digital trends which excite you or that you are wary of? If yes – why does it excite you/give concerns if any?

Sprengers: It is very intuitive to talk about blockchain, which is very exciting. For me though, blockchain seems to be a solution without a clear problem. Although we’re open-minded towards blockchain as a company, and property is potentially an application area where blockchain plays a role, I would say my excitement is balanced with caution.

The same goes for AI. However, where blockchain seems the solution without a problem, AI appears to have limitless application areas. Meanwhile, the technology warrants caution and responsibility. When used too simplistically, AI can cause more problems than it solves. We have seen plenty of examples in recent month in which AI used in social media led to a reduced diversification of content discoverability. If people continue to consume the same content, the same content will continue to be offered.

At PropertyGuru, we are very actively involved in AI. We launched a solution in April, AI/machine-learning for property recommendation and are very mindful of the convenience of AI delivering the power of decision making on one hand. On the other hand, we are aware of the risk that is associated with relying on machine-recommended content. This is why we try to strike a balance between the two, leveraging the power of AI while being mindful of the potential downsides.

I am probably most excited about unlocking new benefits by connecting APIs. These opportunities can be very powerful for consumers and are often technically very achievable. A good example in this case, is our recent launch of the Mortgage Pre-Qualifier (MPQ) in Malaysia, where mortgage rejection rates exceed 60 percent. With MPQ, we are allowing property seekers to search for homes, for which they have a very high chance of securing bank financing.

We do that by integrating an online credit check (API connection into credit rating agency) and identity checks, and asking a few questions about people’s property aspirations. While these are all technologically simple, when combined, these offer a revolutionary use case that helps to solve a particular consumer problem.  A lot of value in the world can be unlocked by connecting data, stitching together data and combining the data in a way that brings new insights or functionalities for consumers.

Marketing: Any top tips for marketers and brands embracing digital?

Sprengers: Keep it real as a marketer. Don’t be overly focused on the technology.

At the core, marketers should be focusing on consumer insights, the use case and the underlying data.

Also, study technologies well before deciding to onboard or purchase them. Make sure you understand what is required to reap the full benefit. Don’t be afraid to be the early majority rather than the early adopter.