We all know how important customers are to the digital experience. At the WWE, those customers are the fans. Joe Lalley, Experience Design Leader, Digital Transformation at PwC, entered the ring of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) as the Vice President of Digital Products and Operations. There, he led digital teams to deliver many different products across many different platforms.
Joe joins us to talk about this exciting time in his life, and how WWE helped shape how he approaches digital today. Sharing Vince McMahon’s same fan-first perspective, Joe engaged customers both online and offline—in concession stand lines, inside the Superdome and at various other touch points to really get to know them. Hear his advice for getting close to your customers and why it’s always important to treat each day like your first day on the job.
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Carl Smith: Stopping by the studios today we've got the head of Product Management and User Experience at PWC, but before that he was the Vice President of Digital Products and Operations at a little organization known as the World Wrestling Entertainment ... something. There's gotta be something after that. At the WWE, it's Joe Lalley. How's it going, Joe?
Joe Lalley: Doing great, Carl. Good to be here.
Carl Smith: Now ever since I met you I have been fascinated with the idea ... And I knew it was real, but fascinated with the idea that organizations like WWE are actually companies, and they have digital products, and people in charge of them. So if you don't mind, could you just explain to everybody a little bit of your background, and how you came up to where you are today?
Joe Lalley: Sure, yeah. So I spent the earlier part of my career mostly in entertainment and media companies. So I was working with Viacom which includes MTV, and Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon, and some of the other cable channels. Working there for about eight or nine years, and while I was there got a call from somebody who was representing WWE and had a role that sounded really interesting to help lead some product innovation, and new product design.
To be honest, I was a big fan as a child but I hadn't really followed them as a company during that time. And I went in and interviewed with a number of different people, and just a fascinating organization. They were doing some things that I think a lot of other companies hadn't even tried yet. So it was really exciting for me, and I jumped at the opportunity to join with them.
Carl Smith: Now Vince McMahon, I remember reading about him in AdAge, and just how amazingly sophisticated he was. And a comparison was made between Vince McMahon and Madonna as two of the best marketers. Vince has this entertainment mecca. And I remember my dad watching wrest- my dad, clinical psychologist, watching wrestling.
Gordon Solie, all that stuff way back in the day. I was always like, "What is going on?" But the idea that Vince McMahon actually to persona when he's out in front of the camera, but behind the camera he's kind of a genius.
Joe Lalley: Yeah, yeah. Just an amazing person to have had the opportunity to work with a bit. I'll tell you that the first time I got to meet him I had recently joined, and has happens with a lot of people who join, I was leading a product team and I had to put together my plan, my roadmap for the next year of what products I thought we might want to focus on, and where, and why. And as I was putting that plan together I reviewed it with my boss and a couple other folks within the organization just to get their input.
And there were changes made along the way. And then eventually I got to sit down with Vince and we're talking about one of the first few products ideas. And the first question he asks me, he said, "Is this what our fans want?" And I remember thinking to myself how appreciative I was of that question, because you think about he's somebody who's been running this business for 30 plus years at the time, and is quite famous, and well known, and a very busy guy.
And for him to have maintained that fan-first perspective of, "Is this what our fans want?" I really appreciated. And I went on and explained the information we knew to that point about that particular product and why we believed it was something our fans would want. And from there I think we had a good very respectful relationship.
Carl Smith: So this is amazing to me to think about ... First of all, obviously WWE has products, but to think about you sitting there and putting together a roadmap, the one question I have is, did you create personas? Did you have personas up on the wall of wrestling fans?
Joe Lalley: We did. We did. And those came out of a lot of research. One of the great things about an organization like that is that we could have a lot of direct interaction with customer, with the fans. So WWE produces events almost daily around the world, so there were lots of opportunities for me and my team to go and just sit in an arena and see what it's like to be a fan. To talk to people on the concession stand lines who had ... A mother who had brought her two children and their friends, and really just talk to people and understand what it was like.
And that gave us a ton of information to build these personas off of. And we learned that there were just different kinds of fans, and different motivations for different kinds of fans. So that was another thing I really appreciated is just the ability to have that direct access, which you don't always get in some organizations. And we use that to drive a lot of the product roadmap. So when I would get questions like, "Is this what our fans want?" I would lean on a lot of that research to help explain why at that point in time I believed it was something that they potentially wanted.
Carl Smith: Can you just give us an example of one or two of the personas? Like, I love this idea of the mom who's bringing the kids and the kid's friends.
Joe Lalley: Yeah. So the ones that we boiled down to were, there were people who ... maybe I kind of fell into this category too, who were almost like, they had been very strong fans, passionate fans years ago, and somewhere along the way just stopped being part of it, stopped watching. And there was an opportunity to get them excited about it again, but they weren't familiar with a lot of the content. So there would a group of folks like that.
Then there were also the super, super passionate fans who were following along watching all of the shows, also following a lot of the people on social media, and things like that. So there were kind of this spectrum of the type of fan. And we knew that it wasn't a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. So we could build features on our website or on the subscription video service that would appeal to one type of fan but not the other.
So we had to be really intentional about how and when we released those products, and have really, really strong consideration for those different types of fans, those different types of personas.
Carl Smith: Yeah, see I think I probably fit into that first one, because I remember as a kid with my dad watching, and even probably a little bit into college, just loving the theatrics and the goofiness. And back then when I was watching they weren't really athletes. I mean, they were doing athletic things, but it was the Dusty Rhodes and Mr. Wrestling.
Joe Lalley: Oh, yeah.
Carl Smith: One and Two, Junkyard Dog. I can't believe I remembered all this stuff. It's hilarious, right? Ric Flair and The Samoan.
Joe Lalley: [inaudible 00:07:14].
Carl Smith: It was just great theater, but then I just ... something in college, probably college, took me away from it. So when talk about products you're actually talking about the content. Is that right? Is it content delivery? Like, I'm just trying to understand, what are the products of the WWE?
Joe Lalley: So the things that I worked on while I was there, there were a few areas. So when I first joined we were experimenting in the mobile gaming space. And these sorts of platforms are still successful, but at the time they were really on the rise. So driving games, fighting games, those first-person games. And we experimented building a couple of those, and used some well tested models, and paired those up with some really successful and well known superstars within WWE.
So we built a fighting game based around The Rock and his persona, and a car racing game based around John Cena and his persona. And that was really fun and exciting, and then we did some other things. We had a lot of experimentation around the whole second screen concept. So at the time, and still true, WWE was the few organizations that had very regular live television. So we had a mobile application that fans would have in their hands, on their phones, while they were watching these weekly live shows.
And they would the opportunity to interact, so they could vote on the next match stipulation, or they could vote on the next opponent, or things like that. So they could really become part of the show, which is so fun to experiment with. And we would get fans in and test these ideas, and try to identify the ones that resonated. So it was things like that. And then the big one that I probably spend the most time on while I was there was launching WWE Network, which is a subscription video service.
We launched it on ... I think at the time it was 11 or 12 platforms, all mobile devices, gaming consoles, smart TVs, and all of the different ways that you could stream media to a screen. So there were lots of really big macro decisions around platforms, and delivery mechanisms, and things like that. But then there were some smaller decisions like, how did we expose recommended content? Or, how does search work? And how can people sort through search results? And what makes sense to people? So we had to test and iterate a lot throughout that. It was really, really fun.
Carl Smith: Wow. I'm just sitting here thinking ... First of all, I remember with the NFL introduced second-screen, and they were trying to do some stuff. And I don't know if they still have it or not. It was all right, but I think it kind of fell flat. With WWE I can totally see where because people are getting more engaged. And I'm just curious, so with WWE events on TV it's a social interaction, right? People are having friends over?
Joe Lalley: I think that is true, and we've thought that was true. But there was also a lot of virtual interaction, and social media was ... continues to, but was really, really growing at the time. And there were superstars who had in the millions of followers on various channels, and we really started to see that the storylines were continuing after the show was finished.
So a show would air on a Monday evening and still Tuesday morning, Wednesday morning the fans were talking about what had happened, and still interacting through social channels. So it almost became an all the time, always on entertainment.
Carl Smith: Which is what the NFL didn't have, because you weren't really interacting with the players. It just didn't lend itself to that. So this is fascinating to think that the fans become part of the storyline, continue the storyline. And then once you go through and you launch the network, what was your team like that you were able to push out on all of these platforms and devices with any level of QA?
Joe Lalley: Yeah, so we had ... at the time I had a team of product focused people, some analytics focused people. We had brought in somebody who was kind of a peer of mine who was leading a lot of this technology efforts internally. And then we partnered with a couple of external organizations. So we partnered with MLB Advanced Media to power a lot of the platforms. And [crosstalk 00:11:57] build some of the different applications. And a couple of other partners.
We also had to work closely with a lot of the application storefront teams. So working with Apple, and Google, and Sony Play Station teams, and all that. So it was a big, big concerted effort across striking deals, organizing content, developing, QA-ing, testing. Really, really massive effort. And one of the most exciting projects I'd ever been a part of.
Carl Smith: And what did communication look like? Like, what tools did you use to communication across this group?
Joe Lalley: Across the different teams that were working on it?
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Joe Lalley: Loads and loads of conference calls. At one time I actually got two phones put into my office because there were times that I might be on two conference calls at once, because it was getting to be pretty busy. So it was a lot of that. A lot of email, a lot of conference calls. I think if we were to do it today, I think we'd probably leverage more ... which just wasn't quite there yet, but a lot more video conference technology. Shared online documents, things like that, that would make it a little bit easier.
And this wasn't even that long ago, this was only four, five years ago. So a lot of the communication tools have evolved a ton. And the ones that I use today with my team are ... it's mostly video conferencing, and lots of screen-sharing, and collaboration tools.
Carl Smith: So the thing that's boiling in the back of my mind is WrestleMania.
Joe Lalley: Yeah.
Carl Smith: How did WrestleMania impact you and your team? It feels like it's gonna be an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation. So walk us through what WrestleMania meant.
Joe Lalley: It's the Super Bowl of wrestling, and huge, huge event. So tons of planning upfront, and I was there for a couple of them. And the one that I remember the most was shortly after we had launched the network, and it took place in New Orleans. And we set up a command center in the basement of The Superdome, and we had every device hooked up and streaming. We had lots of QA monitoring, we had multiple conference bridges going. We had people monitoring our customer service lines, monitoring social media.
Everywhere that we could just get ahead of any potential issues, but also amp up the good. What were people enjoying? All of that. So it was a massive, massive effort. And I remember in that event The Undertaker who if ... if you're not familiar. He had not lost a WrestleMania match in his career, and he was due to fight then. No one believed he would lose a match because he just hadn't.
And I remember being in the arena and he did lose that match. And The Superdome holds 70,000 or so people and you could hear a pin drop when this happened. It was one of the most amazing moments for me to witness ever. And I remember having this moment thinking how unbelievable that was, and then immediately jumping back and remembering that I was working right now, let me [crosstalk 00:15:27] here. And everything went really smoothly, so it was a big night.
Carl Smith: So you had a command center in the base of the arena?
Joe Lalley: We did, yeah.
Carl Smith: How many people were down there?
Joe Lalley: It wasn't a ton of people. It was probably maybe 5-10 of us at any one time.
Carl Smith: Okay, okay.
Joe Lalley: Yeah.
Carl Smith: And just screens all over the place showing ... like, monitoring different things that were going on?
Joe Lalley: That's right. All sorts of quality monitoring, quality of the video streams, social media monitoring. This is another thing that I'd highly recommend to anybody whoever gets a chance to work at a direct-to-consumer organization is, we had a close relationship with our customer service team. So we had call centers in different areas. And I actually spent some time in one of our call centers and got to know people, actually train some of the people on the product.
And it's a great way to get really close to the customer because those are the folks that are hearing from the customers on a daily basis, they can really, really empathize with what it's like to be those customers. So that was a big channel for us to pay attention to, because it had really told us a lot.
Carl Smith: So when The Undertaker loses, did customer service light up?
Joe Lalley: No, social media certainly lit up.
Carl Smith: Right.
Joe Lalley: But as far as ... the product held strong, it was doing really well. But social media really exploded. And one thing I do remember about that night was there's a limited amount of bandwidth on the internet, and that night it was I think the Sweet Sixteen of the NCA Tournament. So there were quite a few games going on, and lots of people watching that. It was also, I believe, the premier of Game of Thrones, and lots of people watching that.
So we were watching those things too. We were watching social media for any kind of quality issues that might be happening just on the internet, because there's a limited amount of [crosstalk 00:17:39] it.
Carl Smith: Right. So what was the social media team like?
Joe Lalley: So that team has grown, and I know is much larger now since I've left. But it was a pretty large team, and they were partly tasked with helping some of the superstars within WWE just understand how to leverage the channels effectively, and then also doing some of that promotion themselves. It's a really big channel.
And it was one of the things that was really, I think, originally drive by the fans. The fans embrace those channels and use them a lot, and it was great way to stay in contact and keep the storylines going.
Carl Smith: Well, Joe, thank you so much for giving us a little behind the scenes at WWE. When you look back at your time there, what's one of the things that you think you took with you that's carrying you through your career now?
Joe Lalley: Quite a few things, it was an amazing time in my career. I feel fortunate to have been there. I'll say one thing that this was something that I used to say a lot was, he would say, "First day on the job." And what he meant by that was, forget what you know and look at things with a fresh perspective. And I've embraced that, and I continue to leverage that in my role now. Or try to, to think differently, reframe questions, forget a little bit about what I know, and try to maintain that fresh perspective.
Carl Smith: I think that's absolutely brilliant, and something we can all learn from. So, Joe, thanks again for being here on the show today, and all the best, man. I looking forward to seeing what you do next.
Joe Lalley: All right. Thanks, Carl, it's been great.
Carl Smith: And for everybody listening, thank you so much, and we'll be back next week. We'll talk to you then.