SoFi’s Joanne Bradford: ‘Money is the last taboo subject’

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Joanne Bradford has a long history in digital media, with top jobs on the sales side at Microsoft, Yahoo and, most recently, Pinterest.

Following her departure from Pinterest last June, she opted out of the sell side of media and instead entered the hot space of “fintech,” where technology businesses are trying to barge into the stodgy and lucrative world of financial services.

Last year, she joined SoFi as chief operating officer. While SoFi is not yet a household name — 10 percent know it, according to Bradford — it has big plans: $1 billion financial backing to become a one-stop shop for financial services (and even a few dating options) for promising and responsible people. In order to do that, Bradford’s challenge is to build a strong and widely known brand from scratch.

“Money is the last taboo,” she said on this week’s Digiday Podcast. “Procter & Gamble made it OK to talk about having a happy period. Trojan made it OK to talk about having sex. People will still not talk about money. They’re uncomfortable with talking about how much they make, how much they save, what they can do with it.”

Below are lightly edited and condensed highlights from the conversation.

Fintech is hot right now.
Silicon Valley’s sights have gone far beyond consumer electronics and media to embrace changing pretty much every large sector of the global economy, from agriculture to transportation to health care. It’s no surprise then that companies like SoFi, Lending Club, Affirm and others are focused on the trillions spent on financial services.

“There’s a lot of underserved consumers,” she said. “Most people do not like to pull into a parking lot to go and stand in line to sign some papers. That’s one of the things we’re trying to solve for people: Convenience.”

SoFi wants to build a community.
SoFi started with student loan refinancing, but it has branched out to provide further financial products with the idea that it can become a trusted partner for people as they advance in life and accumulate wealth. The key to doing that is to think beyond finance products, Bradford said. That’s why SoFi hosts member happy hours, dinners, provides career counseling and even dabbles in dating.

“I don’t think today you can build a brand without a community, no matter how techie you are,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a Silicon Valley thing only. The people of Warby Parker love their Warby Parkers. The people of SoFi love SoFi. They love benefits it gives them, the access it gives them, the commonality they have.”

SoFi marketing is about experimentation.
The Silicon Valley ethos is test and learn. SoFi did a happy hour to thank members, had 150 show up and decided to hold dozens of these gatherings. This year it will put on 250 events across the country, Bradford said. In all of its marketing activities — even running a Super Bowl ad — the brand wants to stay experimental.

“The experimental partnerships we’ve worked on that have gone south, I can correlate them to a lack of account management,” she said. “The ones that have gone well have someone who is not incentivized as a salesperson but is really working and optimizing day to day.”

The media world is not going all programmatic.
Bradford has deep experience with digital media platforms that rely on self-serve advertising products. The rise of programmatic ad systems and the promise of automation is seen by many as a foregone conclusion. But Bradford doesn’t see programmatic eating the media world whole anytime soon.

“It works until it doesn’t,” she said of programmatic. “I look at the word programmatic as cheap and can’t be sold other places. I get very different things from Google, Facebook, different platforms. My biggest challenge is cobbling it together and figuring out how to get people over the inertia of a financial discussion.”

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