Women Behind Innovation: Sarah Ohle

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Sarah Ohle leads the Marketing Insights team at GroundTruth, using the power of real-world, location-based data to understand and then empower marketers with actionable insights about consumers. Before joining GroundTruth, Sarah was Director of Custom Research for Nielsen’s Telecom Practice Group, where she was responsible for designing and executing proprietary research studies for Nielsen’s technology and media clients. Her career has spanned over 15 years in marketing, research, and analytics roles. Before Nielsen, Sarah held roles at Palm/HP, T-Mobile, and a leading telecom measurement startup, Telephia. Sarah has a BA from Middlebury College and an MBA from UCLA Anderson School of Management.

The Edison Awards recently spoke with Ohle about her interest in science, what misconceptions she feels people have about the fields and some of her career highlights. Here’s what she had to say:(edited for brevity and clarity)

When did your interest in science or engineering begin?

 My interest in science stems from my desire to gain a deeper understanding of what motivates people to do the things they do. It’s also what pushed me to major in psychology as an undergrad, where I was exposed to both qualitative and quantitative research methods to analyze human behaviors.

What I discovered over time is that when it comes to understanding people, there is a very personal, human element to it, however, there is also a way to look at behaviors in aggregate and start observing patterns from large sets of data.

When I first began working in market research, I had access to huge sets of data, which I learned to analyze with tools like SPSS and SQL and found that I loved finding the “consumer stories” hidden in the numbers. As I’ve gone further into the technology word, and data has become more prevalent and essential, the possibilities for these types of insights are only getting more exciting.

What was it like to be a woman studying in your field?

Throughout my career, I’ve had a variety of very strong role models, both male and female. I’ve been so lucky to feel incredibly supported and challenged throughout the way. There are quite a few people I consider my mentors—who may not even realize how much of an impact they’ve had on me! Similar to my early desire to understand more about people, I try to observe those I admire and model my approach to problem-solving, people management, and just work in general after them.

Did you feel supported and challenged in a positive way?

However, being a woman in the constantly evolving world of technology and data does present its own unique set of challenges. I’ve been fortunate to report to and learn from a couple of amazing women, who have not only taught me tactical business approaches but also how to lead with strength, while still setting personal boundaries.

Did you have a network of people to reach out to?

My main “network” for support in my career, has always been my mom, though. She was a rare female mathematics undergrad major in the 1960s and had an impressive 40+ year career in computing and IT. When we were young, I have memories of my mom bringing my sister and me into the office in our pajamas late at night if a server went down. Growing up with my mom as an example, I never looked at being a woman in a technical field as a challenge. Thanks to her paving the way for me, it felt more like an obvious career path.

 What do you like about your field and what you do? 

I love being able to see a set of raw numbers and turn it into an actionable consumer insight. Then, on the other hand, I also enjoy taking business and marketing feedback on the insights and turning them into ideas on how to look at the data. It’s almost like knowing how to speak two different languages!

Do you think people have any misconceptions about what it’s like to be a scientist or engineer?

I think the main misconception would be that we’re either “not technical enough” or “not creative enough” depending on which side is evaluating our insights. But there is a definite need for that middle-ground to translate technical-speak to marketing-speak, and back.

 Share with us some of your career highlights.

 When I first started working with GroundTruth five years ago, we were about 25 people working at our one-room headquarters in New York. I was tasked with using data and insights to develop our brand presence and gain recognition in the industry to win business with prospective clients. As a result, I launched a study called the Mobile Path to Purchase report, which examined how heavily consumers used their phones for retail purchases—which was a much more novel idea in 2013. Ultimately, it helped us get some of our first press coverage and break into new speaking opportunities at industry events and conferences.

As our company evolved, we gained access to more first-party location data through new partnerships and our acquisition of WeatherBug. My team soon began analyzing consumer foot traffic patterns into brick-and-mortar locations to inform brands on strategic marketing decisions. We now produce weekly foot traffic insights on industry trends and current events, most recently analyzing movie theater foot traffic patterns for Star Wars opening weekend. It’s been amazing to see insights grow to be one of our core business pillars and key differentiators. As our data only gets stronger, we also plan to do more predictive insights to show the value of using location data to forecast performance.

How is your company bringing innovation to the forefront?

 GroundTruth is the leading global technology platform driving in-store visits and sales by leveraging location as the primary source of intent. With incredible real-time insight into where people are and where they are going, we help businesses better understand their consumers, increase store visits and sales, and make smarter forecasting decisions. Most recently, we were the first in the industry to release a new ‘Cost Per Visit’ business model that allows advertisers to pay only for ads that result in an in-store visit.

GroundTruth also leads by example that the location industry should be rooted in value—both by having metrics based on intent and behavior and by actively influencing consumers and brands to give back to their society. In 2015, we founded our CSR program called ‘Location for Good’ to improve the safety and welfare of our communities by using the same location-driven technologies and strategies we use every day. Through the program, we’re able to support several non-profit and other “for good” causes through pro bono location-based campaigns, driving awareness and action through highly targeted mobile advertising messages.

Since being founded in 2009, we’ve also continued to expand in order to remain a leader in our industry.  We now serve hundreds of marketers, advertisers, and planners across the globe. Through our strong data foundation, mapped using our proprietary Blueprints technology, we now see 2 out 3 smartphone users in the U.S. and 20 billion physical visits a year globally, with over 90% location accuracy.

To date, what project is your greatest success? 

This past year, my team produced nearly a dozen industry trend reports based on real-world business visitation patterns. However, I still consider the very first one I created almost two years ago, The Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) Foot Traffic Trends Report, to be my greatest success. Over the course of Q1 2016, we looked at nearly 30 million visits to top fast food and fast casual restaurants to understand visitation patterns including share of foot traffic and the impact of seasonality.

This was the first time we were able to access our first party location data and synthesize it to draw out consumer trends. It was also the first time we really saw location data being reported on by the media and it was a monumental moment in our ongoing quest to make location a viable category—one that we see as important as search and social. Since then, this type of location analysis has become a pillar of our company, as we’ve evolved from just serving ads to holistically using location to help marketers better understand their customers and business.

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