Rohini Venkatesan
Consumer Insights Manager / US

Using Data-Driven Storytelling to Build the Future of SmartNews

An avid reader and life-long learner, Rohini Venkatesan had her sights set on a career in media and entertainment. After studying finance and marketing, Rohini was intrigued by the stories that data could tell. She is now SmartNews’ Consumer Insights Manager on the US Marketing team, where she digests the stories of her market research and uses them to develop strategies and features to reach SmartNews users and non-users alike.

—What were you like growing up, and what got you interested in your current career?

I was pretty nerdy in some ways, and I was always buried in a book. Growing up with immigrant parents, academics were always a pretty big focus, but I’ve always been interested in media and entertainment. My current career is in the market research and consumer insight space. In college, I studied finance and marketing and interned in a couple of finance roles. That made me realize I didn’t actually like finance, but the data aspect of finance combined with the storytelling of market research was much more interesting to me while still being data-driven.

So once I finally had a chance to think about what I wanted to do career-wise, the general media space was always the field that got me most interested. I worked at ViacomCBS before, but I realized I wanted to transition into something a bit different. When I started looking at other opportunities, SmartNews really caught my eye because they were looking for someone who had experience in my current job function, but the position was in the news and media space with a bit more tech focus.

—How did you first hear about SmartNews?

I first heard about SmartNews on LinkedIn. I downloaded the app, and SmartNews’ focus on local news is what got me most interested. Especially among the younger generations, people are interested in news, but it can be very national or global, which can feel intimidating and far away. A lot of people don’t have a clear idea of what’s even going on in their own backyard or community. When I visited my parents in my small hometown in New Jersey, the app showed me relevant and community-focused information that was happening right then and there, which really drew me to the app and to SmartNews in general.

SmartNews employee Rohini Venkatesan at work

—What was it like interviewing with SmartNews, and how did the interview process shape your perception of the company?

I initially interviewed with the recruiter and then the hiring manager. Speaking to the hiring manager really sold me on the role. I immediately felt this was someone I wanted to work with and learn from. After this, I got the chance to meet a few other people on my team and do a presentation before having a final interview and receiving my offer. I remember thinking that everyone I met was incredibly smart and very mission-driven. In the past, I’ve interviewed at companies where people talk about the mission, but it felt kind of disingenuous. Everyone here is so passionate about what we do because everyone in the world cares about the news. It was inspiring to see this throughout the interview process.

—What is your role at SmartNews?

I am the US Consumer Insights Manager on the US Marketing team at SmartNews. What that means is I help figure out what new features we may want to add, what our existing users and non-users are interested in, and what we could be doing better to market SmartNews. There are a lot of people in the market, including those interested in the news who use specific publisher apps, those interested in other aggregators, and those not interested in the news at all. So, how do we tailor a message that appeals to all of these different audiences at the same time? How do we convince people that reading the news is worth it, even if they don’t think it’s relevant to them? How can we balance those things with wanting to provide all the good information they need to make the decisions that are important to them while also making information digestible, positive, and easy to understand? One of the biggest things I’ve been working on is how to build a more robust profile of our users when they first join the app, so we can differentiate between different types of users and understand how to address their pain points and needs.

—What is one of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on?

I am currently working on something that will help inform our 2023 growth strategies. It’s a high visibility project, and there’s definitely lots of pressure, but it’s an important project as we figure out how we’re going to change our goals, our vision, and who we’re going to try to reach out to over the next two to five years. It’s been really exciting.

—What is your team like?

My team is great. Everyone really is so friendly, and I always end up feeling like these are all people who I really care about. It seems like everyone wants to make sure that we’re happy not just with what we’re doing at work but also outside of work. They care about what I’m interested in. Our team is really good at building a bond. That’s the culture we have at SmartNews. We want to make sure that everyone is also prioritizing other parts of their life.

—What is the most rewarding part of your job here at SmartNews?

It’s knowing that we are working on something that’s so important. The landscape has changed a lot over the last five years, and trying to figure out how to stay relevant and bring more people onto our app is what feels the most rewarding. It’s figuring out who we’re reaching and what we should be doing to best cater to that audience and our ideal audience. Personally, I feel that the local news aspect has so much value and is what sets us apart.

—How do you feel you have grown, either personally or professionally, since you joined?

Professionally, this is the first time for me that I have been the only person in my job function. I do have a counterpart in Japan, but when I was brought on, I was told that there wasn’t anyone else in this role and I was going to have the chance to build it out. Although the marketing team is doing some of its own research, I would be given the chance to own this and lead the entire function from the ground up. It’s been really exciting for me to make sure we’re implementing all the best practices and learning from our users. There’s a lot of decision-making and ownership, which is really exciting.

Rohini Venkatesan at the SmartNews office

—What kind of person do you think would thrive on your team?

On our team, it’s important to be passionate about the mission and understanding of users. We want to make sure that we aren’t just focusing on people who already read the news that we want to get on the app. We want to convince people that this is important and that they should be paying attention to the news in a way that isn’t stressful, negative, or biased. I think you have to really believe in that to be successful on our team. Being able to thrive in a fast-paced environment and being okay with knowing that decisions can change is also important when you join a company like SmartNews.

—What advice would you give to someone thinking about applying to SmartNews?

I would definitely want to advise them to be okay with going with the flow, which is something I wasn’t good with at first, to be honest. I was somebody who wanted a lot of direction and a clear path about how we should do things. Instead, you have to be okay with figuring things out. During the interview process, I remember them telling me that we might not know how to do something but that we’d learn and figure it out together. Being excited to learn and understanding that you won’t know everything is something to keep in mind.

—How should a candidate prepare themselves for the interview?

Look through the app! During my interview process, more than one person would ask me what I would change about the app or what I would suggest improving. Making sure you have clear answers about what you would change, and the pros and cons of that change are important. Even if you haven’t heard of the app before, think about what you would want to get out of it as a user.


Book Recommendation

A Life-Changing Book About the Importance of Inclusivity in Data

A couple of years ago, I read this book called Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Design for Men. It was so fascinating to me because the author basically provided so many examples of where women were essentially excluded from the design process of various systems we use every day. For example, seatbelts in cars are designed for men. They use male test dummies and don’t account for the female anatomy. There are just so many examples of these things that we use all the time, like public transportation, even though their design doesn’t take into account half of the population. It’s wild. This book totally changed my life. As a data person, I was very passionate about it. It just really gets you thinking about the way the world is.

Caroline Criado-Perez

Publisher: Vintage Digital
Date published: March 7, 2019

The contents in this article are as of December 13, 2022.