A conversation with Ralf Herzel from Universal Music Group

During this week’s Product to Product episode, Liz Papierz, Event Manager at Roadmunk, chatted with Ralf Herzel, Product Manager Mobile at Universal Music Group.

Ralf is based out of Universal Music Group’s Berlin office. Ralf’s previous product management experience includes working for a gaming company. He shared how his background as a gaming PM influences him in his current role. He also dove into how he conducts user discovery to increase engagement and retention.

Ralf shared a lot of great information and we highly recommend watching the full talk. If you’re tight on time we’ve pulled out some highlights below.


(Highlights have been condensed and edited for clarity)

Ralf’s journey to product management (1:39)

Liz: Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you got involved with product?

Ralf: Sure. I studied business administration and after that I got my first full-time job as a category manager in an e-commerce company, because I always wanted to be in the digital space, obviously. And I did this for three years. But I know something was missing at some point. And then I got an offer from a gaming company in Berlin and I wasn’t sure about, okay, Berlin, I don’t know. And gaming, I don’t know. And I thought, “Okay, but I want to try it. I want to take the adventure.” And that was seven years ago.

And then I started basically as a product manager. And gaming industry means free to play gaming, mobile games, PC games, and it’s extremely fast. It’s very dynamic. You learn a lot. You learn a lot about how you use data, how you gain insights, how you basically create items in the game, how you create new features and basically how you run your own little world because you’re kind of the CEO of the game, right? So it’s a stressful world, but also it’s great for learning. It’s really something interesting to do once in your life. And a few years ago, then, I did the switch and moved to the music industry where I am right now. And yeah, so that’s my current job as a product manager for Universal Music.

Ralf’s role at Universal Music Group (3:55)

Ralf: For Universal Music, it’s really important to take part of this transformation of the music industry and we do this obviously. And one way we do this is the marketing that we have here in Berlin. So we help to support artists in their way to reach out to their friends, to their fans better, but also to generate more streams on Spotify, Apple music, Deezer, and so on. And in the end just to use these new possibilities better.

I come in, in two ways. So I have two projects. My main project is an app. It’s a music discovery app where users should discover new music in a very active way. Because if you go on Spotify, it’s more passive discovering. But we try to make this more active, more interactive, more engaging. And for us obviously the benefits which are obvious. And the other project is like, yeah, maybe 10%, 20% of my time that the web tool. And it’s about curating Spotify playlists. So it’s an internal tool. And for that, I only have two engineers. For the app project I have a cross functional team, the classical setup. And yeah, so that’s my basic contribution to the company. I try to generate more insight and also more activity for the artists that we have.

How Ralf’s gaming background influences him in his current role (5:14)

Liz: Earlier when you were talking about starting with your career path to Universal, you mentioned working as a gaming product manager, which is, I think a very unique area of product management. And when we were originally talking, we talked a bit about how this influences you in your current role. And one thing I found really interesting is you brought up those three big pillars of gamification and how you apply them now. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that past experience is influencing you now?

Ralf: Well, so first of all gamification is like a password, right? Everybody wants to use it. And I think sometimes it’s a bit overused. Maybe you don’t want to open your insurance app and then it’s gamified and you can reach a new level. Right? That seems weird. But my app is highly engaging. It’s user facing. It’s for a younger audience. And so that you don’t get lost in the small things sometimes you need to have a bigger picture. And the gamification, I would say there are three big pillars that help to basic to hook your users, to retain your users, to help engagement. The first one is being part of a community. So whatever you do, you want to be part of a community.

And this I noticed in my gaming time that basically no matter how good the quality of the game was, because it also was on games that say they weren’t the highest quality. But the community was strong and people always log back into the game to enjoy the community. And there are many examples out there of games. Also, ones I didn’t work on that are not young, they’re not fresh, and if you would start nowadays you wouldn’t have fun. But people are still playing them because of the community. And for my app, I want to achieve the same that people can connect to each other, that they can play each other’s music. And that they have this kind of feeling of the community that should help.

So the other pillar is basically this, seems very old school, like when we still lived in caves, it’s like this hunter mentality. And we all notice, “Oh, I found a great deal on Amazon.” Or, “I found a movie I didn’t know before was great on Netflix.” And it’s like, boom. It’s like cool for us. And yeah. Then as a hunter, we help you. And so I also want to give this achievement to users as they find and discover new music. So that’s basically the core that we have for the users, what should basically give them joy and personal gratification in a way.

And there I’m basically at the last pillar, which is this personal gratification. It’s something that you have a challenge or task where you’re in control of, and that you can finish. It’s tiny things like imagine you have a to-do list and it’s really gratifying if you do the press and it’s like the ping. And then it’s like, “Oh, the task is done.” And it’s super gratifying. And so we try to do the same. People can finish music and finish sets and vote for music. And they should get this personal gratification feeling. And in the end this all combines to a big reward for yourself. All these three pillars, they combine in one, big, personal reward. And that’s what we’re trying to achieve. And that’s, I think, where gamification is helpful and not harmful.

How Ralf conducts user discovery (9:31)

Liz: As part of your role at Universal is to increase engagement metrics and retention through user discovery. So how do you conduct user discovery at Universal? Do you have a specific process? What tools do you maybe use?

Ralf: So first of all, quantitative is basically what we use most of the time. And of course you also see what the users are doing in the end. So we use Mixpanel and there you basically check the user events, user behavior, and it’s extremely helpful. And also we do a lot of A/B testing for new features and we see how people are behaving. But in the end, sometimes you just don’t know why something is working or something doesn’t work. If retention goes down and you don’t know why because you didn’t implement something new, sometimes it’s weird. So then you go into the direct user discovery.

And then we do several things. So the easiest thing you could do basically is go to the app store and see what the reviews are saying. People are sometimes very vocal about stuff. And one star, worst app ever, and I hate German rap and so on. Right? But then a bit more complex, you go into real user interviews, like you put up a camera and you talk to them, which needs a lot of preparation, but it’s also very giving and very rewarding for us. User surveys online of course. Also very interesting. Can be sometimes a bit misleading, but also extremely helpful. And yeah, so that’s more or less what we were looking for.

Sometimes we also try to get direct contact with people in the app. Community management is also something I learned from the gaming industry. There you have usually like customer service people, you also call them gamers. And they are basically the line between me and the direct end user. And so that’s very helpful to see what’s going on, what do they want to improve. Why do they use the app so much? What is a pain point? And it’s also quite helpful. And yeah, I would say standard ways that we do user discovery. And, oh, one thing I forgot also inside the company I talk of course, because they’re also stakeholders and they also have ideas. They also have requirements. And so that’s another way of finding interesting new possibilities to improve the app.

Implementing a new feature based on user discovery (11:46)

Liz: Can you share a specific feature that came about because of doing user discovery that you maybe thought like, “Oh, people really want X?” And then you made it and how did it go?

Ralf: Yeah. So actually what is not about a feature that was developed from scratch, but we already had and we thought like, “Oh, it’s great. It’s working. It’s intuitive.” So it was just like the playback of a song and how you would vote for it. And we thought, “Ah, it’s so easy. Right?” But we lost the outsider view, the fresh eyes. And then we did these series of user interviews. I don’t know how much they were, like 12 or something. I just got a bunch of young people who would be the target group of the app in the end. And then we did some very exploratory testing of the app. And then they came to this part of the app and they didn’t get it. and I was like, “Oh, what? How can they not get it? It’s so easy, right? And obviously the mistake is not with them. It’s with me or with the team because it just didn’t work.

And so from there, basically, we got, “Okay, we need to change it.” And so we changed two things. First of all, we made it easier and faster to actually do this playback and do the voting. And we added tutorials. So that was basically the start. And this then took many iterations. Like for example, tutorial. And we started off first just with static images. Then we moved to a video. Then we moved to interaction. Then we changed with tools and so on. And so it took many iterations until we were at a point where we were like, “Okay, the funnel is great.” And the retention increased and also engagement metrics increased. So in the end, it’s all about testing and then iterations. When you’re at a point that you’re happy with and then actually you need to iterate more because you’re never really happy. Right? So that’s in the end it’s like how we did it there.

Advice on stakeholder management (15:02)

Liz: What are some tips that you have for managing stakeholders?

Ralf: So I’ve been lucky that, at least currently, I didn’t have really issues with stakeholders. In gaming there were a few harder ones I have to say. And in the end, always base your decisions on data so that helps. And also if you do your forecast, do your homework, and base it on that. And then try to tell a story. When you present something to them, try to tell a story. And from there basically take them, try to motivate them to get on board. Because if they are motivated to and they like your product, then they also will commit to this. Because I don’t want to motivate people, I just want to tell a story and say I have this product that works and we can achieve something with this. Just listen to me. And so in the end it’s just like tell a nice story and base it on data. And then you are usually in a good spot.

And always be open also for other feedback. Sometimes, you’ll be maybe not anymore in the music industry. So in the beginning was extremely new for me. And I didn’t know what was working. What were the big players? I mean, of course Spotify and so on. But for example, how big YouTube is in the scene. And so what kind of genre’s working and how different the territories are. And so there’s also some things that I need to be open to and to understand and always improve my horizon.

Audience Q&A

(17:04) When you were testing these ideas, what metrics are you using for retention?

(19:39) Have you tried to utilize allies for your project? And if yes, how successful has this been?

(20:55) Do you work in an agile or waterfall environment?

(29:33) What are some challenges of working on an international team and how do you overcome them?

(25:09) Could you tell me how you shifted careers and what you did to familiarize yourself with the product management role at your first stint in the gaming industry?”


Ralf is a Product Manager at Universal Music in Berlin. He works with two teams on a music discovery app and on an internal playlist tool. He uses a data-driven approach to further strengthen the understanding of the listeners and improve the impact of the UMG artists in the streaming realm. Previously he worked in data-critical Product Management roles in the gaming industry, where he was managing several F2P mobile and PC games.

Liz is the Event Manager at Roadmunk on the Marketing team. She produces Recess and in non-pandemic times, organizes Roadmunk’s Product to Product in-person events held in Toronto, New York and Chicago.

Prior to Roadmunk, Liz produced events for a renewable energy company and a non-profit.

You can follow her on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/lizpapierz/).

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