CMO of the Week: iHeartMedia's Gayle Troberman

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When Gayle Troberman first joined iHeartMedia in 2014 as chief marketing officer, the role appealed to one of her core interests – listening. Not just to music or news, the two main draws for iHeart’s 850+ global broadcast stations, but to the people who actually consume the products she promotes. 

When Gayle Troberman first joined iHeartMedia in 2014 as chief marketing officer, the role appealed to one of her core interests – listening. Not just to music or news, the two main draws for iHeart’s 850+ global broadcast stations, but to the people who actually consume the products she promotes. 

“I really try to observe people and understand different consumers by talking to them and listening to them,” says Troberman, who prior to iHeart spent 16 years with Microsoft, including four as the company’s first chief creative officer. “I’ve always believed that to be a great marketer you have to be a student of people. Don’t just look at the spreadsheets or the obvious, but get out into the world and have a two-way conversation with consumers. That’s a huge part of what we do everyday on-air, is have a two-way conversation.”

That lean-in approach has kicked into high gear this past year, as Troberman has had to rethink how to market (and produce) iHeartMedia’s entire suite of content with the help of social listening and audience insights — from taking its live events virtual, to serving audio and podcast listeners on more in-home devices as commutes were disrupted to expanding the focus of its broadcast radio news and programming to include more 24/7 stations targeted to the Black community. Though the pandemic brought expected turbulence to iHeart’s business in second-quarter 2020, with a 47% year-over-year decrease during the time period, the long-term strategy has led to an equally dramatic turnaround, with the company posting a 76.7% increase in consolidated revenue during its second-quarter 2021 earnings -- fueled in particular by its podcast business, which grew 151.5% in Q2 revenue. 

“I like to say we've moved from the information age to the conversation age,” Troberman says when reflecting on her seven years at iHeart and the accelerated change of the past 18 months. “That means you have to be more comfortable being a little less scripted and listening as much as you talk. I think audio is really well-positioned to help with that, and I know I’ve learned a ton as I’ve become an audio person. The cost of production is 99% cheaper, plus you can make ads for each show and get real-time signals back in social. Great marketers are really agile and adaptive in audio, and it’s been a really fun ride to be a student.”

Up next: iHeart goes back to in-person, fan-facing events with the September 17 return of the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, which went virtual and remote for its 2020 run. The two-day event is set to feature performances from Billie Eilish, Coldplay, Dua Lipa, Florida Georgia Line and many others, and with enhanced fan experiences that will allow viewers to engage with the talent both on and off-site.

Brand Innovators caught up with Troberman from her oceanside home in the Pacific Northwest two weeks before she was due in Vegas to learn more about Gen Z’s role in what she calls the “audio revolution,” what to expect from this year’s Festival and super-serving the LGBTQ+ and Black communities with new event & programming franchises. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: How did the pandemic initially impact your business in spring 2020 - what initial impact did you see on radio listening and other audio consumption behaviors?

Gayle Troberman: Tons of change, as you would expect. If I had to give it a headline, the “audio revolution,” as we like to think about it, was dramatically accelerated by the pandemic. We saw consumers engaging with all of their favorite audio platforms, particularly broadcast radio, in new ways on new devices. 

We saw a dramatic increase in at-home listening of broadcast radio in particular. People were finding their favorite radio shows and listening to them in new ways, whether it was for trusted information on the pandemic and health or distraction and entertainment. We saw people looking for their favorite shows on their laptops, their phones, asking Alexa to play their favorite morning show. So the first thing we did to meet that new demand was understand consumer sentiment, and balancing how much information vs. entertainment we should provide. This was a constant rolling level of change, and the insights varied by market. 

Audio was particularly well set up to serve the changing consumer needs in the pandemic. We’re live, we’re local, we’re unscripted, so we were able from a content perspective to pivot pretty quickly. We had to figure out how to get our biggest shows and our casts broadcasting from their basements and their bedrooms, which was its own physical challenge, but we were very quickly able to figure out how to broadcast from anywhere and host the conversations consumers wanted to have for every tribe, from pop fans to hip-hop fans, in every market. 

How did you pivot your events business to meet the new safety protocols in spring 2020, and what long-term impact have some of those pivots had on your events now as the iHeartRadio Festival is set to return in-person on September 17?

Obviously, real world events were being canceled or postponed, so we reimagined a lot of our biggest events very quickly. This started in March right when the pandemic first hit, because we were supposed to have the iHeartRadio Music Awards live on Fox, and we quickly realized that this was not the moment to be rewarding a lot of famous people with statues and glory, but we could all come together and do something more powerful with a lot of those artists. 

So with iHeart’s power and scale and Fox we created the first “Living Room Concert for America” as a fundraiser. We raised close to $18 million for some important first-responder causes, and we also saw that as a proofpoint for the industry that you could create great entertainment through Zoom or Teams or iPhones and it could still be really powerful. 

And now the iHeartRadio Festival is scheduled to be our first big tentpole this year, and we’re going to use a lot of the techniques and things we’ve learned about the virtual world by breaking down those walls between artists and fans with a mix of hybrid, live and digital fan engagement. We’re starting to explore a lot more with fan engagement on site and virtual currency and virtual rewards — ways of engaging fans in the content and the experience of the show. I think you'll see a lot of innovation unveiled in that space. It's another way for a lot of our brand partners to engage with fans, provide upgrades and other opportunities for fans who don’t have a ticket or aren’t in that particular city to engage in virtual ways pre and post show.  

iHeart has a vast network of owned channels to market its programming, but what does your off-channel media mix look like to drive tune-in to your properties? Any channels or platforms you’re investing in more this year vs. last, and why? 

I am lucky as the CMO of iHeart to have access to 9 out of 10 Americans on broadcast radio, to have the largest podcast network and to have built what I believe is the largest social media footprint of any media company that’s not a social media platform. And so we use all of those devices to reach our consumers with live, real-time content. A great example of why we don't do a lot of paid media investment in other channels is because frankly, we don’t need to with the scale of iHeart behind us. 

A great proofpoint is when we purchased Stuff Media about two and a half years ago and added that to our podcast network, we were reaching about 4 million podcast listeners a month. We started promoting all of our new podcasts and our new shows on our broadcast radio network and our other podcasts and now we’re the largest podcast network, reaching more than 32 million listeners a month. That’s an 8x growth using our owned platforms, so we’re lucky in that we don’t need to invest in a lot of other media because we have such a great platform.

How have you seen consumption of radio change since spring 2020 as commutes and other behaviors have shifted – any new use cases or dayparts you find yourself marketing to now that you weren’t pre-2020? 

We’re seeing a couple great things happen. Commuting is back, which means traffic is back too — 68% of commuters are back to doing it everyday, most students are going back to school at least part of the week, so we’re seeing that in-car radio usage is back to pre-pandemic levels. But we’re also seeing in-home usage is continuing to hold, so people are engaging. And the other thing is people are engaging with us in-home and in the car on buses and trains, so we’re seeing more listening with different types of consumers. 

The other unique thing is we’re seeing where commutes used to be a concentrated drive time, we’re seeing usage spread out more throughout the day. We see consumers pop in and out of our platforms more times during the course of the day, as commuting patterns change and people work from home part of the week. Our mission is to be your friend and to have a conversation at any time about pretty much anything, and that human unscripted connection is why we saw so much growth on so many platforms during the pandemic.

What’s your Gen Z strategy to bring more young listeners onto broadcast radio and podcasts?

Younger generations are always the beacon for the rest of the tribes on where the ball is moving and where the consumer will be. I like to think of Gen Z as “Generation Audio.” They're listening more, they're listening on more devices, wireless headphones, their ears are connected to the grid all the time and they’re moving seamlessly across platforms. 

They’re also big adopters of voice. I like to say Gen X learned to click, then the next generation learned to swipe and now this generation is asking. And we see how much Gen Z is shaping audio culture and we make content around music -- whether you’re a Gen Z pop fan or a hip-hop or country fan, we’re breaking the next big artists and the next music fans. So we engage with them across all our music platforms, and then in deeper and richer ways at our events. 

Tell me about some of iHeart’s recent diversity & inclusion initiatives, including the Black Information Network and Can’t Cancel Pride, and how they’ve helped accelerate your support of under-represented communities through your programming.

I think we’re all seeing that consumers, particularly millennials and Gen Z, are demanding more from brands. They want more authentic relationships with brands and they want brands to show up with purpose. A lot of brands like Procter & Gamble, who is our partner in Can’t Cancel Pride, have really proven that doing good is good for growth. We believe that wholeheartedly at iHeart as a leader in the communities that we serve, since we serve pretty much every audience at scale whether that’s Black consumers or Latinx consumers or LGBTQ+ consumers. And we realized there's a real opportunity to connect consumers with culture and brands in ways that really matter. 

Can’t Cancel Pride is a terrific example, where P&G came to us and said “Hey, we have this idea, all the Pride events are being canceled with the pandemic, and all these causes that do all their fundraising in June don’t have a way to make their budgets.” So we said, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and figure out how we can create a virtual fundraiser that can entertain and inform” and I think we did a phenomenal job. We just did year 2, we raised several million dollars for six LGBTQ+ causes, many of which made almost their entire operating budget for the year. And for the fans, we brought the biggest, most diverse range of entertainers together from musicians to comedians to actors across music, comedy and variety. It was just phenomenal and fun both years. We aired it on broadcast but also on TikTok, Facebook and YouTube so consumers could find the show and engage and help us raise money to support the causes and shape opinions. 

We also introduced Living Black, a new Black history franchise. Obviously, brands are really rethinking how they speak specifically to the Black consumer, not just treating them as part of the general population, so they’re looking for relevance. So we created Living Black as a franchise where we could talk about Black culture, Black health, Black wealth and of course Black music. It was a mix of performance and storytelling and it was live streamed, so we’ll just make that bigger and better as we head into this February.

And probably the most ambitious new product we introduced was the Black Information Network. This was an idea that had been bouncing around since pre-pandemic, when we realized there was a real gap in both listening to news and trusting news sources with the Black community. And we felt like we could do something to help there since we reach 9 out of 10 Black listeners and we're part of these communities. So during the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder when things were really intensifying, we felt this was the moment to act on the plans we’d been discussing. And while we were cutting other projects, we invested to create what is now a network of over 30 broadcast stations from other formats to 24/7 news by all Black journalists. I think we’re one of the biggest employers of Black journalists now, and it’s a 24/7 national digital stream that anyone can access. 

What was it like getting an ambitious effort like the Black Information Network set up and turning those stations into 24/7 news outlets for the Black community?

One of the most exciting things about getting that project done so quickly was seeing the interest that our brand partners had in supporting that mission, and we created an entirely new business model there with eight founding partners. We were trying to avoid some of the challenges that happen when great journalists have to chase ratings, where they end up doing sometimes the lowest common denominator or sensational headlines to chase the rating, click or listener. 

We wanted to empower the journalists to tell stories that needed to be told from the perspective of Black journalists and the Black community. And to do that, we went out and found eight brand partners who really got behind the mission long-term and created branded journalism with them vs. interruptive advertising -- including Bank of America, Geico, Verizon, Lowe’s, 23andMe, McDonald’s, CVS Health and Sony. We talk about all these things on panels, but day-to-day we’re not always as good as we could be in living that. But Black Information Network has just been a phenomenal experience as we start turning more of our stations into 24/7 Black news networks.

What’s a new or emerging behavior you’ve observed in your business this past year that you think will be here to stay in a post-COVID landscape?

What the pandemic forced us to do as marketers was get back to ideas. And creative came back to the forefront. We put the data aside for a moment because you need a mix of math and magic, and the magic came back into advertising. The ideas were the place where we started, and then we used data to shape and form those ideas. 

So I think we brought creative back to the table in a big way, and the marketing we’re seeing come out in every medium is better because the creatives have a stronger voice. We couldn't be as precious about it, so we had to do it fast and take more risks and not be as perfect. The work just has to be honest and relevant for the moment.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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