As marketers allocate more dollars to digital audio, Erica Osher, Sr. Director of NPR Sponsorship Products and Creative at National Public Media (NPM), is leading the quest to integrate sponsors with NPR's top-shelf platforms. Osher develops sponsorship products across digital channels, including websites, mobile apps, podcasts and smart speakers, and is a liaison between NPR's digital and editorial teams and its sponsorship arm, NPM. She has been integral in taking NPR digital sponsorship from barebones recognition to where it is today. And now, Osher leads NPM Creative, a newly-expanded in-house team offering NPR sponsors such options as custom audio and visual production, copy testing and creative optimization.
Osher and I discussed how digital audio can provide a "step forward" for women, why brands are so bullish on podcasts, and the organization's approach to integrating sponsors into the NPR environment.
Alli Romano: As a female in the media industry, how have you been mentored?
Erica Osher: At NPR, there's a wonderful group of women in Digital Media that meet up to give each other advice and support. We also have women in leadership positions, including Gina Garrubbo, the President and Chief Executive Officer of National Public Media, who is fearless, willing to push boundaries, move things forward, and ask the hard questions. Loren Mayor, the Chief Operating Officer of NPR, has been a leader in developing the culture here. I've also really been fortunate to define my own path and role. I've created my own positions with support from management. They let me fill the holes that I saw in our organization which has led, in many ways, to the launch of NPM Creative. I don't know that a lot of other companies would take that kind of chance on someone and be as supportive of a woman advancing herself in her career.
Romano: How is digital audio furthering the advancement of women?
Osher: Traditionally, tech has been dominated by men. Now we're seeing a shift where women are being promoted to more leadership roles, but that type of systematic change takes a long time. With digital audio, because it's a burgeoning industry, you don't have that legacy infrastructure to get over, and there are even more opportunities for women to take on a leadership role.
Romano: What was one of the earliest campaigns you worked on and why was it memorable?
Osher: The first year of NPR's Music's "Tiny Desk Contest." NPM partnered with Lagunitas [Brewing Company] to do a customized sponsor integration, but at the time, there weren't a lot of resources available. We collaborated with NPR Digital Media, NPR Music, and Lagunitas to build a new website and digital properties. It was a great opportunity to allow sponsorship to support something that was really important to NPR…and to also provide a lot of value to Lagunitas. The work we did with Lagunitas that first year was recognized as one of the year's top brand integrations in the Digiday Publishing Awards. This is now Lagunitas' fourth year, and the Contest and sponsorship have become much bigger.
Romano: How do you collaborate with NPR, NPM and brands?
Osher: We work with the NPR teams to get a sense of what they're trying to do - like developing a new product - what they want, and where they need support. Then we talk about how we can bring value to a sponsor and audiences within that environment. We work with them from the conception of a project to ensure the sponsorship is truly integrated into the experience. If you bring sponsorship into the conversation at the end, it ends up feeling tacked on and creates a bad user experience that is bad for NPR, its audience and for sponsors.
With the new NPR App, for example, the Digital Media team wanted to create a better user experience for the more than one million users of the App. This created an opportunity for us to enhance our mobile sponsorship offerings and bring more revenue to this platform. So, my team embedded with them for months, trying to figure out what the sponsorship model would be. We're also constantly talking to the [NPM] sales team about the new products we have, throughout the development and design process.
Romano: What products are sponsors most interested in right now?
Osher: Podcasting is the hottest thing. It's the golden age of audio, and we're seeing such great performance from podcasting. We're getting more high-level, top-tier brands participating … they want customization, and something really creative and integrated. That created an interesting challenge for us. NPR's hosts don't read endorsements and we have to meet NPR's sponsorship guidelines. We wanted something that is dynamic, engaging and native. That's the sweet spot. National Public Media developed Brand Soundscapes to answer that desire to customize, and make it feel different and unique. If you're our client, the way it works is we interview someone at your organization or an agency's client and get your story. Then we craft those into a mid-roll format that can really stand out in a podcast.
Romano: How do they sound different from other audio products?
Osher: So far, NPM Creative has produced a total of 17 Brand Soundscapes for eight brands, with campaigns for two more in production right now. Our first campaign was for Kia Motors America that included distribution across NPR's digital platforms, and we made four 60-second mid-rolls for our podcasts. Instead of the people in commercials or in videos on company websites, we got to talk to the people who dealt with that car every single day - one of the designers, a head of products, a project manager responsible for the environmental aspects, and someone in charge of marketing and branding the car. They weren't just reading off a script. They were really passionate and excited, and it translated well into audio. We're trying to bring that authenticity to everything we do at NPM Creative. There needs to be a story there. It can't just feel like you're just listing features.
Romano: Voice devices are burgeoning. How are you working with brands there?
Osher: We run post-rolls on our smart speaker newscasts that have been really successful. We did a voice-only test with Peppercorn Media promoting their word of the day quiz, which saw a 5.5% conversion rate. We're also experimenting with bringing Brand Soundscapes to a smart speaker platform; we feel really confident we can offer brands an experience on smart speakers where users can engage with them more deeply and in a way that feels very seamless. That's the key component to anything we're doing: How can you make the user experience feel easy and specific to that platform?
Photo credit: Steven Voss for NPR
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