SXSWi Q&A: Pandora’s Heidi Browning Talks Continued Growth, Working with Large Brands

Pandora's Heidi Browning

As the senior VP of strategic solutions for Pandora, Heidi Browning oversees the company’s advertising growth in ways that would be less-than-obvious to consumers, from Taco Bell boxes to organizing concerts in Denver with Tokimonsta and her fans (Pandora knows they’re her fans because of a massive, anonymized data collection system).

Billboard spoke to Browning at Austin, Texas’ Driskill on the first day of SXSW Interactive about how Pandora plans to continue its growth while working more closely with large brands -- all while keeping users listening.

How do you use your massive trove of data in partnerships and sponsorships?
We've got the registration data -- age, geo, gender -- and additional data sources such as what device you're using, what platform, are you adding stations -- all that behavioral data. From that, we can tell our audience story for advertisers who want to understand the consumer mindset. We can really create a mosaic of a listener or consumer at any time of the day, and help them understand how we're interacting with our devices. So we could do happy hours, what not, people who happen to like yoga and like three types of music. We bring all this together to make our advertising more effective. And the undercurrent of it all is this data-fueled smart targeting across platform. That's one of the things I love the most about Pandora -- it's not cookie-based. It's anonymous, but it's a listener ID data, cross-platform.

Can you give an example where something like this has worked?
Any of our advertising products. We have audio ads, 15- and 30-second spots. We have display ads that are shown only on engagement, so we know you're looking at the screen. We know that if you're changing a station you're looking at your screen. Video ads, which play in natural breaks in the music. We've got custom, which is really neat. We leverage our data in the Genome alongside consumer data to create what we call 'the sound of a brand.' So a brand – Toyota, for example -- might want to express the alignment of different car models alongside different musicians. So we take our data that shows who's trending in what markets, and pull together this branded content experience. An example is Tokimonsta, that's my favorite one. Literally produces out of her house in her jammies. So we went in and developed all these audio and video interviews, and then took her into a studio and had analog musicians who brought her music to life and mashed them up in a studio together. She'd never heard her music played on a cello before, right? And then we took her out on the road and had a concert in Denver because she was trending huge in Denver.

You guys would know that.
We did, and so we took all of our data and we only invited Tokimonsta fans to that concert. It's a value exchange for the advertiser and Pandora because we want to make our listeners happy, of course.

What about situations where this didn't work?
We've got a creative team and music curation team, and a sales development, big-idea team. The three of them come together with a client and a brief, so we help guide the advertisers into a better experience for our listeners. A lot of the time our innovations come from the spark of the advertisers, where we're like “That's a fantastic idea, let's see how we can take that to the next level.” That's where clients like Toyota have really been leading the charge, this native audio listening experience around custom content. The future is ahead of us.

It seems like getting into the car is of great importance to Pandora -- what would be second?
Getting into the connected home. It's connected car, connected home, connected consumer. Creating that seamless experience. So I sign into Pandora once but I can listen to it many places. We want it to easy, simple. We've strived over the past several years to deliver on that promise.

How far away do you think that connected home would be? I know Nest has been successful, but it's also prohibitively expensive.
We’re in the early stages of what connected home means. For some people it's just a Sonos player. That's a form of the connected home, and it'll get smarter over time.

What's in the works for the coming year?
One is continuing to build our bands brands and fans piece of the business. Leveraging the data to create personalized, live music experiences and branded content for our users. SXSW is an example of that. Where advetisers are getting content that goes beyond that moment.

We hired Tommy Page [former publisher of Billboard Magazine], who is leading this artist partnership team. We see that connection and opportunity. Artists are interested in being connected to brands just as much as brands are interested in being connected to artists.

They need to make some money somehow.
Everyone's getting creative and we're here to help facilitate that creativity. That's a big part of our business and we'll have lots of exciting things coming down the pike, particularly around Latin. [Directed to Pandora's public relations person] I can sneak in some stuff about Latin, can't I?

Taco Bell one, Latin two, three our targeting. We're continuing to evolve our targeting, inference based models. Creating these smart, targetable audience segments, especially around the world of politics. What does music say about your political affiliation or vice versa? That's been a cool and growing area of our business. Using music as the indicator. It does take a lot of science behind it, validating it etc.

The third area is evolving our advertising products. We have some products coming out at the end of year that are really exciting. Fourth is expanding our artist products, focusing on the advertiser and the artist and the listener is everything we do at Pandora. Again, that transitive property.