Digital Conference 2010

At a Crossroads Between Old and New, NPR Wins by Striking Balance

Syndicator's Usership Has Skyrocketed Thanks to Its Careful Selection of Which Media Channels to Embrace

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- National Public Radio is walking a tightrope: Its business is built upon an old-fashioned mode of distributing information, but its embrace of digital channels, such as blogs and smartphone applications, has skyrocketed NPR's usership.

Vivian Schiller
Vivian Schiller Credit: Gary He
"Our heritage is radio," Vivian Schiller, president-CEO of the news and entertainment programming producer and distributor, told the audience at Ad Age's Digital Conference today. "But the digital sphere has been a boon to us and is a second core. ... There is no platform more conducive to mobile than radio."

The challenge, with the fire hose of distribution-platform choices blasting full-force as new technologies keep arising, is for its executives to decide what to invest their staff and budget in. At NPR, where its content reaches a combined audience of 26.4 million listeners weekly through more than 900 stations nationwide, Ms. Schiller tries to strike a balance between going "back to basics" and jumping on "every bright, shiny object that comes along."

Foursquare, the latest location-based mobile-network craze, falls into NPR's need-not bucket while Apple's new iPad zings into the absolutely must-do bucket, she said. The difference? An iPad application can help NPR reach a wider audience and enable its news consumers to become more informed. "We're a not-for-profit, mission-driven organization, so for us the first question is always about mission," Ms. Schiller said. "We have almost a religious fervor about two things: the user experience and the quality of the content. If you just keep focused on those two things, the rest of it falls into place."

Focus on core mission
Tom Cunniff, VP-director of interactive communications at Combe, said it's crucial for an organization to focus on its core mission when making marketing decisions. "With all the clutter, there are a zillion things you can actually do," said Mr. Cunniff, who oversees both traditional and digital advertising. "Which things are useful to a consumer and which things does a consumer actually need?"

That's a question Dell tries to answer by setting up lots of "listening posts." The computer maker uses social tools as well as customer-feedback forms to figure out what consumer are looking for, what they're aggregating, what aggravates them, and what will make their shopping experience easier. "They vote with their fingertips on their keyboard," said Erin Mulligan Nelson, Dell's chief marketing officer.

From left: Pete Blackshaw, Erin Mulligan Nelson, Vivian Schiller and Tom Cunniff.
From left: Pete Blackshaw, Erin Mulligan Nelson, Vivian Schiller and Tom Cunniff. Credit: Gary He
NPR's iPad app has quickly become something many consumers' fingers are tapping. Since the electronic tablet hit stores 10 days ago, one in five iPad owners have downloaded NPR's app, which has sponsors and underwriters who created a less-cluttered ad experience aimed at feeling natural rather than annoying to consumers, Ms. Schiller said.

But NPR realizes a large chunk of its audience probably will never touch its iPad or iPhone apps, and that's OK. It strives to provide for middle-age consumers who only listen to NPR's shows on their phones while exercising as well as for those consumers' parents who don't know how to turn on cellphones.

"Obviously we cross-promote the benefits of NPR on various platforms like crazy. But the beauty of being on multiple platforms is it's not like we've abandoned radio and will let it whither," said Ms. Schiller, who tried to teach her 88-year-old mother how to use e-mail. "We've got to keep innovating on those core platforms the same way we're innovating on other platforms."

That's smart, Mr. Cunniff said, because "the traditional stuff still throws off a whole lot of money."

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