In late 2016, after working two years at Conservation International, Meg Goldthwaite accepted a chief marketing officer position at National Public Radio (NPR), overnight became the marketing head for one of the most important non-profit institutions in the United States. At NPR, Goldthwaite has worked to promote broadcasts and podcasts through traditional marketing methods, but also new mediums like voice-activation smart devices.

AList sat down with Goldthwaite to discuss the challenges of marketing at a non-profit and how she allows her marketing team to take risks.

Can you describe some of the broader trends that are affecting your job as a CMO right now?

Certainly, the push for voice-activated assistants is what we are mostly taking advantage of right now. We didn’t invent smart speakers, obviously, but it’s one of those things that, as a not-for-profit marketer, we have to be very opportunistic. I don’t have great, big marketing budgets to plan my marketing spend out for the year.

What we need to be doing is looking on the horizon for the waves that we can hop on. At NPR, we are the pioneers of audio and we create emotional experiences through storytelling and convey new stories because we have that intimacy and emotional connection. Which is generated by the quality of our work, the quality of our journalism, but also, the quality of the sound and what you are experiencing. Being [has been our] strength, four years ago when smart speakers started coming out, we thought, “We need to be on this.”

We are a radio; we have radio in our history and our core. However, we are not just radio. The whole idea that “radio is dead” is never something that we ascribed to. What the smart speakers did was it allowed more people to access our content. Younger people and more diverse groups.

How have you been taking advantage of the voice activated tech?

A lot of it is coming out from multiple dimensions. The first is to work with the manufacturers to ensure that the utterances are correct, so listeners can play NPR on Amazon Alexa and Google, where you simply say, “Play NPR.” You’ll be asked what your local public radio station is and that alone has been huge for us. Same thing with our podcast. We are making sure that the utterances are “play How I Built This podcast” or “play Code Switch podcast.” That’s step one.

Step two is doing what I’m doing, which is going around to as many places as I can and making certain that people understand that you can access our content on smart speakers.

Step three is looking at the content that we are creating and packaging it up so it is easily accessible on smart speakers, and we are creating some new cool things for the smart speaker devices, like our “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” quiz, where you can play and check your awareness of current events, and possibly your humor.

As a marketer, we work with National Public Media, and they do our underwriting. They are working with brands and understand how the power of audio and smart speakers can help deliver the messages that they want to deliver, while they support public media.

We do this study called The Smart Audio report, where we are taking a look at how people are using smart speakers. Are they using them as companions in their homes when they are alone? Are they using them to tell stories to their children? And this helps our underwriting clients understand how they can use these devices. Then, our National Public Media team works with those sponsors to help craft messages that are going to be appreciated by NPR audiences.

When a listener has asked Alexa to play NPR, KQED or WAMU, KCRW, KPCC on your smart speaker, we’ve been invited into somebody’s living room, kitchen or bedroom. If listeners are in the middle of playing an NPR podcast, they are going to have an underwriting message in the middle of that. We need to make certain that the brands that we work with appreciate and understand that we’ve been invited in and that the way that message is delivered is consistent with what NPR listeners are expecting to get. Even though it’s typically just a line, a “thank you” to this sponsor, who is generously supporting National Public Radio.

Those messages at the end of a program are always strangely comforting.

Which is why so many of our supporters, our underwriters, want to be with NPR because they appreciate the value and the message of what they are giving to support a crucial social mission.

It feels like smart speakers weren’t a regular item in the home until the last 6 months.

Yes, I believe it was a 68 percent spike. And now one in four Americans own a smart speaker. And, once you have one, then you want to have two or three. They’re absolutely exploding, which is crazy, given that this category didn’t even exist four years ago.

What are some of the ways you measure brand effectiveness? 

We have a series of different research that we take a look at. We are fairly new to the marketing world but also lucky. We have been around for almost 50 years and had incredible organic growth and trust. Because remember, we started out as just a bunch of people with microphones running in the Washington mall to capture the protests of the Vietnam War. Growth has been something that we’ve just done organically. If you know NPR, you love it, but not everybody knows the NPR brand and certainly, different demographics are just learning about it. Particularly in podcasts, which is great. 

Are you working directly with the NPR editorial team?

If the editorial team decides that. They are the ones who say, “We want to explore this.” It’s one of the more interesting aspects of marketing for a journalism company, where I worked for companies like MCI, where the marketing group drove everything. We’d come up with a concept for an ad and then build the product behind it and put it out there.

NPR Marketing gets involved in promoting the work that the editorial team does and making certain that we have a new [listeners]. We just started the fifth season of Invisibilia. They create it and they come to us and we say, “Ok, we will take a look, get a feel for it and this is where you should market it to.” It’s a female-run podcast, which is fantastic, it’s very heavy science-based, so we are going to be talking to a lot of scientific publications and a lot of women’s magazines.

As a marketer, and now a chief marketing officer, how have you been able to step back, look at the bigger picture and avoid micromanaging?

We talked earlier about my start at MCI, where we were a bunch of young, very entrepreneurial-minded people, who were given a lot of responsibility and sent on our way. And if it went well, you could be the next SVP of marketing, if it went badly, you were probably going to be laid off within minutes.

But, what I learned there, was give smart minds the [creative license] to go do their thing and that’s very much what I do now. There is an incredible woman that runs our media relations department. She knows media relations better than I could ever know it, so I lean on her [for that]. I’m not going to micromanage her because I’m not going to get the best product out of her [if I do that]. It’s the same thing with my marketing team. I’m there to help remove hurdles. I’m there to help motivate and push them, to help keep them focused on what our ultimate strategy is going to be. That’s consistent with the rest of the organization. I know a thing or two but would much rather rely on a diverse group of different ages, backgrounds, viewpoints, and have them come up with ideas. It’s much more fun. 

And hiring the right people. 

Yes. It’s all about hiring the people who have the right attitude. I care much more for the ability to write and articulate, in terms of marketing and communications. The ability to think on your own. I don’t want people constantly coming to me and asking what they should do. I would much rather [they] take a risk. That is all within reason. We have to protect our brand. But, I can say I’m rarely disappointed. As long as you give people an opportunity to learn, and we talk a lot about the ability to fail. [Sometimes] someone does something in a very big way and it lands with a thud. And I can say, “Let’s learn from this.” It’s not finger-pointing to say, exactly what went wrong here. It’s more like, “Let’s identify what happened, so we make sure that it doesn’t happen next time.”

Right, and with the speed at which the marketing industry moves, you almost have to experiment.

Yes. And again, to the budgets that we have as a not-for-profit media company, we have got to work with what we have. We have to be very smart and also have to take risks and go out there and see how things are going to land.

Make it go a long way. Make mistakes. You often hear that if you are going to fail, fail fast. Push it, make the mistake, and move on as quickly as you can. I’ve been there for a little over two years, I’m happy to say I can’t point at a mistake and say, “Oh Gosh, that’s a good example of something that went wrong.”

In some ways, we are direct-to-consumer, but in others, we have 260+ member stations around the country, who distribute our content and who are our partners and our colleagues, so we need to keep them top of mind. I was at a meeting of stations managers from around the Western region earlier this week, and each one was still very unique and different. The way you market to a Denver market and the community that comes around Colorado public radio looks different than what you are going to see in Boise which looks different than what you are going to see in Yellow Stone, or frankly, even Aspen. 

What are some of your ultimate goals with marketing at NPR?

It is very important that we generate revenue because that is how we will sustainably continue public radio for the next 50 years and beyond. However, we do have to meet the requirements of our social mission, which is to inform and provide a platform for civil discourse.

I’ll give you an example of a podcast that was done for Michigan Public Radio called Believed. It was the work of female journalists who got into the happenings behind Larry Nassar and came out as podcast episodes of unbelievably important stories that needed to be told. It performed marvelously, but it’s a delicate topic to go to an underwriter and say, ” Do you want to underwrite this content which is sensitive but very important work.”

We have to remember as a marketer I’m not just about generating revenue, I need to be about lifting hearts and minds and getting more people to tune in to their local public radio station. Often times, I am trying to market content that ultimately will generate revenue for an entirely different organization, which is our local public radio station. I am accountable and I feel that it’s my professional and personal responsibility to support that system.

It’s interesting because in some ways I’m B2C and in other ways I’m B2B, and then I’m B2B2C. It’s different than other for-profit organizations where I’ve worked: where I had a PnL and had to hit a number of widgets; work with the sales team on a sales goal; make sure that the finance would be fine with the pricing of something. This is a totally different world. We create content. Our journalists are not thinking about how much money this is going to generate for the organization, nor should they ever. But my job is to go through PR and marketing and make certain of the stories of these storytellers get out.