Conference Recap: Pandora’s Tim Westergren on Vision and Connecting With Audiences

October 15, 2012

Tim Westergren talks to reporters after his General Session today.
Tim Westergren talks to reporters after his General Session today.

“The notion of who you are as a brand is how consumers perceive you through interactions,” said Tim Westergren, founder and chief strategy officer of Pandora, at today’s General Session at the PRSA 2012 International Conference in San Francisco. “People are looking for humanity in the social media space.”

In a conversation with USA Today technology columnist Jefferson Graham, Westergren discussed his PR grassroots effort to launch the Internet radio site in November 2005 — after starting work on the Music Genome Project in 2000 as a discovery recommendation tool based on songs’ DNA — which now has 150-million registered users.

But on the path to success, he maxed out 11 credit cards and didn’t even have a marketing budget. “We never advertised Pandora — it was completely word-of-mouth,” Westergren said.

Early on, he realized that the company’s “PR cornerstone” was to talk to people actually using the service and find out what they want and like, as well as personally respond to all of the emails that they receive. Because of this, “we now have listener advocates,” he said.

In addition, another “human touch” that worked for him was hosting town hall meetings throughout the United States with Pandora users. Two people came to his first one in New York, but there were 1,000 people in attendance at his most recent meeting in the city.

“It allowed us to connect with the evangelists. There is no substitute for in-person conversations,” he said, adding how more than 1 million users saved Pandora from financial crisis in 2007 by contacting Congress and opposing hikes in royalty fees. “These people have a huge megaphone right now and if they like it, they will tell people.”
Westergren noted that Pandora did not have a PR team until about three or four years on, but the company rapidly grew online into a viral community. “It was an at-work phenomenon on laptops and desktops,” he said. “But the growth rate doubled overnight after the launch of the iPhone. [It was not just radio to listen to at work but] now it was the radio.” 
He said that if social media was around when he was first starting the company, that Facebook and Twitter might supplement the town hall meetings, but that broadcasting a message cannot substitute for a one-on-one talk. A brand is a reaction to a customer’s experiences in person, at stores or with customer service, he said. “The narrative for Pandora is they are kind of human.

“For those trying to leverage social, you need to find someone to be your icon to represent the company,” he said, adding that that this is his job and that he tells Fortune 500 executives that they need to get out of the office and be accessible and be among consumers. Also important: “Learn public speaking. Fundamentally and, at its core, PR is about communication.”

Pandora's playlist

While Pandora has always had competition — originally with the AOL, MSN and Yahoo music sites — and now with services like Spotify and Apple’s prospective new custom-radio —
Westergren isn’t worried.

“It means we’re doing something right,” he said, mentioning the hundred of attributes per songs his company has identified. “The technology behind personalized playlists is very complex. And in this era, the best products will triumph. We have a saying at Pandora: ‘It’s the playlist, stupid.’”

Westergren still discovers new music and playlists “that stimulate him” on Pandora all the time, as he listens to Internet radio for several hours each day. But his ideal musical playlist would include songs by: Judee Sill, Gabe Dixon Band, Ben Folds, Bach and “his musical bible” The Beatles’ Abbey Road. — Amy Jacques


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