When Emma Carrasco joined NPR as the revered public radio organization’s first-ever chief marketing officer (CMO) in December 2012, she took on a straightforward, if daunting, challenge: isolate the DNA of the iconic brand’s culture and use it as the foundation for building a marketing team. But that was just the start. Carrasco also set about getting inside the minds of the organization’s current and prospective customers to guide the fledgling marketing team’s strategic planning. She took a break from pouring over NPR’s new (and also first-ever) audience decision-journey research to discuss her passion for behavioral—and marketing—drivers.
What’s your marketing passion?
I’ve always been passionately curious about what drives human behavior and how human behavior affects marketing. At various points in my career I’ve been able to uncover new marketing opportunities by being attuned to where consumers and audiences are going and how they’re changing.
When did this passion materialize?
It seems like I’ve always been in a position to communicate information to audiences. It started very early in elementary school, and later in junior high and high school, with theater productions. I also worked on the high school newspaper and then served as the general manager of my college radio station. I’ve always been interested in communicating to audiences and understanding my audience’s behavior. I think it’s a passion that found me as opposed to me finding it.
How does this passion manifest itself inside your department?
The commitment to being curious about our audience comes across in the form of asking questions daily: Why? How do we know that? What do we already know? What don’t we know? What do we need to know? These aren’t necessarily profound questions, but in many situations they’re new questions that yield new insights. That’s exciting because it gets people throughout the organization thinking about ways to answer questions related to our audience. These answers come from many perspectives. It’s up to our team to aggregate those answers and formulate them into strategies.
What is it about your current audience that’s most important to keep in mind in your marketing work?
One of the most striking attributes—something we know through years of experience, research, and data—is that our audience is truly intellectually curious. That’s a very special quality. As a CMO that quality makes me ask, “How do we as an organization behave with the same level of intellectual curiosity—even anthropological curiosity—when learning more about our listeners?” Being curious about our audience is a natural extension of our core culture.
What do you want to achieve, from a marketing perspective, through your curiosity about your audience?
It goes straight to our mission of working in partnership with our member stations to create a more informed citizenry and democracy. That’s what we’re here to do. Public service journalism plays such a unique and, I would argue, necessary role in today’s media landscape.
We’re using our audience understanding to do a couple of things. The first is to deepen engagement with our core set of die-hard listeners; these are people who say, “I love NPR and I could not spend a day without it because of the value that it brings to my life.” Second, there is a whole swath of Americans who don’t yet know that we’re an option for them. My goal is to expand the universe of people in whose lives public service journalism plays a vital role.
Since joining NPR as the organization’s first CMO, what’s a notable marketing change you’ve made?
One of the first things we did when we established a new marketing function—a major change itself, of course—was to pull our audience insight and research function under the marketing umbrella. This allowed us to ensure that we place the audience at the center of all our thinking and decisions, starting at the point when we began devising a marketing strategy. Obviously, we start with the organization’s strategic plan, and then we immediately go to our audience research and ask, “What do we understand about our audience and how do those insights relate to our strategic objectives?”
Under the CMO, we also have our marketing/branding team, our live events team, consumer products, media relations, listener services, audience engagement and new ventures, and internal stakeholder communications. The activities of all these groups are aligned to generate deep insights about our audience. We recently conducted our first-ever audience decision-journey research. We’ve coupled that with tons of quantitative data, and now we’re well positioned to truly understand the best points at which to help people discover us, and the best points to help them interact with us.
What are NPR live events?
It’s built on our belief in two-way conversations and intimate storytelling with our audience, and we produce these events in collaboration with our member station community. We know that our audience values the NPR brand for its integrity, editorial rigor, independence, and its ability to surprise and delight. Those elements need to be core to the content that we take to a live event. We couldn’t perform this as “radio on a stage.” We needed to understand and deliver on what audiences would expect by walking into a theater for an NPR-branded experience.
What’s an example of a live event?
We recently completed a series called “NPR Presents Water±,” which is a theatrical production that looks at our volatile and dependent relationship with water from many different perspectives. We premiered “Water” in New Orleans last October, and then took it to seven other cities. It’s a hugely collaborative effort, led by Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon, award-winning NPR Science Correspondent Christopher Joyce, award-winning theater writers Arthur Yorinks and Carl Hancock, and acclaimed violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, who did the score. The purpose of the event was to build on local member stations’ news coverage while highlighting each city’s unique relationship with water. It’s an innovative way to be true to our brand while delivering something new for our audience.
Let’s finish with talent: What qualities do you look for when hiring marketing professionals?
The most important quality in this world is commitment to the mission…followed by subject matter expertise in your area. For example, the person leading our media relations practice has a background in literature and has done communications work for nonprofit museums, as well as print and online media; so she understands the importance of storytelling and public service journalism. When you combine all of that with commitment to the mission, you can create some pretty cool things. We like to say that there are three characteristics that are essential in our marketing department: competence, curiosity, and collaboration.