Q&A With Lizzie Widhelm: ‘Audio ads draw attention because it feels personal—just like their music’

Pandora is over 10 years old. (I know, we can’t believe it either.) And while our history has had many twists and turns, one of the most important milestones was introducing audio ads to our platform. This not only kept the service running free for millions of Americans who wanted a seamless, radio-like experience online--but it gave advertisers the remarkable ability to apply the storytelling power of audio to the precision of digital advertising.

Lizzie Widhelm, our current Senior Vice President of Ad Product Sales & Strategy, was actually Pandora’s first-ever salesperson. She spent her days partnering with brands to introduce them to the concept of “digital audio”--something most marketers were unfamiliar with at the time.

We were able to pull Lizzie away from her busy schedule to chat about what it was like to be on the front lines of a “new advertising format,” and what she sees as the long-term promise of digital audio advertising. Let’s see what she had to say...

Tell us about Pandora’s decision to integrate audio ads into the service.

LW: Pandora’s early days were so exciting. We were growing only by word-of-mouth, ultimately attracting millions of passionate music fans who wanted a better radio experience. The iPhone was the catalyst that created the right moment for us to launch audio ads. The app experience was new, but Pandora quickly became a must-have for anyone buying a smartphone. This shift created a dramatic increase in listenership for us, and soon our audience reached the same size of many top radio stations around the country. But our product was different in that we knew who was listening. The ability to target--combined with our commitment to less interruptions--allowed us to create excitement and interest.

What led Pandora to take a drastically different approach to advertising than other audio platforms?

LW: We defined a purpose, which was to service our audience first. We then built a monetization model that worked for our clients and our listeners under the mantra, “what is good for the listener is good for the advertiser.” So, the total time we run ads compared to the total time we play content was—and still is—our primary concern. This philosophy created a behavior that runs counter to what radio experiences; our listeners don’t tune out or change stations because of ads.

Audio can be a very personal medium. In today’s earbud era, where people are constantly plugged into headphones, audio messages are literally delivered directly into the ears of a desired audience. How does this impact creative development?

LW: Every Pandora listener is an individual to us, and we work hard to make their music as personal as possible. So why can’t we strive to do that with advertising too? The key is to align with data, so you know exactly who you’re talking to. Using audio that references a known behavior can make a great impact. Audio ads that call out the fact that “we know you’re on the road” or “your home is a special place” will draw attention from a listener because it feels personal—just like their music.

Are there any ad technologies that are getting your attention right now?

LW: I am very interested in how technology can combine with user behavior to deliver better advertising. For example, what if I’m the type of person who just loves a southern accent? Maybe all the audio ads I hear should be in a voice that I prefer. Or what if I’m listening to the AC/DC station and then switch to Steve Aoki? Shouldn’t the music bed in my next ad also reflect that change? There is a future for scalable, data-driven creative tied to frictionless programmatic pipes. I’m really excited to see how that plays out.

Interested in diving deeper into how your brand can make a greater impact with audio? Check out Episode 1 and Episode 2 of our new Power of Audio podcast, where we explore the significance of sonic branding.

You can also hear more from Lizzie by downloading our Definitive Guide to Audio, the most complete report you’ll find on today’s complex and ever-changing audio landscape.