Cultivating Audience Engagement at NPR

HOW’s In-House Inspiration issue gives you a peek behind the curtain at NPR, the details on 89 award-winning in-house designs, and steps for preparing for the inevitable—change. Plus: How locking in an iron-clad infrastructure will strengthen your team.


Emma Carrasco is a self-proclaimed “lifelong fan of NPR” and public media in general. She sat on the board of her local PBS station when she lived in South Florida, and a little over two years ago, Carrasco joined the ranks of public radio by becoming NPR’s chief marketing officer. She brings 32 years of experience to NPR with multiple points of view accumulated from working at Republica, Nortel Networks, McDonald’s, and Univision. She’s able to see things from multiple points of view, and from multiple disciplines, including but not limited to marketing, design and public relations.


NPR marketing and communications designs and produces a number of consumer products, ranging from key chains to tote bags to books, music, and more, all of which extend the NPR brand to its listeners. Photos by Wanyu Zhang/NPR

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Upon arriving at her post, she created a marketing, branding, and communication division in NPR that combined existing positions with new ones to design marketing campaign strategies, produce live events, develop consumer products, manage non-editorial social media presence, and also manage audience relations, media relations, internal communications, and conferences and sponsorships. As is the case with any marketing, design and creative endeavor, research is tantamount to success. NPR AIR (Audience Insights and Research) provides that research support. NPR’s marketing manager Vanessa Harris explains how AIR drives creative decisions, “In addition to providing audience insights and platform use across the public media system, AIR delves into specific questions as needed. Most recently, they completed an Audience Decision Journey study to better define how people come to discover and get engaged in public media no matter what the platform. We’ll use these insights to optimize our messaging across the institution and the way we think about drawing in new listeners.” Having this resource enables NPR to remain, according to Carrasco, “curious about the audience” at all times.

NPR has a wealth of existing brand touchpoints and new ones in the pipeline at all times, and Carrasco’s past agency experience has been instrumental in allowing her to see multidisciplinary solutions for these touchpoints. NPR listeners’ usage habits vary from region to region, demographic to demographic, and more specifically, from person to person. For example, many NPR listeners access content through the radio by tuning into NPR member stations, but a growing number have become comfortable with using mobile devices, such as NPR One on their Android device or iPhone. The NPR One product itself was developed by the NPR digital team, lead by Zach Brand, but Carrasco’s team designed the marketing strategy to get the word out about the app.

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NPR One promotional site, completed for NPR by Crush and Lovely.

Carrasco’s teams are available to take on any number of creative and marketing challenges, be they for internal communications, product development and sales, or live events. As marketing manager, Vanessa Harris works on strategy and marketing, leads the team that does art direction and copy writing, and manages NPR’s inside agency. In Harris’ words, the in-house agency “ladders up to support any group in the institution, to tell the story of the brand.” What’s most important to Carrasco and her staff is that the brand stays authentic, and is “thoughtful, honest, tested, proven, forward thinking, curious, human, and connected.” The NPR Commons provides one such opportunity for people to connect and interact with the NPR brand in a physical space. For some, it’s their first interaction with NPR, and for fans, it’s a place for them to see, feel, experience, and purchase products from their favorite shows. Whether you’re a devoted super fan or a potential fan, NPR marketing and communication is constantly working on ways to extend the brand to you.

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NPR-webxtra3When NPR outgrew its old offices, it gave them the opportunity to design a space for not only NPR employees to work in, but also for visitors to come and interact with the brand. Photos by Wanyu Zhang/NPR

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The NPR Commons is a bricks and mortar store, that allows listeners to physically connect with the brand, and they can purchase any number of products associated with NPR and its affiliate stations. Photos by Wanyu Zhang/NPR

Barbara Sopato, NPR’s director of e-commerce and consumer products, specializes in such outreach, acting as a “pipeline to the audience.” As an NPR employee and fan herself, she’s also acutely aware of fan tastes, and strives to deliver something unique fresh every time she’s conducting product research or developing a product. Every product that NPR develops, whether by the marketing and communication team, digital team, or visuals team, is considered to be “unique in the way it is conceptualized, developed, and marketed,” according to Sopato.

One unique product developed by NPR was part of a joint venture with Livio Radio. But rather than simply applying the NPR logo to one of Livio’s existing radios, they created a completely new product. Sopato explains: “We engaged in development of a more NPR-centric customer interface, adding menus and buttons that led directly to more than 1,000 NPR station’s streams, over 800 podcasts and audio archives of NPR programs. The custom features we added made it easier for new audiences to discover NPR and existing audiences to find more public radio. The finished product included all of the original features of the Livio radio, accessing over 18,000 internet radio stations, but our added features allowed NPR fans to personalize their NPR experience, and easily switch back and forth between the local NPR Member station they know and love, and on-demand content and programs from NPR and stations across the US from anywhere in the world.”

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Produced as a joint venture with Livio Radio, NPR’s internet radio delivers a unique way for listeners to search, find, and listen to NPR stations. Photograph by Wanyu Zhang/NPR

Another product that Sopato had a hand in was the Carl Kassell autograph pillow. Fans of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! in Chicago, no doubt recognize the name, but because most fans are only able to listen to the show, few of them know what he looks like. Not only does the Carl Kassell autograph pillow put a face to the name, but it puts the face in your hands.

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The Carl Kassell autograph pillow, enables Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! fans to come face to face with Carl Kassell. Photograph by Wanyu Zhang/NPR

In conceptualizing the Kassell pillow, Sopato referenced memories of autographed animals that she recalled from high school, some of which are still sold in stores today. Although a majority of listeners only get to hear Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,the show’s live performance sells out weekly, and Sopato saw an opportunity to give attendees a unique piece of memorabilia. But moving from concept to design to product had its own challenges. “I started by finding a US factory that could produce this custom [pillow] for a reasonable price, and our in-house design team created the design. The hardest part on this one was getting the shape, stuffing and size correct, one wrong stitch or too little stuffing and it went from cute to creepy very quickly. I think they sent me at least 10 pre-production samples before we got this right, and I still see some of the odd prototypes around the office.”

At the beginning of and during the process, Sopato was hesitant, fearing the product could diminish Kassell’s integrity. But by trusting her own gut as a fan, and realizing that many other fans existed, she combined her creative instinct with audience research, and wound up with a best seller at the show’s live performances as well as online at the NPR Shop. “I knew if I was crazy for all things Carl, there were others out there who would find both humor and honor (and maybe even comfort) in having Carl’s likeness to lean on at home!”

In assembling her teams, NPR’s chief marketing officer Emma Carrasco has marshaled dedicated designers, marketers, writers, and strategists, who are all ready and willing to add to NPR’s already massive fan base. No matter what project or projects they’re working on, they maintain a high level of enthusiasm since they’re not only NPR employees, but also fans themselves.

Additional Resources: Dynamic In-house Teams

  • Interested in learning the inner-workings of more high-profile in-house design teams? Don’t miss this in-depth profile on the United Nations Graphic Design Unit. Read about the U.N. 
  • The marketing design division of NPR is just one of the creative teams that bring the brand to live. In the January 2015 issue of HOW, you’ll find an in-depth profile on the digital design team responsible for many of the apps and sites NPR content consumers know and love. Get this issue.

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