James Kotecki (00:08):
This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki, bringing you an interview that I recorded live at the C Space Studio at CES 2023. Enjoy.
Hey, I'm James Kotecki. You're live, very live in the C Space Studio here at CES 2023, and with us with is a returning guest to the C Space Studio. Welcome back, Lizzie Widhelm, SVP of B2B marketing and Ad Innovation at Sirius XM Media. Thanks for rejoining us.
Lizzie Widhelm (00:39):
So good to see you.
James Kotecki (00:42):
A few things have happened since we last talked, but I want to start, as I usually do, with having people define their brands. Sirius XM people are probably familiar with the brand on some level, but what's the overall statement of what the brand means in 2023?
Lizzie Widhelm (00:56):
Well, last time I was here, I was here with Pandora.
James Kotecki (00:59):
That's right.
Lizzie Widhelm (00:59):
And Sirius XM acquired Pandora. So we are a house of audio brands, the biggest in the business. Obviously Sirius SM, best in satellite, Pandora SoundCloud, best in streaming, and since I saw you last, we acquired Stitcher, which is the leading brand in podcasting.
James Kotecki (01:14):
Lizzie Widhelm (01:14):
Yeah. So we have the largest podcast network in the United States and in Canada. So our mission is to deliver the best in audio to our customers and to deliver access to those customers for our advertisers. But I'd say the newest mission, which is fun for me and a stretch as a marketer, is to engage the audio creator and the audio storyteller and help them come into this ecosystem. Podcasters are new to this. Some big time celebrities, like Kevin Hart, some people you've never heard of that have these great shows that are growing. So it's the wild world of audio.
James Kotecki (01:51):
And so when you're engaging audio creators, what tips or advice are you actually giving them? Are you advising them on how to monetize, how to read and ad, how to engage their audience in a way that seems natural?
Lizzie Widhelm (02:03):
Everything. Some of them, the OGs of podcasting, have been doing this for many years, and they understand their voice, and they're very specific with how they're going to engage with their customer, their community, their audience. And so sometimes, it's taking their lead. It's their show, it's their audience, it's their authentic connection. And I can't, like in music, just interrupt every six songs. So when it comes to monetization, we have to take an approach that's a little bit more thoughtful, but at the same time educating them on what advertisers need, which is measurability, scalability, something that is at least hopefully a little effortless to buy. So we're an enabler in that conversation.
James Kotecki (02:42):
What's the hardest thing to teach people how to do?
Lizzie Widhelm (02:45):
Let go of their norms on both sides. Creators feeling a very specific way about how brands are going to fit in their show, and advertisers having a lot of rules around how their brands should show up, because at the end of the day, the person they both care about most is the audience. So they're mutually aligned in who they want to benefit, yet sometimes, that's the challenge is to help them get there.
James Kotecki (03:11):
Can you give me an example of where that works well?
Lizzie Widhelm (03:14):
It works well when we come at it from a place of the listener. We study all of our listeners. We just announced a female podcast listener report. We've done a black podcast listener report, which we're going to refresh. And so I come to it from a place of data. Here is what the audiences want, here's where the audiences are. Podcasting is growing around women, young people, multicultural audiences. So I'm just there to act as an educator and then hopefully to take some of those best practices. We've been at audio for, I've been in it for 17 years. We've been an expert in how to do audio AdTech, how to insert ads in ways that make sense, how to delight the listener. So I just come from a place of data-driven experience, and it's different every time with each creator.
James Kotecki (03:58):
That's absolutely true. I'm not sure if this question is going to make sense, but is the definition of podcasting itself changing? Technically, what it is, it's audio delivered in a certain format. I suppose that's not changing, but is what it means to have a podcast or listen to a podcast changing? We think of this individual experience that most people have putting on their headphones and listening to it solo, maybe you're in their car, maybe with one other person. Is anything changing about that?
Lizzie Widhelm (04:28):
100%. Everything's changing, and here's why.
James Kotecki (04:30):
I'm glad I asked.
Lizzie Widhelm (04:32):
Yeah, I am glad you asked. The ubiquitous opportunity to touch and reach listeners via audio, it's great. We saw huge changes during COVID. Obviously, we're here at CES, all these connected devices, everybody has a speaker, an earbud in their ear. So there's a huge opportunity if you're a content creator, whether you're a TikToker, whether you're NBC, who has a show like Dateline, to extend your content offering through audio. But everyone comes at it with a different approach, scripted, that would be a Dateline example, Tinks, who we found on TikTok and brought her into audio, she started as a social media influencer, and we're teaching her how to be an audio influencer and an audio storyteller. She has a Sirius XM show, she has a podcast with us, and then all the way to an Ashley Flowers, who is the number one podcaster in the world. She started in podcasting. She's the queen of true crime. So they're all coming at it from different vantage points, but they each see one thing, which is the value of leveraging audio to gain all of this time spent with their audience, which ultimately benefits their business.
James Kotecki (05:35):
When we think about traditional post-read advertising, that's kind of a longstanding part of what it means to have a podcast or can mean, but obviously, AdTech in this space is significantly evolving. So what's the latest on AdTech here as far as as how you're using it and using that to integrate ads into shows?
Lizzie Widhelm (05:52):
And we've been invested in AdTech for a very long time. We've homegrown and built our proprietary AdTech stack from the ground up, so we understand very deeply how hard it is to get audio right. When it comes to podcasting, we've had to get really smart about targeting. The music space, and before privacy and identity challenges that are now very prevalent in our industry today, the ability to leverage first party, third party, and really understand who these audiences were in a walled garden, like in the example of Pandora, which is where I was here two years ago, three years ago now. Wow. Talking about it, that's not where we're at today. We're in a distributed world. We're having to build AdTech that can understand wherever the listener is, and then we're having to build new models and new frameworks to understand identity, and it's really coming through AI and transcription targeting.
So we're reading every single show that comes in with AI. We're understanding how to tag these shows, and then we have to build the AdTech and the insertion logic to go at those contextually relevant topics. The challenge with podcast AdTech is you have to sell something before you've heard it. I'm selling a show that I haven't even heard the episode yet. So the speed with which you have to transcribe a show, take that metadata, put it in your data warehouse so that you can effectively target ads based on what our advertisers want is a huge challenge. This isn't just going to accidentally happen. We're really investing in that area, and we're very far ahead of the curve there in terms of our competitive set, and it's another example of how we're leading.
James Kotecki (07:24):
And it involves a lot of trust from the advertiser to you, from the advertiser to the hosts and creators of the show, that the kind of thing that they've heard before that makes them want to advertise on that show or that makes the AI recognize what the show is going to be somewhat consistent. When creators work with you on this, is that a challenge for them to make sure that they stay consistent in a way that creates that level of brand trust?
Lizzie Widhelm (07:49):
No. We 100% don't have anything unsafe across our network, so no hate speech, nothing that an advertiser wouldn't want to associate with. Now finding those contextually relevant moments where the creative's going to make sense, yeah, that's what we're helping to do, but we really tell the creators you do, it's your show. They tend to stay in and around the same subjects, right? So relationships or sports or news or Conan O'Brien is a big partner of ours, and we bought Team Coco recently, and so we love comedy, and we think there's a huge space for comedy. But yeah, understanding all the different targeting elements that have to be there for the specific brand safety that each brand is going for, that is our job. And we don't think that's the creator's job. We just want them to talk to their audience and continue to grow.
And then what's cool about that though is advertisers think they want to be in a show, and we can say, actually there's six other shows that are after that same audience that you would love. And then over time, we get them used to some of these shows, they see performance, then we can do really cool custom stuff, right? We can do events with creators, we can do custom episodes. So there's more space to be creative, more so than in music actually, which is what is really where the fun starts.
James Kotecki (09:02):
We're talking about using AI to read these episodes and insert ads. Are you planning on a future where you're using AI to actually create these ads? We've seen in the last year, an explosion of technologies indicating, okay, maybe AI isn't there yet to fully create this stuff, but it's going to continue to enable people, and we're going to continue to see a progression there as far as visuals, but also in terms of writing, in terms of audio with kind of voices that you can replicate with AI. Are you planning on that future?
Lizzie Widhelm (09:27):
We're there. We're already there. So we've been doing a lot of testing using everything from ChatGPT to synthetic voice. I did a little experiment about, I guess it was three or four weeks ago when ChatGPT was making a lot of buzz. Was that right before Christmas, the first week of December. And I took an audio brief that we were working on that we were having an internal copywriter and some creatives build ads for, put it into the chat AI, produced a bunch of copy. And then we have an experiment happening internally, because we have an innovation lab within our engineering team, and we have a set of synthetic voices that can then take that copy and record an ad. I was able to go from audio brief to a finished ad in 90 seconds.
James Kotecki (10:11):
And could people tell the difference? Could listeners?
Lizzie Widhelm (10:15):
No, I don't think you could, but it wouldn't be the end all be all. It would be a part of a strategy. And I think there's a lot of work we can do around multiple different voices, leveraging the technology to spit out different variables based on audience. So give me copy for a teenager, give me copy for a mom, give me copy against the same audio brief.
James Kotecki (10:35):
Sure, hyper-specialized [inaudible 00:10:35].
Lizzie Widhelm (10:35):
But the technology's there. Now, it's just integrating something like ChatGPT into our world and then having our teams figure out how could that be self-served? And that's a lot of our focus and we think where there's continued growth for new advertisers coming into podcasting. And we haven't talked about that, but we need a lot more diversification of ads and brands in the podcast ecosystem, so we're not hearing the same offers, over and over again.
James Kotecki (11:03):
I love stamps.com, but you know ...
Lizzie Widhelm (11:05):
You've had enough. No more awareness needed.
James Kotecki (11:10):
Actually, I don't want to slam any brands on this show necessarily, but I do want to ask you from your personal perspective as a podcaster, we've been talking about this from your perspective in the business, but you also have a podcast. Can you tell us a bit about that and what that's been like for you to do that yourself?
Lizzie Widhelm (11:24):
I do. I've been in this business for a long time, and I love audio, and I wanted a creative outlet. So a girlfriend of mine from high school, we're the same age, but have two very different lives. She is single, living in the Bay Area, working in venture capital. We know what I do, and I'm a mom of three, I didn't mention that, and been married for 20 years.
James Kotecki (11:24):
Lizzie Widhelm (11:42):
And so we have a show called Lady Space, and I get to bring a totally different version of myself to that show. It's not that I couldn't bring that to work. Sirius XM is a very safe space to work, and you can bring your whole self. But me giving ideas about, we just had an episode where we tackled how to get a raise and how you should go about a review with your boss and all the mistakes that young people make. And we rant. I mean we free wheel quite a bit. And we have an amazing community, mostly of women, although I run into men now, and they're like, "I love your show. It teaches me so much about my wife." But it's a different version of me, and I think that's beautiful that I can do that and I love it, and we have a really strong listener base. So it was something we started as a pet project, and not that I'm quitting my job anytime soon, but it's doing really well.
James Kotecki (12:29):
Congratulations on that. Lady Space, wherever fine podcasts are available.
Lizzie Widhelm (12:32):
Yeah, you can find it everywhere.
James Kotecki (12:33):
I assume. Well, Lizzie Widhelm from Sirius XM, thank you so much for joining us today.
Lizzie Widhelm (12:40):
Yeah. Awesome to see you again. We'll do it next year?
James Kotecki (12:41):
It's been great to have you back. Please do come back, yes.
Lizzie Widhelm (12:43):
It's been a three-year gap, but I've done a lot, so I better get really back to work this year.
James Kotecki (12:47):
2023 is going to be a big year. We're going to have a lot to talk about next year.
Lizzie Widhelm (12:47):
James Kotecki (12:51):
Well, I hope you enjoyed that live conversation from CES 2023. Look up the CES C Space Studio for more conversations like that and get even more CES at ces.tech. That's C-E-S.T-E-C-H. And of course, please subscribe to this podcast so you don't miss a moment. I'm James Kotecki, talking tech on CES Tech Talk.