Sarah Foss – Entercom
Most people have come to expect that companies will recommend similar products to them after buying—or even looking at—something online.
Phrases such as “others who bought this also liked…” have become commonplace. Sarah Foss, however, doesn’t give people what other consumers want. She knows the value of tailoring suggestions specifically to individuals to give them what they want, when they want it.
Foss has only been the CIO of Entercom, a national audio entertainment company headquartered in Philadelphia, since September 2020, and she’s already changing how it uses data to serve listeners and improve ad strategy.
Drawing on almost 30 years of experience working in media and technology, Foss has seen dramatic change in the industry and has come to understand people’s growing desire for a customized experience. With audio becoming increasingly popular, she’s leveraging data to build and maintain Entercom’s consumer base.
“Audio and radio are really going into a renaissance period,” Foss says. “We’ve seen with COVID that people are really enjoying talk radio, music and podcasts more. This resurgence is giving us so many opportunities to meet the listener wherever she is.”
Connecting the dots
Entercom is a leader in the audio industry, owning over 230 radio stations in 47 major U.S. markets. It also operates digital audio platforms, including Radio.com and a network of original podcasts, and produces events, such as concerts and live interviews and speaking engagements.
According to Foss, Entercom has always used data to shape its offerings, but it’s now moving in a “data first” direction—using it as a business accelerant, instead of just a business intelligence tool.
Foss’s strategy gives advertisers deeper insight into the people they’re targeting. In the past, advertisers would come to Entercom wanting to target certain demographics, such as age or gender, or areas of interest: politics, sports, travel and so on.
Using data from radio call-ins, email contests and ticket sales, Foss helps advertisers reach people based on a cross-section of metrics—as well as when and how they listen. The goal, she says, is to give both Entercom and its clients a clearer picture of who listeners are and what they want, helping “connect the dots between data and ad success.”
Entercom also brings the added value of having local, regional and national reach, so advertisers can target as widely—or as narrowly—as they’d like.
Still, collecting and disseminating data on that scale isn’t without its challenges. Part of Foss’s responsibility, achieved with the help of Entercom’s security partners, is protecting private data first and foremost. By leveraging cloud technologies, Entercom is embracing the “no-movement” data philosophy with critical advertising partners.
“We have a strong connection with our listeners, so it’s really important that we maintain that trust and transparency,” Foss says. “When we’re working with advertising agencies, we are keeping privacy and security of data in a place where we can still match and share information to better increase the experience without sending data directly.”
In addition to helping advertisers reach their intended audiences, Foss says it’s important that listeners are interested in the ads.
Understanding what people consume—be it music or podcasts—and what topics or genres they’re interested in is just as important as when and where they listen. If the data shows that someone enjoys listening to news podcasts on their drive to work in the morning and prefers pop music at the end of the day, Foss wants Entercom’s recommendations to reflect those preferences.
It’s that kind of holistic approach that helps ensure both parties are happy.
“We’ve seen through our analytics that people want advertisements that are relevant,” she says. “What they don’t want is the stuff they don’t need. The closer we get to our listener, the more we can ensure we’re giving her content she wants.”
Being specific is important, she says. Consumers don’t just appreciate when companies have strong attention-to-detail; they’ve come to expect it as the norm. Over the course of her career, Foss says she’s “witnessed seismic disruptions in media because of technology”—a trend that’s made it easier to track what users like and want.
As technology has gotten smarter, the desire for instant gratification and control have increased. People don’t want to waste their time looking for something to listen to, only to be bored or disappointed, Foss says. They’re looking for their new favorite thing—and they want the suggestions to come to them.
The goal, Foss says, is for listeners to believe Entercom truly understands them. She says the company’s been successful in this so far as it’s seen a significant increase in new and repeat consumers.
Foss doesn’t see Entercom’s growth slowing down. Nor does she envision a future in which people care less about personalized content. She thinks that as new technology develops, consumers’ expectations will continue to rise and that they’ll want new ways to share content and engage with their favorite talent and topics in real-time.
To keep up with the demand for innovation, Foss wants to gather more specific information about listeners and give them more control to customize their entertainment. She also wants to continue leveraging Entercom’s digital platforms to help advertisers reach consumers by extending content and creating content tie-ins to increase value for advertisers and listeners.
Despite being in the industry for nearly three decades, Foss’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned. Since “graduating as a young pup” with a degree in communications, she’s held numerous positions—starting in broadcast engineering and making her way into software development.
Now in her first CIO role, Foss sees her goals and approach as somewhat nontraditional. She’s deeply passionate not only about the technology itself, but about how it impacts the people using it.
To that end, she works closely with advertisers and vendors to connect with audiences on a deeper level. In January, Entercom developed an initiative for advertiser Ford to provide vehicles for nonprofits on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Part of the thrill for Foss is seeing what technology makes possible for internal users as well as listeners and advertisers; many of her acceleration initiatives are for new enterprise solutions and integrations.
“I’m constantly learning and growing and understanding how to use technology as a growth strategy for media companies,” she says. “I love that. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
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