Media Buying for Higher Ed - A Conversation with Ryan Lieberman of iHeart Media

UNINCORPORATED recently announced a partnership with iHeart Media. I sat down to speak in more detail with Ryan Lieberman, a senior Vice President of Sales at iHeart Media, about what the collaboration will also us to do for higher education clients. Below you'll find a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation. You can also watch or listen to our conversation at the links below.

Watch the conversation:


Listen to the conversation:

Robert Johns: To get us started, why don't you just tell us a little bit about who you are and, and what you do at iHeart Media?

Ryan Lieberman: I'm one of the senior vice presidents of sales for the company. I'm based here in Southern California, but we help people all over the country. Our teams, no matter where they're located, are helping clients with our digital solutions. Not just helping them as far as sales, but also what you're going to hear a lot of today, showing attribution.

RJ: What I knew of iHeart was the radio station, the concerts, and stuff like that. So what is iHeart Digital Solutions and how is that different from some of the other things that iHeart does?

RL: I round it up to nearly 900 radio stations across the country are still the pride and joy of iHeart. It's the foundation of what we are. And some of these digital solutions really play a big role in those live events. From the jingle Ball that's coming up, to the iHeart Music Awards Music Festival, the Country music festival, Fiesta Latina. We have invested deeply in iHeart Digital solutions. We'll talk about our iHeart app, which is a monster and a beast within itself. And then moving into more of the sexy tactics like OTT and podcasting. 

RJ: We're a higher education agency and we're starting to recognize that it's becoming increasingly difficult to cut through the noise and reach an ideal perspective student. And it seems like more and more schools are competing for a smaller and smaller pool of these students, these prospects, which can make marketing very, very difficult and expensive and ultimately not very effective. And unfortunately, we've found that there are many organizations who have a set-it-and-forget-it type strategy, where they just create some ads, create their budget, and say, "We'll hope for the best." From what I understand, iHeart's very different in that approach. Not only do you have an extensive network with a bunch of different tactics and tools available. But there are also a lot of strategies that go into that. So I'm just curious how you've helped higher education institutions in the past and what solutions they're, they're using.

RL: We definitely have a long portfolio of case studies of working with higher education and not just working with them, but actually proving and showing results. We find our partners are looking to work and partner with fewer vendors, right? So that somebody can really work with them in all facets of this. One of the things that really sets iHeart apart is that we have subject matter experts for each individual digital tactic. So whether that's our social team, whether that's our SCM team, podcast, OTT, and so on and so forth. And I think that that is a significant thing to think about because that's what I think is the true muscle of iHeartMedia, right? It's, it's not just me, it's. You know, invisible people behind me. They're actually really doing the work on behalf of our clients and that is significant. Through the iHeart Radio app, we get first-party data. Not to say we don't use third-party as well, but for the most part, other vendors are not doing that at all. We have access to first-party data that we then share with our clients and partners, which is substantial. And the other thing that we've seen is the attribution. So when you talk about data, it's like, "What's working?" Not just click-through rate, but even getting deeper into what we wanna make sure that we're delivering on those KPIs that are most important to the client. We hit that right at the very beginning. To make sure that those KPIs and to set up the reporting and measurement to make sure we're delivering on those. Our dashboards and our attribution are fully transparent. Everything's in real time that we can either share with you or give access to you as well. We just think that's very important. And if I go even a little bit further, because some people say, "How do we measure things from an audio standpoint?" So audio means streaming via the iHeart app or audio from the podcast. The network that we have happens to be the number one network in the country. We are able to show attribution when we deliver an ad to somebody, an audio ad via those two tactics. We can measure if the person who listened to the ad then went to somebody's website, and went to the point of purchase.

RJ: Two things that stood out to me there. The first-party data, with everything going on in Facebook and iOS, and all the changes that happened there, I imagine first-party data is becoming even more and more critical and important to a sound digital strategy, so that's awesome to hear. Higher ed seems to be a bit of a slow-moving industry if you will. I don't wanna generalize, but many of them are the same as they've kind of been for a while. However, the internet, digital solutions, apps, and tools change what feels like every week. There's a new social media platform, there's a new podcast, there's a new widget or app. I'm just curious, how does iHeart keep up? What is iHeart doing to adapt to the new way things are being done? 

RL: It's absolutely a thing that's always evolving. To me, the most important thing, especially in higher education is that when we talk to our partners, we love to hear your feedback. But it sounds like there's, across the board, a struggle that admissions are down. And how do we combat that? Because a lot of the schools are doing it, whether it's on their own social media. They're curating their own social media or using somebody else for paid social media. They may be doing some traditional digital tactics. And so it is about what can we do to really stand out. And some of that is being a little bit more focused. What we do is a little more focused on who exactly it is that we're trying to reach. Where you want to reach them geographically. Do we wanna focus on specific areas, meaning high schools or community colleges? Things like that. But one thing that stands out that iHeart really has at our disposal is dozens and dozens are influencers. And those influencers absolutely parlay into the digital, right? In any higher education's backyard, there's going to be a local influencer. The original old influencers were radio DJs, and they have not gone away. They are still tried and true and trusted. Without a doubt and there's absolutely research to support that. And they can actually be part of a digital campaign.

RJ: I never thought of it like that, DJs as the original influencers. It makes total sense. I'm curious because I'm used to, growing up in the nineties, I might be dating myself a little bit here, but growing up in the nineties, radio was always in the car. Now many more people are maybe streaming Spotify or streaming the iHeart app. Do you find that people are listening to the radio on their phones now? Is that how it's kind of, is that how things are going? 

RL: Yeah, that's been the elevation of the iHeart app. The app is being used in several ways. One, they're listening to their favorite radio station, their favorite personality. No matter where they are, they can get. The other thing is they wanna maybe listen to their favorite artist or genre. We target people in all those ways. Streaming audio is probably one of the simplest of tactics that get overlooked, yet is so important, right? It's different than a radio campaign. This is not just where we're gonna deliver so many radio messages within a given week. We're guaranteeing you so many impressions over this time period based on geography and demographic. So if you wanted to hit someone of a certain age, we can do it in several different ways. We just want to hit that demographic within a certain area and we're gonna hit them and we don't care what they're listening to. So if they're listening to pop, if they're listening to sports radio, if they're listening to jazz, if they're listening to religious program or news talk, we're gonna hit them. So we take away a lot of the guessing game as to "what's my audience doing?" And then the other thing is we can target by genre.

RJ: One of the things that I thought was most interesting in the case studies that we were looking at was that you can recruit for a very specific program. A school could say, "we've got an MBA program and we're gonna target people who listen to these particular podcasts because we feel like that is the demographic who matches an MBA program at this school in, let's say Ohio." Which is pretty impressive. And something I don't think historically we've been able to do. 

RL: We can definitely have genre targeting for podcasts as well. By genre, we're talking about true crime, comedy, finance, entertainment, sports, and on and on. Or we target by geography. We've also built out for both podcasting and for streaming, what we call psychographic audience cohorts. Essentially, because we have so much data on our audiences, have been able to sort of build out audiences that we feel match a particular partner or client. So somebody that may be the ages of say, 18 and 34 that are into gaming and may also be into certain things that they stream, things they watch, where they shop. We've cultivated all that to create this audience cohort. That's another great way to go after people, both from podcasting and streaming.

RJ: Colleges are trying to recruit what are essentially high school juniors and seniors. Do you find that that demographic is engaged with the iHeart app and with iHeart radio or podcasts or concerts?

RL: From a radio genre standpoint, a lot of our top 40 contemporary hit radio stations definitely skew younger, so we definitely have those stations in most of our markets to hit on that. We have all the data from a streaming standpoint. So there's no guessing game. We're only gonna deliver based on who the client wants us to deliver to. And I think that when we also talk about hitting these juniors and seniors, I kind of go back to some of the more traditional tactics. But I think being able to have our digital display tactics, where we would geo-target high schools, that would be in the area that a school tells us to. And people who are within that imaginary fence, if you will, would be sent an ad from that college or university. We're tracking who received the ad and did they then click on that ad and come to the client site. So it's not about one thing, right? It's creating the right mix of tactics to create the overall campaign. 

RJ: I'm curious, what are some of the most interesting things you're seeing clients doing in the media buying space? We talked a lot about different approaches and strategies and tactics, but I'm curious if you have a specific example of something interesting that you've seen people doing in this space.

EL: The thing that we're seeing that is having the most engagement across the board is video. So whether that's a video that's engageable, from different forms of pre-rolls into videos that are part of social media, and then going into OTT.

RJ: Can you tell us what OTT means?

RL: OTT is we're serving streaming video to anybody who has cut the cord. So if you have a smart TV at home and you now are watching through a publisher like say Sling and the Fire Stick and things like that, the commercials you receive are considered OTT. I don't love the acronym, but it means Over The Top. The beautiful thing about that is once again, we are able to target people right to a zip code and by demographics and behaviors within that household. So when you imagine thinking about OTT, the average OTT Home has about seven devices because you have your big device, big TV that everybody is watching TV at, at home. Maybe two of them. And then you have your desktop. You've got a tablet, and of course, you even have your mobile device. So we can determine on a percentage basis, we have different programs determine how much we wanna deliver on the big tv, the big screen, and then to the other devices because they're all valuable and we wanna make sure that we're hitting on all those based upon how people are viewing. Let's talk about the Apple Watch. So from a streaming perspective, let's just say you're doing a workout or you're just on a walk or you're doing some things within the house or the yard. You have the ability to stream your station, what have you, and or stream the podcast you wanna listen to. I would say the amount of podcast listening at home is actually the highest, which was a little bit surprising.

RJ: Other companies could maybe potentially claim podcast advertising or social media advertising. If you had to maybe just zone in on one thing that like sets iHeart apart from the rest, what would that thing be? 

RL: It's the first-party data. When we think about the other streaming scenarios that are out there, a high majority of them are subscription-based users. Which means that they're not ad-enabled. We are 100% ad. So it seems like it may not be like this huge wow factor, but that is significant.

RJ: One thing I've appreciated is the dashboard experience and the reporting experience, which is robust. I will say, unlike maybe other potential solutions where you might get a few vanity metrics. People like to talk about clicks or impressions and those things can be good, but in many ways, they're vanity metrics. Did it translate to anything of value? So I think that is another way that iHeart stands apart is its ability to report and give full transparency on the data.

RL: We give people access to all the dashboards they can see in real-time, and it's a cool thing. I think the reality is, I don't know, maybe 5-7% of our partners take full use of it. And the reality is a lot of people have a job to do. They're running a business. Totally understand that. That's why it's part of our job to make sure that we're delivering those results and showing you the way in a very consistent manner that can be read in an efficient way and shared. In nearly 25 years of this business, I've seen a lot of different types of dashboards and seen how they've evolved. I think iHeart's dashboard is the best I have seen to date. And part of that is not just seeing, "Here are the impressions, here's your click-through rate", from your OTT standpoint, how those results are measured, and things like that. But one I love seeing is our heat map. So if you are a college or university within a certain area, this heat map, which you can zoom in and zoom out, you can see the exact areas where the impressions are being delivered. And where the ads are being clicked on. Knowing the data is important, but you can use that to optimize and change your strategy a little bit to improve things. That's where the real win is in my book. We wanna make sure that we're optimizing it and doing what we can.

RJ: We get the sense that marketing dollars are tight, and everyone's budget is getting smaller. And they might be hesitant or a little scared to spend their precious marketing budget on media buying. They'd rather do content and other things like that. So I'm curious if you had to make a pitch to somebody who says, "I've got very limited money, but I wanna try media buying. Can you help me take the leap of faith if you will?" What would you say to that person?

RL: Believe it or not, we actually do say "No" sometimes, because in certain scenarios, if the right budget isn't there for certain tactics, that we know it's gonna take to make things happen, then we have to say no. In some cases, can we start off small and do a test? Absolutely. But if there's not enough there to really be able to generate enough traffic for somebody then we have to say no. One thing we have as well is a plethora of case studies, especially in higher education, of digital campaigns that have worked with different tactics. And how they have worked, whether that be for an open house, whether that be for an overall admissions window that somebody was working on. So we have those that we're happy to share as well. At iHeart we don't sit here and have these contracts and we don't have these different terms. It's why reporting and those dashboards are so important. And as we move along, if we're finding we're not doing our job, and we can shake hands and say goodbye, but we are willing to put our best tactics and provide our best experts for your clients to put the campaign as our number one priority.

RJ: Ryan, thanks a lot for joining us today. It's been a pleasure. I know we're into the holiday season and it's gonna be maybe a little bit slower here, but I'm looking forward to 2023, I feel like it's gonna be an exciting year, so thanks again for your time.

RL: Anytime. Pleasure.


With unparalleled first-party data and best-in-class support, UNINCORPORATED and iHeart Media can deliver your message wherever your audience lands on the marketing funnel. Need help with your media buy? Get in touch with us today.

July 19, 2023
Older Post UNINCORPORATED x iHeart Media Newer Post Top Stories in Higher Education from 2022

Higher Ed News Brief

Sign up to get the top headlines in higher education every week.