How does Pandora know its users so well?

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With so much user data, how does Pandora apply that to better user experiences? It asks people what they like, taking insights from its 50,000-person Soundboard.

To say Pandora has a lot of data would be like saying the Atlantic Ocean is a little damp. Every day, Pandora collects more than 1 billion data sets, which it sorts through with a sophisticated ad-tech stack and a team of data scientists, as well as the Soundboard.

Pandora Soundboard

The Pandora Soundboard is comprised of more than 50,000 users, who are invited to participate in such a way that the panel’s demographics – age, gender, location, mobile-user – remain the same as those of the platform at large.

The curated focus group consists of large scale surveys and weekly engagement polls, in order for Pandora to learn more about what kind of products, experiences, movies and ads people like.

At first glance, that information might not seem relevant to Pandora. But it ties back to the music streaming platform, with both the advertisers and users in mind.

“We did a survey on barbecue sauces and what came out was that people love pairing music with food when they entertain. They’ll play a Pandora reggae station when barbecuing jerk chicken at a Caribbean-themed backyard party, so we’ll sell ads on our reggae stations,” says Keri Degroote, head of research and analytics at Pandora.

The barbecue sauce brands saw a lift, after their ads were served to people in a relevant fashion. And because those ads fit in with the overall experience, people generally didn’t find them disruptive.

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Another insight from The Soundboard that’s been helpful to advertisers is one that Degroote has found particularly surprising: 82 percent of millennial listeners are aware of brands sponsoring a live music event.

“That was shockingly high for me,” she says. “You think when someone goes into an event, they’re overwhelmed; there’s a lot of noise, there are a lot of people. But people do notice the brands that are sponsoring.”

According to Susan Panico, vice president of sales and marketing at Pandora, the fact that people are aware of sponsors at music festivals is one bit of helpful information for brands. Another is that 67 percent of the younger Soundboard panelists agree that experiences trump things.

“They would rather use their money to pay for an experience than to buy a thing. What this translates to is, the experiences they want have something to do with music; they love going to music festivals and concerts,” says Panico. “We’re able to really help advertisers not just think about what product to try to sell, but how they can turn that into a unique experience through the passion point of music.”

We’ve heard before that if “content is king, context is our kingdom.” Data is all about context; it’s helpful to know not only what people like, but where and how they’re engaging with a platform and its content.

Music and mood

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It goes without saying that music is linked with mood and other activities; when was the last time you saw a runner who wasn’t wearing headphones? Almost half of Pandora’s Soundboard respondents listen to music while they’re shopping online.

To get more granular, 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanic listeners use music to get pumped up before a soccer game. For males, the go-to genre there is rock; females, pop.

The point of the Soundboard is better personalization, which is what Pandora is all about.

“The entire music listening foundation is based on the music genome project – the data science that powers the next perfect song – which is built by human musicologists that have analyzed more than 400 attributes of every single song that goes into the database,” explains Panico.

And when you want to personalize an experience for someone, is there a more effective method than simply asking them what they want and what they like? Facebook is a treasure trove of data, but it’s filled with information that we choose to put out there, which might not necessarily reflect our real preferences.

Friends fans: remember when Ross moderated that game between Joey and Chandler, and Monica and Rachel to see which pair knew the other better? “Rachel claims this is her favorite movie.” “Dangerous Liaisons.” “Her actual favorite movie is…?” “Weekend at Bernie’s.

“It’s based on human truth and what people are actually doing in their daily lives,” says Degroote. “The Soundboard is exactly that extension. It’s not only to collect the human data, but it creates a dialogue with the listeners, and it’s how we build feedback. It’s something very simple we can do.”

Heidi Browning, Pandora’s senior vice president of strategic solutions, will be speaking at ClickZ Live San Francisco in August. Do you have your ticket yet?The Super Saver rate is available until Friday, June 24.

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