Virgina Sharma on The Orbit Shift Podcast

S01E03

Virginia Sharma — Startup lessons from JioSaavn, the largest streaming platform for South Asian music and audio entertainment

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Virginia Sharma, VP, Brand Solutions at JioSaavn talks about the founding of the Saavn app, how they combine data and art to make decisions at JioSaavn and how she sees marketing evolve in the future.

Virginia Sharma, VP, Brand Solutions at JioSaavn, walks us through the founding and development of the Saavn app, how they combine data and art to make decisions at Saavn, her forecast for podcasts, the value of “edutainment,” and the reason why AR Rahman collaborated with U2 shortly before the bands’ debut performance in India.    

JioSaavn is the largest streaming platform for South Asian Music and audio entertainment. Virginia spearheads the company’s global digital ad monetization efforts across platforms, and she’s responsible for driving the adoption of JioSaavn’s advertising solutions for brands. Having worked in the US, Singapore, Japan, and India, she brings a global perspective to the digital entertainment company. She’s one of the top leaders recognized by different media outlets, and she’s got over 20 years of experience in leading marketing and sales teams. 

Q. Tell us about the JioSaavn journey?  

Virginia: I’ve had the opportunity to be at JioSaavn user and listener for over a decade from when I used to be in the US, and it was our only access to Hindi and Bollywood. 

Saavn started as a B2B media company, and it was all about digitizing Indian music and distributing it to American services like iTunes, Hulu, and Amazon, back then, over a decade ago. The service was making good money off of this, almost about $100,000 a month, just from iTunes downloads. But the aspirations of the founders were big. 

They realized that there was a growing demand for Indian music, especially Bollywood music and also regional music. So they launched Saavn.com in 2009 and, in 2011, the mobile app. What’s interesting was when it was launched, it was a free music streaming service. The founders saw the Indian music industry as quite fractured across multiple languages in multiple regions. And bringing it all together under one platform was complicated. Nobody had really done that for Indian music in the past. 

There were also other subtleties about Indian consumer behavior. Consumers would use the name of the actor or the actress from the song or the movie’s name to search for songs and not the actual singer or the music director. So the real use case that they thought about was why not build a service where you can search for anything, the song title, the name of the film composer, the actor, and even if you misspell it, we would be able to find that song for you. 

The test that one of the founders did was he gave the early prototype to his mother and asked her to search for a song from her youth. And she was able to find it. 

Q. How do you bring data and art together, and how does it influence the decisions you make? 

Virginia: We’re an equal part data and a music company. Our founders talk about eating technology for breakfast. When we look at content and producing content, we look at who the audience is, what the demographics are, and you have to listen to the data. 

We do sit on rich insights about what the audience in India is with 100 million-plus monthly active users and 18 million daily active users. With the pandemic, there were many things that we learned. Number one was there was an over 500% increase in throwback hits. If you read a lot about the neuroscience of music, you’ll find that the most important part of our music history as individuals is our teenage years because it’s connected to a part of our brain, where the most dramatic things happen to us. During the pandemic, people went back to a place that needed to be familiar and comforting. 

If you look at the data back from January 2020 and compare it to March, April, and May 2020, you’ll suddenly see a lot more 90’s searches that were popular. We also saw a 155% increase in kid’s content. This was no surprise to many of us who have kids. When you’re working from home, people need to find ways to parent and work but also to entertain their kids. 

We also saw a decrease in dance and media music, and the radio industry was really impacted because nobody was commuting. COVID also changed how music was being consumed; people were now listening to music throughout the day rather than at regular time bands in the morning and evening when they commute. These insights informed our future product roadmap, and we were quite opportunistic using this data. 

Number one was we created all-day playlists with eight hours of music. This is important because 77% of content consumed on the platform largely is editorially generated music. People think that they have their own musical identity, but largely, they play one song, and then they let the algorithm and the editor takeover. So all day shuffles became an important unit for us. 

The second thing was we launched a show called Raising Parents. And that’s been doing extremely well. The third thing that we did was focus more on peaceful music with our original artists. 

Another example I can give you was when we brought U2 to India. U2 did not want to come to India until they knew they could successfully sell out a whole stadium. So our team worked with their team, and looking at the data, we realized that they weren’t doing very well from an artist rank perspective. They might be big globally, but they’re not big in India. 

What we did is we leveraged the data that we had, and we figured out that the best way for them to enter was to combine U2 with a musician or an artist that would attract Indian audiences. That’s where we pitched the idea of Ahimsa with A.R. Rahman to U2, and they loved it. So when you look at the data and the ticket sales, the first wave of ticket sales was just U2, and then the second wave was when we released the track Ahimsa on the app. Then we opened up more tickets, and the concert did sell out. Many of you may have attended the concert, but you may not have realized why U2 got together with A.R. Rahman. It was because of the data on JioSaavn. 

So connect the dots on the data and understand that there are short-term insights that you should act on, but that should not become a long-term strategy. 

Q. How do you see marketing evolve into the future, especially as we deal with the pandemic and the new normal?

Virginia: Marketing needs to evolve and learn how it can be fine-tuned. What happened during the pandemic was that there were a lot of kneejerk reactions. There were a lot of brands that cut marketing budgets and focused purely on performance marketing. On the other extreme, some brands were so skittish about marketing that they did these generic ads in these unprecedented times that left people confused. So both extremes of being only performance-focused or only being super high level don’t really work. 

What we saw that worked well on our platform was this idea of not just being purely educational or purely entertainment. But this idea of edutainment. You would usually see this in the context of kids and how you could teach kids in a gamified way. 

The brands that were agile, and evolved their content, were the ones that were able to break through the clutter and find the right pulse of the audience and appeal to them. 

So don’t swing too far to the extremes of branding only or performance only. Land somewhere in the middle where you can really take the edge off of everything that’s going on in the world.

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