Goli Sheikholeslami

President and CEO, Chicago Public Media

Goli Sheikholeslami is President and CEO of Chicago Public Media, the home of WBEZ. But she's leaving her post at the end of September to assume a similar position at New York City's public radio station, WNYC. In the past Sheikholeslami has served in leadership roles with Everyday Health, Conde Nast, Time Warner and The Washington Post.


So we launched a daily newsletter in September (2018) that has proven to be immensely successful. And so we have close to 90,000 people that get that newsletter on a daily basis. And we’re starting to build a direct relationship with those people because we know who they are, and we know how often they engage with us. It has an incredibly high open rate, and dwell time rate. So, it has close to a 28 percent open rate. And 60 percent of the people that open the newsletter spend 15 seconds or more reading it, which sort of is the metric of ‘Are people getting down the page?’

The second focus for us was really about making sure that the newsletter had personality, and it had a voice. So that the reader understood that there was an actual human being behind this newsletter, that it wasn’t just some randomly selected stories. And so our newsletter editor is, his name is Hunter Clauss, he has a very rich personality, which helps. You know, the newsletter starts out with just some comment from him that is just clever and engaging. And then it’s his excellent sort of curatorial taste. So, really making the decision of what gets into the newsletter.

So, we wanted to actually see: Do our donors, when they think about the money that they give to us, do they think of it as paying it for media? Or do they see it as like a philanthropic charitable donation? And what was really fascinating in that research is that it was neither of those. The thing that people said over and over again is the reason they give to us is because they feel like they are in a relationship with us. … It’s like there is this really strong affinity with our brand. And they see us as an integral part of their lives. And I think it’s really hard to replicate if you are a true subscription service, in that you can’t get access to the content unless you pay for it. You know, we really are the original ‘freemium’ model. Our product is free. No one has to pay for it. And so giving people the choice to support something that they value is, I think, at the core of what makes our program strong.

We’ve grown our member base by over 30 percent in the last four years because we’ve really been running it like a customer acquisition/retention business. We’ve now organized our membership team into a customer acquisition team, or a member acquisition team, and then a member retention team. ... We have very set goals about the amount of new members we need to bring into the organization. And then we are continuously working on improving our retention rates from our existing members.

We, for obvious reasons, have been doing a lot of work to expand our service beyond radio and audio. Or beyond terrestrial radio, to digital audio, and then also to … a text-based product.

We’re really focused on growing the audience. We still feel like there’s an opportunity to grow the audience to our traditional radio service. So, we actually, for the last year, and for the first time in the history of the station, have been doing an extended brand awareness campaign here in Chicago.

Google News announced sort of a partnership with some major news organizations at the end of the year for their Google Assistant platform. And so we’re one of the partners that is working with Google News to really figure out how people are going to want to consume news on these smart speaker platforms, for example. So, that, I would say is the most cutting edge because I think it’s just ... it’s so new. ... What is the news experience in a voice-activated world?

We’ve invested in building out a data warehouse, so that we can really start to understand the behavior of our (WBEZ) members, and understand who they are, so that we can do more one-to-one direct-to marketing to our members. You know, again mostly for retention purposes. But also for the purposes of getting people to increase their giving over time. So, that’s something that we had never done in terms of really starting to use data, and data analytics to message, and market more directly to our members, and to prospects. And we're also building a prospect database. So, as important as the newsletter is to our editorial strategy, and our audience strategy, it’s also critical to our membership strategy. ... Sixty percent of the people that are signed up for our newsletter are not members. So, all of those people are now prospects in a prospect database.