Michael O’Shea is the President and General Manager of Sonoma Media Group in Santa Rosa, California. Many years ago, he told me something about how radio stations attempt to impact ratings that has stuck with me to this day. I’ll paraphrase a bit.
There are two numbers in the ratings share of every station—the number to the left of the decimal (as in the 4 in a 4.3 share) and the number to the right of the decimal (as in the 3 in a 4.3 share). The number to the right is impacted by the things radio stations spend the vast majority of their time on. Tweaking the music. Adding or removing a talk break. Giving away concert tickets. These are the tactical things that may take a station from a 4.3 to a 4.5 or maybe a 4.7.
What moves the number to the left of the decimal point–that is, what gets your station to make big improvements in its ratings? Strengthening your brand. Major marketing. A big format debut. A morning personality crossing a threshold of impactful connection with the audience. Large, momentum-shifting, buzzworthy things. That’s how stations go from a 4.3 to a 5.3.
Recent history draws our attention to two momentum-shifting examples in politics. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had well-produced campaign ads, high-profile endorsements, and, seemingly, a victory well in hand. But it was Donald Trump’s ability to shift perception through consistent repetition that changed the momentum and the outcome of the race. He did not and could not have won if he had dealt with typical things candidates do; e.g., policy papers and carefully crafted messages to appeal to the voters in the middle.
More recently, few expected Joe Biden to emerge as the 2020 Democratic candidate. Again, it wasn’t a snappy ad or one-liner at a debate that changed the game. Biden utilized a groundswell of support in South Carolina to shift perception of his electability.
Rather than just managing the minutia, I’d like to see the radio industry focus on impacting the public conversation.
Is this more challenging than ever? Yes. Does ratings compaction, particularly in PPM markets, make impacting the number to the left of the decimal point even more difficult? Absolutely.
If I owned or managed a radio station today, I would hire a marketing specialist specifically charged with getting media coverage. I’d make it a mission that my morning show would be such market authorities on pop culture and music that other media outlets would look to it for leadership. Last Friday morning, Charlamagne Tha God from The Breakfast Club, the morning show based at Power 105.1 in New York, interviewed Joe Biden. As usual, the show posted the interview on social media (The Breakfast Club has 4.4 million YouTube subscribers) and on its podcast. Towards the end of the interview, Biden says, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” This led to a controversy over his comments, regarding whether or not he is taking the African American vote for granted.
Sure, The Breakfast Club has massive reach now through its many channels, but the syndicated Urban juggernaut started as a local morning show ten years ago. It did not build a following and its influential sphere of influence by mirroring the template of other morning shows. The Breakfast Club made interviews a core part of the show design. Guests know that, as The New York Times writes, “No one who enters the studio or, now, joins a video call with any member of the hosting trio is safe from commentary and criticism.” The Breakfast Club calls itself “The World’s Most Dangerous Morning Show.” Safe companionship may be just fine for some morning shows. But The Breakfast Club knows even the chance something controversial and real could happen at any time is what creates lasting buzz and loyalty.
If your promotions staff spends too much time concerning itself with the prize closet or database emails, maybe it’s time to refocus. Maybe now, while there are no remotes, is as good a time as any.
The reason we track brand perception in our research is that perception is what matters. It’s what’s always mattered and always will.
Worry less about minutia. Make big, strategic brand decisions. Control the conversation. Change perceptions. The number to the left of the decimal point will follow.
As the world has turned upside down for the foreseeable future, the team at Coleman Insights has been engaged in conversations with our clients about how to navigate the new landscape. We recognize the ability of radio stations and other audio-based media to shine in moments of crisis, and there are already numerous examples of this occurring. On the other hand, we also recognize the lack of an “adversity road map.” There is no playbook that dictates how each brand should respond. Should you continue to deliver your format without any significant modifications? Is this a moment to break format completely and provide relevant crisis information instead? These are difficult strategic decisions. The specific choices are also hard.
Our consultant team has been having ongoing internal discussions about strategies for the audio entertainment industry. The result is the following special Thursday edition of Tuesdays With Coleman, a compilation of thoughts and ideas our team would like to share with you, with the understanding that there is no single solution for everyone.
Recognize unusual times call for unusual measures.
Everyone has something to contribute during a global emergency. Regardless of what your brand regularly delivers, your listeners are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and your response should reflect this. Your brand has a voice and a platform to be heard when listeners need it the most. Known, trusted personalities should play a major role and leverage the intimate connections they have with their listeners.
Consider the role of your brand in COVID-19 coverage.
Understand the need your brand fulfills.
News brands have a responsibility to provide comprehensive, relevant coverage. These brands might consider whether there are opportunities to go outside the typical format. For example, does more long-form programming or an increased number of updates make sense? These decisions should be determined by the role of the brand–in this case, being a provider of constant, reliable and trustworthy information during the crisis.
Listeners may be visiting your music station to get away from news coverage, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to stay connected. Does it make sense to employ a “We’re following the news so you don’t have to” approach? This allows talent to play a reassuring role; listeners can count on enjoying content on a music station without feeling like the world will pass by if they aren’t watching CNN or Fox News at that moment.
A full-service Adult Contemporary station may play a more personality-forward role of providing news and information. On the other hand, if your brand primarily provides comfort and escape, like a Soft Adult Contemporary radio station, constant news updates may be a harrowing intrusion and contrary to your brand. In fact, brands built on comfort and escape should lean in to that image, as it is particularly valuable when the real world is more chaotic.
Recognize that listening patterns are likely in significant flux.
If many people aren’t going to work or school, typical in-car commute listening levels no longer apply. What about everyone who is temporarily working from home? Or businesses that have been forced to close, like bars and restaurants? Will radio listening increase or decrease?
Reduced commuting will have a significant effect on listening patterns
With that in mind, consider the impact on how people may be consuming your station, podcast or streaming service and the programming options you may have.
With entire families now at home throughout the day, what about specialty programming geared to them during traditional at work hours? Should you do this on your main platform or would offering this through podcasts, separate streaming channels, etc. make more sense?
Aggressively promote all your listening platforms, keeping in mind that smart speaker listening is heavier at home than in the workplace and a surge of at home listening may be taking place.
Provide increased authentic and actionable listener engagement.
Listeners will find comfort in others going through the same issues. You may find yourself broadcasting from your home, which may be out of your comfort zone. Rather than trying to project a sense of business as usual, embrace the change! If the dog barks, the child screams or the husband sighs in the background, that’s real life. It’s exactly what your listener is going through. Let sharing be the mantra–you could, for example, have listeners upload pictures of their home offices to your social pages and share yours.
Find experts to feature on your shows. You don’t have to have all the COVID-19 answers yourself, and some of the best content is being generated by personalities across multiple formats interviewing those on the front lines of the crisis.
NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Director Anthony Fauci has been extremely media-friendly in providing crisis guidance
Consider taking more listener phone calls. Allow them to share feelings and information that may be valuable to other listeners.
Think about brand-appropriate actionable advice you can offer listeners that is applicable to the current environment (i.e., how to work at home while the kids are in online school, the best binge-able series on Netflix or which delivery services have waived their fees).
Modify your tone. Be empathetic to the new needs of an uncertain audience.
Rally your community.
In times of crisis, “Community” surges to a higher level of importance on the Image PyramidSM. As they would with aggressively promoting a Base Music or Talk position, brands should be going over the top with their community efforts. Build real community bulletins (here’s what is open, new hours for grocery stores, new restrictions, etc.). Be the voice of the community, invite listeners to participate and share as appropriate. Listeners will tell people where they can buy toilet paper (well, maybe they’ll share that information), who delivers groceries and how to find free learning resources for kids. Post the information on your website.
Don’t just think of your community as your market. Your community is your audience. A Hip Hop station and Classic Rock station will not rally the same communities, but each has the power to inspire, engage and activate their respective followers.
If you make a concerted effort now to think about what you can really do for your community and your audience, your efforts will create a halo over your brand when things settle down.
Consider reading two Tuesdays With Coleman posts in which we covered the important role of radio in a crisis:
Consumers make product decisions on words, not visuals.
When you look at or think about products, you don’t spend as much time evaluating them as you might think. You gravitate to the products that fit what you think you need and select the one that is most strongly associated with the need. This is where owning a word can drive a decision.
Words can determine how you’re perceived within your category or if you are perceived at all. In automotive, for example, Lexus is luxury. Volvo is safety. Despite the fact that many cars are just as safe as Volvo and some have done better in safety tests, Volvo still owns the word. My son just bought one, without even looking at other brands.
Although other automotive brands have improved their safety ratings, Volvo’s brand image for the word is strong enough to withstand it
Sometimes a big brand owns the most important word for a category, like Starbucks for coffee. In that case, you need an idea that differentiates you and the best way to do that is with a single word, not a long drawn out concept.
Word association works for radio stations, too. For music stations, your word needs to be the first to come to mind.
There’s a reason why so many stations in the Adult Contemporary universe use the name “Mix”. The name itself can aid the perception of variety.
Whether in name or positioning, the word listeners use to define your station must be simple and clear. “That’s the variety station.” “That’s the oldies station.” “That’s the rock station.”
When your brand is strong and you own a word, it becomes synonymous with the category.
If your radio station is solidly known as the variety station, it will be extremely difficult for another station to take the position away.
If you don’t have a word, think about words that might still be available that radio stations have never pursued or walked away from. Words that were once considered “too narrow” may be perfect for our modern over-communicated world.
If the format leader owns the category word, there are other options. Your station can have a word to own for part of the category.
For example, two Adult Contemporary stations can’t own the Mix/variety image. So perhaps it’s a word like “soft” or “easy” or “lite” or “upbeat” (e.g., “makes you feel good.”)
It may be challenging to own the word “Rock” but perhaps you can own “Classic Rock,” or “Hard Rock” or 80s and 90s Rock.
Your morning show might well be served to own a word too, and it starts by determining what image you want it to own.
Do you want it to be thought of as the funniest? Most outrageous? The most authentic?
To do this, you have to use the same Outside Thinking principles that guide station images. For example, if your station has an image for playing 80s music and you’re trying to capture 90s images, adding an extra 90s song or two won’t do it. You must use specific language that tells the audience the station now plays 90s music.
In the same way, it is not enough for a morning show to be funny. The word needs to dominate sweepers, promos, the show open and close, and so on. It might be “the funniest morning show in Phoenix.” Or, “now, more from Denver’s laugh-out-loud morning show.” Or, “The (name) Morning Show. The one that makes you LOL.”
If the show is meant to be a friendly companion, say that. Controversial? Say that.
And, say it with enough regularity to matter. There is not enough time in your listeners’ busy lives to think they will pick up subtlety.
Once your show owns a word, a show that tries to compete for the same image will be seen as an inferior copycat.
The importance of owning a word is more important than ever.
As digital media consumption increases, you may find your word begin to show up in places other than AM/FM radio.
If you don’t defend your word…or worse, if you don’t have one at all, it’s time to head for the hills.
As you listen to songs on Spotify, it learns your behavior and makes recommendations.
Up to six Daily Mixes include your regular listens and Spotify’s suggestions.
“Discover Weekly” and “Release Radar” list songs and new releases based on your listening habits.
Radio stations, meanwhile, program to the masses—a curated blend of songs chosen for…a lot of people.
Years ago, we developed a tool at Coleman Insights called Format Coalition Builder® that we utilize in our Plan Developer studies to create strategic road maps for radio stations.
We used to simply measure the appeal of music styles by having listeners rank each song montage individually. Programmers started asking us to think in terms of broadening the music as much as possible. While they wanted to play many different styles of music, the goal was to ensure that the coalition of music styles and eras they designed didn’t become too broad, ending up neither appealing to the narrow core or the occasional listener.
But we realized we had no ammunition about how to precisely answer this question; we had no clear way to measure which music styles were most important relative to each other. We wondered if we could look at the montages overlapping if we could discover how to reach the most available audience while at the same time alienating the fewest.
Rather than trying to play as many genres as you possibly can, there is an ideal combination that will reach the most people with the least polarization.
We designed Format Coalition Builder to focus on the extremes: Those listeners who are narrow core and the fringe who are not core but might Cume the station—the people most likely to love a music style and those most likely to hate it—and build coalitions based on it. In order to do this, Format Coalition Builder looks at the tastes of these listeners and creates an optimal coalition based on a determination of how much overall appeal each music style can generate, building on the appeal of the other music styles in the coalition. From this exercise of coalition building, we learn what the key styles are that we should be playing, and where to draw the line. Are there any that fall of a cliff? Which ones should we keep but play less?
Come to think of it, Format Coalition Builder and Spotify’s recommendations have a lot in common. To make a truly appealing and effective Daily Mix, Spotify needs more listening data than just one song or one artist. The more data it has to work with, the better the mixes get and the more daily mixes you have available. It learns what your coalitions are to make the best strategic recommendations possible.
In this increasingly personalized landscape, having the benefit of coalitions is perhaps more important than ever for radio. Coalition building prevents you from reaching too far or too narrow. You may be reaching too far, for example, if you play 10 styles. But you may be too narrow if you play two, and you won’t reach your maximum audience potential.
Of course, it’s not just Spotify that focuses on personalization—we see it in our lives everywhere. Spotify and other services use algorithms to figure out what its consumers want.
Netflix suggests movies and TV shows based on your viewing habits. Sometimes Netflix gets it right.
If you bought a blender on Amazon, I’ll bet they have just the right protein shake recommendation… even if you have never made a protein shake in your life.
Format Coalition Builder, however, isn’t an algorithm; it requires research specific to your station and strategy based on the expertise of the Coleman Insights team that is working on your project.
As 2020 gets underway, it is a good time for an evaluation. Are you A) programming your radio station to the masses? Or are you B) strategically curating the optimal listening experience for your audience based on actionable data?
I believe those who answer B will be in a much stronger competitive position.
It is fundamental human nature that when we see a correlation, we assume causation – in other words, because A happened, it must have been caused by B. In fact, we often invent causation when no concrete evidence exists. And this is a very dangerous exercise.
A perfect example of this in the radio industry is the interpretation of ratings data.
Let’s say the 3 PM – 7 PM numbers of the station you program took a precipitous dive last month. It’s like it came out of nowhere. You’ve got knots in your stomach. Your general manager is coming down the hall, and you know she’s seen the numbers. There is a logical side of your thinking which tells you that this is an anomaly. It is this part of your brain that knows there are myriad reasons why the numbers dipped. Could have been a change in the panel. A panelist’s family member may have fallen ill, taking him away from all that time in the car. Perhaps someone on the panel found a new podcast she liked. Or someone just got a connected car and has created some new Spotify playlists.
The possibilities, of course, are endless.
But in that emotional state in which you’ve just learned that the numbers took a nose dive, the logic is overwhelmed by emotion and you create a false causation.
“The music flow was wrong.” “The jocks talked too much.” “The competitor did direct mail.”
What you’ve done in this instance is so common, there’s a term for the two ways your brain processes information—System 1 and System 2.
Explained in great detail in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains how System 1 is our in-the-moment thinking. It’s the thought that comes to us “automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.”
System 2 is more complex and takes more effort, concentration and time.
When you think of the implications, you begin to realize the pitfalls and dangers of System 1. Because it strikes first, if we’re not consciously aware, our brains don’t even get the chance to process System 2.
In Chapter 10, “The Law of Small Numbers”, Kahneman offers a scenario. He gives an example of a study of new diagnoses of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States that reveals a remarkable pattern. He says, “The counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is lowest are mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South and the West.” He then asks, “What do you make of this?”
System 1 makes quick and easy conclusions.
You may infer, for example, that the low cancer rates in the rural population are due to clean living. No air pollution. No water pollution. Access to fresh food.
Now what if the scenario were reversed? What if you were told the highest incidence of kidney cancer are in counties that are mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South and the West?
System 1 has a rationalization for that too.
You might say the higher cancer rates are due to the poverty of the rural lifestyle, less access to medical care, too much alcohol and too much tobacco.
System 1 sees a correlation and creates the causation. The problem is, that should be System 2’s job.
In this example, when your brain likely went to “rural” or “Republican” to find the rationale, you may have missed the most important part—“sparsely populated”.
As Kahneman points out, large samples are more precise than small samples.
Small samples yield extreme, wobbly, unreliable results more often than large samples do.
You already know this. Yet you likely still looked to find causation, a reason, an explanation, in the kidney cancer correlation example.
Sometimes the power and influence of System 1 becomes so believable, it creates a widely accepted false narrative. This happened with misperceptions of the “hot hand” in basketball. You’ve seen players get “hot” during a game. Fans, coaches and players all buy in to the “hot hand” as fact. If a player sinks a few baskets in a row, they’ve now got a “hot hand”. When a player gets hot in the old NBA Jam video game, the basket catches on fire. Turns out there’s research on this. An analysis of thousands of sequences of shots concluded there is no such thing as a “hot hand”. While some players are more accurate, “the sequence of successes and missed shots satisfies all tests of randomness.”
Despite conclusive research that debunks the “Hot Hand” myth, System 1 thinking continues to accept it as fact.
This sample size of this research study was substantial, significantly large enough for reliability, yet we still believe in the hot hand.
You can see how System 1 can lead to false assumptions and causation on ratings days. There are small sample issues. There are countless variables. Yet we still say, “This must have been why it happened.”
Thinking, Fast and Slow—or System 1 and System 2—may be the best argument for perceptual research for radio stations.
Ratings can tell you whether or not your radio station is sick or healthy. Even so, with the exception of rare, unique events (like the way hurricane coverage affects news station ratings or the local team in the Super Bowl affects sports station ratings), it’s generally best practice to look at a long enough trend that incorporates a large enough sample size and accounts for variables.
Ratings cannot tell you why your station is sick or healthy. And they cannot tell you the prescription for getting better or staying on top.
Consider a perceptual study as part of your strategic plan, which provides substantial sample size, a high level of accuracy and a reliable glimpse of market tastes and perceptions.
In a world often dominated by System 1 thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to have some System 2 strategy?
When it comes to the former issue, whether or not to play deep tracks, here is an absolute truth—every radio program director or music director, at some point or another, has felt the allure of playing lesser-known songs or songs that weren’t hits on their station. It may be a caller on the request line, a salesperson or the programmer questioning himself. And when a PD has to make the decision on whether a deeper track makes sense, the first questions to ask are:
Who is your audience?
Why are they listening to you and what are their expectations?
SiriusXM, for example, has a deep tracks channel, where the perception Steve noted on the Yacht Rock channel would be reversed. If you hear a hit on the deep tracks channel, that would not be delivering to expectation.
This aligns with the very reason why Steve explains he was inspired to write the post in the first place.
“Yacht Rock brings me back to a happy, carefree time,” he says. “The role of the Yacht Rock channel for me is nostalgia. When a comfortable, familiar song like ‘Deacon Blues’ by Steely Dan comes on, for example, it makes me smile. I don’t want to have to use brainpower when I’m in this state. When a song comes on I’ve never heard of in this context, now I’m using parts of my brain to think about whether I know it and what I think of it. That’s not why I’m there.”
Rupert Holmes has one hit with staying power. This isn’t it.
Context plays a crucial role. AAA stations often have perception of more depth that may allow them to go deeper than a Hot AC station, for example.
If listeners expect their favorite songs on your radio station, the only way to satisfy them is by playing something familiar. But with deep tracks you can’t do that because the very premise of a “deep track” is that you can’t find one that appeals to everyone.
Here’s another example:
Years ago, I drove across the country listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival. I love CCR. My deep is CCR, so I can listen to songs that are unfamiliar to most. For a Classic Rock fan, someone else’s deep may be The Eagles and another’s may be Aerosmith. For a hit music station, the expectation, of course, is hit music.
We are in the business of satisfying customers (listeners) that come to our stores (stations).
We know through research that you can’t find any song—even the biggest, most popular hit song—that appeals to all your listeners.
And you certainly can’t find a deep track that appeals to all of them. Why would you minimize the percentage of customers that are likely to be satisfied?
Steve Reynolds makes a living coaching radio personalities, and he sees a parallel between program directors deciding which music to play and air talent deciding which content to feature.
“As you’ve said many times, Jon, every song is a marketing decision. Is that the song you want representing your radio station? Not just some songs. Every song. I tell air talent, every second of time you have on the station is like beachfront property. You’re the developer. What will you erect on the property? Is it the 4-story home with panoramic views of the ocean and a pool or is it an apartment with no views? Are we selecting our very best, most appealing content every time? It’s the same thing with songs. Are we playing our best, most appealing songs every time? If not, why?”
This doesn’t mean that you never take chances and color outside the lines. As referenced in “Should I Play That Song On My Radio Station,” you can be entrepreneurial in your own lane. You can’t be entrepreneurial in your fringe lanes.
As Don Benson, the former CEO of Lincoln Financial Media puts it, your format lane gives you license to introduce your audience to songs and even sounds they haven’t heard. When you play outside your lane, you risk losing listeners and may encourage brand erosion.
So when it comes to deep tracks, determine:
Who is the audience?
Why are they listening to you?
What are their expectations?
If, in this framework, playing deep tracks makes sense, great.
If not (and it most cases it will be “not”), remember you’re in the customer service business. Providing the most appealing product is the key to success.
The network launched the new Monday night strategy last night by debuting its new mini-series, Chernobyl. The plan is to schedule two hours of original scripted programming each Monday night.
This begs the question: Is HBO’s Sunday night programming successful because the shows are great or are they successful because of HBO’s strong Sunday night benchmark?
If you think it’s the quality of the shows, consider the current television landscape.
How many lunch conversations have you been in where a coworker mentions a series on Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu that you haven’t seen? It happens all the time at Coleman Insights. It’s not that they aren’t good shows—in most cases, they are arguably great shows— but when a show is available on-demand amongst a never-ending plethora of strong content, it’s just more challenging to create critical mass and buzz via a shared experience.
Clearly, HBO’s Sunday night benchmark—which they’ve now spent decades promoting heavily—matters. Will HBO now undermine Sunday with Monday?
Anytime you add more reasons to use a product you invariably undermine the initial reasons people have for using you. That’s not necessarily bad as it can make you more broadly appealing, but it does make you less special.
Maybe Monday is ok, meaning you can broaden your appeal and be special, but what about when Tuesday is added and it continues to dilute the importance of Sunday? Plus, as you add more programming it becomes impossible for them all to be as “good” or special as the original Sunday night shows.
Radio programmers inevitably find themselves in similar situations. Whether it is a station feature, morning bit or music, adding to the current recipe can be great, but it can also undermine the current focus of the station. To add or not to add?
One scenario is addition by music.
Radio stations are known for playing certain styles of music. Broadening into other music styles may be critical to stay in sync with everchanging music tastes. Adding music genres your station isn’t known for may work in the short-term, especially if the genre is currently very popular. But, stations can only extend that success and logic so far. When a station adds too many styles, particularly ones it is not really known for, it may no longer be unique. Product fit is diminished and the brand is diluted. Short term success can turn into unforeseen long-term problems. Ideally, your radio station should play songs that test well (High Acceptance) and fit your station’s brand (High Fit,) as illustrated in the Acceptance-Fit Matrix below:
Another scenario is addition by features.
Can a radio station add too many features? Absolutely, especially if it takes away from the promotion of the big, popular feature (i.e., “Phone Taps”) that is proven to draw listeners into the station. Music stations also fall into the trap of adding too much non-music content during the day, which gets in the way of the other content and dilutes the product. We often think we need to add more, when we simply need to market the best things more.
Your success is oftentimes driven by what makes you unique. Broadening your radio station may sound great in theory, but it can dilute your uniqueness and damage your long-term position. This is the risk for HBO.
When considering what to add to your radio station to make it more mass appeal, always consider whether the risk of losing uniqueness and diluting your brand is outweighed by the number of listeners you’ll bring to the station.
The concept of inversion is counter-intuitive to the way our brains work when we think strategically. Inversion is thinking backwards. Rather than thinking about what you need to do, or add, to achieve your goals, you think about what you don’t want to have happen—the worst-case scenarios—to create solutions.
Let’s say you have a meeting at your radio station because you want to create more innovation. You break out the whiteboard and start thinking about all the ways the station can innovate. This inevitably leads to innovation by addition—whether it’s new programming features, a new style of music or hiring a new jock.
But what if, in the meeting, you spend your time thinking only about what obstacles are getting in the way of innovation?
It seems we always try to add the new layer positively
rather than thinking about all the layers we created that are actually
How do we increase our midday numbers? Let’s add more features! But if we think of this in terms of inversion, or in reverse, we should consider whether or not the existing features are truly adding value and brand depth. Or, are they just creating clutter and an obstacle? We need to also consider the ripple effect of the additions we make. An additional feature means additional promos.
If the feature does add value and brand depth, it should
stay. But it should always be considered through that filter. And maybe in this
case, perhaps removing the existing feature(s) is the better move.
Business magnate Warren Buffett is a big fan of the inversion technique. Rather than saying “How can I make money,” Buffett would say “How do I never lose money?”
Buffett flips the mindset. Instead of thinking about what
he needs to do to make money, he
thinks about the obstacles in the way of making money.
Seems to work well for him.
Inversion can be tricky, because it’s not how our brains
have been trained to think. But when you use it to think about the opposite of
what you want and then use that to create solutions, it’s powerful stuff.
Think about some of your biggest challenges and how you
would approach them. Then flip the approach.
Buffett’s business partner, Charlie Munger, makes the case for inversion this way:
always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward.
What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do
you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail
instead–through sloth, envy, resentment, self-pity, entitlement, all the mental
habits of self-defeat. Avoid these qualities and you will succeed. Tell me
where I’m going to die so I don’t go there.”
Or, if you’d prefer, just follow the inversion wisdom of
George Costanza, made famous in the 1994 Seinfeld episode “The Opposite”:
George: “My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat… It’s often wrong.”
Jerry: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then
the opposite would have to be right.”
This Fall marks 10 years since Arbitron rolled out the Portable People Meter™ (PPM™) to the top 10 markets in the United States, following initial tests in Houston and Philadelphia (markets 11-50 rolled out in 2009 and 2010.)
An early version of Arbitron’s Portable People Meter (PPM)
A year after the rollout was complete, I wrote “Top Ten Things to Do as a New PD in a PPM Market,” a list of strategic guidelines for new radio programmers in North American markets measured by the Portable People Meter™.
Now that much of the radio industry has lived with PPM for a decade, let’s look back on the advice through a 2018 lens. New commentary is italicized.
1. Root all of your thinking first and foremost in the strategy of the station. Don’t go in with a PPM mindset; go in with the mindset of developing a brand by exploiting an available market position. Your goal should be to develop a strong brand and to make the station entertaining and focused. Once you know “who you are” and what your brand message is and how you want to communicate that to the audience, then start thinking PPM.
Especially in the first few years of the methodology, programmers focused a significant amount of time on PPM manipulation. Maybe, just maybe, we can squeeze an extra quarter hour here and there by playing the PPM game.
10 years later, I think radio strategy has generally reverted back to where it was, with brand focus as the most important component. The PPM panel is just as difficult to manipulate. Big brands are long lasting. Manipulation tactics are not.
2.Do a complete brand and content audit of the station. Don’t go to the office for the first two days or meet with staff. Stay at home or in your hotel and listen to and quantify all the verbal and non-verbal content. How much music do you play? How much do your DJ’s and personalities talk? What do they talk about? What are the features? Promotions? How does the station stage and image its music? What is the station’s positioning and how often do you communicate it?
What we learned in our 2008 study “Real PPM Panelists Tell All” was that every interruption had some detrimental impact on the ratings. The instinctive reaction of many programmers was to wipe the station clean – 30 second promos became 10 seconds, IDs were five seconds, jocks talked less.
What’s important to understand is that interruptions, while detrimental in the moment, can be additive to the brand. So, make sure every interruption has brand value. If it builds the brand, it’s worth it.
3. Rate all the content on the station on a 1-10 brand scale and a 1-10 execution scale. The brand scale means how each element on the station fits or resonates with the brand essence of the station. Does it fit with the images you want to project? Do the same with the in the moment execution. Is it entertaining? Tight? Would a listener stay tuned in that moment? Rate everything on a 1-10 scale. Anything that is low on both “brand values” and “in the moment entertainment” should be eliminated or tightened. Possible culprits might be DJ chatter that is not compelling. Sales promos. Worry less about content that supports the brand identity. Music features, entertaining DJ content from personalities who are well known and liked.
It’s always been challenging for PDs to subjectively evaluate content. In the moment, we overthink and overreact. By doing regular monitors on your stations, writing down each break and piece of content and rating it on a simple scale, it’s easy to quickly determine what’s brand additive and what isn’t.
4. Do an abbreviated analysis of your main competitors. What are they doing in music, talk, features, positioning, and spot placement? React to their programming tactics where it is smart. Know their pure programming advantages so you can cover them where it makes sense. One thing for sure is that you don’t want them to be tighter or better programmed for PPM than your station since small advantages can sometimes mean a lot when it comes to PPM performance.
Studying your competition as well as your own station is always a good idea. Prepare for your opponents like a head coach.
Preparation and data mastery helped Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl
5. Don’t be afraid to put on content that will impact the audience emotionally even if in the moment you cause some tune-out. There are two ways to build ratings and one is more important than the other. First, you can put on content that causes people to like your station. Content that causes an emotional reaction and a desire to be associated with your station. Second you can reduce “tune-outs”, those things that cause people to tune away for a minute or an hour. Both are important, but you should recognize that you can impact the ratings positively even if in the moment some people tune-out. Some things that cause a little short term tune-out will actually stick in the head of your P1’s and create a long term bond. Keep the things that are a 10 on the brand evaluation scale, even if a few people tune away when you do them.
As in #2, build the brand and accept in-the-moment loss. While even the strongest content may cause tune-out, it will grow your brand and ultimately grow the audience over time.
6. Understand the ins and outs of PPM ratings, including the fact that PPM, like diary, is research and not immune to statistical wobble. Really understand margin of error and then learn how to aggregate ratings for programming elements of the station. Know the numbers behind each number you look at like the difference between looking at a daypart with 20 meters and one with 100 meters.
The difficulties reaching potential panelists, and certainly the erosion of the landline over the past 10 years, has compounded this problem. By utilizing perceptual research, like our Plan Developer, you can track essential measurements like Cume and P1 with larger sample sizes than may be available with ratings. An added benefit of perceptual research is the ability to monitor your perceptual position in the market, including your strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.
7. Understand panel dynamics so that you don’t react to ratings increases or decreases that are a function of normal panel change or evolution. Sometimes ratings will increase a little just because you have a few more P1’s in the sample as a result of panel turnover. Sometime you will lose listeners. This is normal and you need to know when it is happening to your station. Don’t over-believe the good numbers and temper your reaction to the weak ones. They will more often than not be in a statistically valid range.
This has improved over time as Nielsen has provided and added tools to better understand and get a granular look at the panel.
8. Learn how to manage weekly ratings and expectations. All ratings have wobble and fluctuations. In diary markets, most GMs and PDs know not to overreact to monthlies or even whole books. But, in a PPM world there is often a belief that weeklies and monthlies have more credence than similar ratings spans in a diary world. However, with PPM, just like any research, there is random and normal fluctuation. So, you need to be able to set the table on how to react to weeklies, monthlies and ratings in general. Tell your new GM that you don’t want to look at weeklies or discuss them each week. Don’t download them at 11am each Tuesday and make it a big event. Look at them every three or four weeks.
Fortunately, the weekly obsession does not appear to be pervasive in 2018. But there is more focus now on meter count, and there’s still the danger of focusing on too much of this at the expense of brand focus and taking your eye off the ball.
9. Understand causation vs. simple correlation. Realize that every time your ratings go up or down it is not necessarily related to that hours, days or weeks programming. Often there will be a random correlation between a programming event and ratings. More often than not, it will be just a correlation and the two events will not be causally related.
Remember that listeners are not paying close attention to your radio station. They remember events selectively and select radio stations based on habit, needs, perceptions, language and lifestyle. More often than not, a correlation from event to ratings will be by chance, not because you caused it.
10. Experiment. If you don’t know for sure what causes your ratings to go up or down, experiment to find out. For example, if your hot rotation on currents is 3 hours, go to 2.5 every other week for 20 weeks. Divide your ratings in to two 10 week periods. See if the 10 2.5 hour rotation weeks show any ratings difference from the 10 3 hour rotation weeks. Do tighter rotations work or not? Aggregate enough weeks to have a statistically valid comparison. Also, if you do this, look at other variables that might be impacted. For example, does the burn on songs change with tighter rotations? Are there fewer or more highly popular songs?
A/B testing is all the marketing buzz, though testing of messaging has been around for decades! Just as Google and Amazon test the delivery of their product, there’s no reason why radio stations shouldn’t test theirs as well. Perhaps you try variations of clocks every other day. Maybe you play 200 songs one day and 300 songs every other day. Run stopsets differently every other day. Compile a year of ratings data and compare. If you really want to get granular with Nielsen data, do it over a long enough period of time to formulate actionable plans based on that data.
10 years after the debut of PPM in the top 10 markets and seven years after writing these tips, the general principles of successful programming haven’t changed. If you’re:
Always thinking strategically
Staying true to your brand
Maintaining focus and discipline
Testing and tracking results over time
…you’re positioned for PPM success in 2018 and beyond.
For radio program directors, the question of which songs to play and which to leave out is as old as the medium itself. If it was only about playing popular songs, radio stations would be broader than they are. Why is that? Well, just like restaurants don’t all serve the same popular foods and generally must choose what to serve, radio stations also focus on types, styles and eras of music.
Pizza Hut doesn’t sell hamburgers. CHR stations don’t play country.
Outback Steakhouse doesn’t sell Chinese food. Rock stations don’t play pop music.
Chipotle doesn’t sell pancakes. Hip Hop stations don’t play Taylor Swift.
These choices seem obvious, but are they always? How can a program director think about what to play when consumers listen to popular music and music that seems right for the format? How can they know when to stretch beyond the narrowest definition of their format? When can they take chances and when should they play it safe?
Just as they choose restaurants and most brands based on simplistic image perceptions, consumers also select radio stations based on an image they have of that station.
As we’ve illustrated in our explanations of Outside Thinking, that image may be formulated based on Type (like Rock, Country or Hip Hop); Era (like 80s, 90s or 00s); or Texture (like Hard, Soft or Upbeat).
But in the real world, not every song a station plays will meet the pure definition of the brand it represents to its audience.
Sometimes, a program director will want to throw in a song just to “freshen things up.”
Other times a song will reach such a high level of popularity in the zeitgeist, a program director may feel compelled to play it even if it is outside the format lane.
Program directors will fill their music tests with “fishing expeditions” to see what happens.
Every program director and music director is faced with the decision of whether or not to play songs on their stations and is left questioning if it was the right choice because of Fit.
You can be entrepreneurial in your own lane. You can’t be entrepreneurial in your fringe lanes.
What Don means by that is your format lane gives you license to introduce your audience to songs and even sounds they haven’t heard. When you play outside your lane, you risk losing listeners and may encourage brand erosion.
For most listeners, this isn’t a conscious thought process. In the moment, if they really like it, a listener may sit through a song that feels out of sync with the brand and wait for the radio station to return to expectation. If they don’t really like it, and it’s out of sync, the listener is less likely to stay.
The real danger here is, if a station plays out-of-sync songs too often—songs that aren’t consistent with its brand perception—the listener will lose confidence in the station’s ability to deliver what the listener wants.
The Coleman Insights Brand-Content MatrixSM dictates that the success of great radio stations is the result of two dimensions. First, the station’s brand strength—its top of mind awareness and perception. Second, its in-the-moment content strength—a function of how compelling the content is. The Brand-Content Matrix shows the most successful radio stations marry high-quality content with a well-established brand.
In many ways, the decision-making process on whether or not to play a song on your radio station can be handled in much the same way…using an Acceptance-Fit Matrix.
Ideally, your radio station will play a high percentage of songs that test well (High Acceptance) and fit your station’s brand (High Fit).
But, there always will be moments of questioning.
In the late 80s and very early 90s, for example, pop music took a milder, less edgy turn. During this period, artists like Richard Marx, Mike and the Mechanics, Wilson Phillips and Michael Bolton topped the charts.
How was CHR supposed to live without Michael Bolton?
For CHR stations, playing too much of this fringe ACish sound risked undermining their brand expectation. The expectations were edgier and had more tempo. The center-lane pop was from artists like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna.
Stations had to be careful how quickly and deeply to move into the fringe sound—not just for fear of brand erosion, but also the risk of making themselves vulnerable to attack by more focused formats like Hot AC or edgier stations like Hip Hop.
As the Acceptance-Fit Matrix indicates, if a song is outside your own lane, it had better be exceptionally popular to play it. A song that is exceptionally popular but not in the center lane is in the lower right quadrant. You may be able to get away with that. But, if it is only moderately popular it will be a tune out and will hurt your image.