It has been more than three years since the last PPM-measured markets were launched in the US and Canada. As an industry we have learned a lot about ratings, most of which has been good for radio. However, reflecting on what we have learned, I wonder if we are focusing so much on reducing tune out that we have ignored or paid insufficient attention to what makes a person a loyal fan. And, I wonder if part of the declining loyalty to radio stations as evidenced by a decline in listening to the medium as a whole is a function of reacting incorrectly to the data we generate from PPM.
PPM is great at measuring audience. I think everyone will agree that it has shown us that there is a big difference between what people think they are listening to and what they are actually are listening to. PPM has also helped radio cleanse itself of a lot of self-serving programming “junk” that stations used to run because pre-PPM there was no evidence that it was hurting the ratings.
However, I think that PPM may have caused radio programmers to become slaves to the “in the moment” and lose track of what really builds ratings. I know from all the research that Coleman Insights does is that what really builds ratings is not eliminating every possible tune out, but rather offering emotion-evoking reasons people can love the station. When people like or love a station they tune into it every day or even several times a day. When we reduce tune outs all we do is “maybe” save a quarter-hour. We don’t build loyalty. People don’t come back to a station tomorrow because of a reduced tune out today.
Furthermore, I have become convinced that when radio programmers only focus on reducing irritants they run the risk of eliminating the very content that builds loyalty. I am talking about things like personality talk, morning show bits, midday and evening program features, new songs, community and charity events, etc. Some of these programming events may be the very things that create emotional responses and cause a listener to become a fan. Yes, a small percentage of the audience may tune away from some programming, but if half of the audience hears that same content and becomes addicted and listens every day, that will quickly compensate for a small amount of “in the moment” loss.
This can happen on a small scale with a station feature or on a large scale with a major community service event like a radiothon.
Of course, there is a tension between the impact in the moment and the brand value. I think of it like an XY graph, where the X axis is the in the moment audience value, from negative to positive and the Y axis is the potential brand value from low to high.
Some events may be positive on both dimensions, others negative on both dimensions. Decisions based on that insight are easy. But the reality is that there is a lot of content that is not as clearly located on the “in moment/brand matrix.” This is content that may show a little loss in the moment, but is very positive for the brand. What do stations do with this content? Are they willing to stand behind the value to the brand and keep running the content no matter what PPM says?
There is an old story about the ratings of a radio station and how ratings are built that I learned years ago from programming great Michael O’Shea. He taught me that in the share of every station there are two numbers, the number to the left of the decimal point and the number to the right (e.g. 6.0, 6.3, etc.). He told me that the number to the left is affected by the big things that a station does, like what it is known for and the big benefits the listener gets from the station. The number to the right is based on the tweaks and minor modifications that the station does to the music, the commercial sequencing, etc. You can make a mediocre station only slightly better by working on the number to the right all the time. You can make a mediocre station great by working on the number to the left of the decimal.
This is done by evoking emotions and making people seek out your station. PPM has cleared out a lot of unneeded junk, but I think it has also thrown the baby out with the bathwater in many cases. What do you think?
PPM® is a mark of Arbitron, Inc.