January 5, 2014

Misreading PPM and What Drives Ratings

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.

XY Brand-Content Graph

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.

19 thoughts on “Misreading PPM and What Drives Ratings”

  1. jack silver

    as usual, jon’s insight is right on the money. that’s why the big brands like KIIS, Power and KROQ continue to roll in PPM. the passion level of the audience is high, and the programming is consistent year in and year out. I love that “brand-content” matrix.

  2. Bob Hamilton

    Jon, You are so right on. Everyone does the basics and forgets what the listener wants. Go to market to market and hear NO SOUL to any station.

  3. Eric Corwin

    Listeners want a quality listening experience that delivers well programmed music, strong personalities and a reduced spot load. Deliver this and you win. PPM will always deliver representative ratings for these stations.

  4. Max Tolkoff

    Finally, someone willing to inform the emperor that his wardrobe might need some work. Clear headed thinking applied to radio? What a strange concept. Programmers, (these are the people who, on a daily basis, live closer to the target audience than anyone else in the building) need to be trusted more by the GM and corporate thugs. For instance, if you are a MUSIC STATION, especially a NEW MUSIC station, and the audience knows that and comes to you because the station is a fabulous curator of new material, then don’t drown the PD in endless research, yawn-inducing meetings, and mindless second guessing. Once again Jon sounds the battle-cry that PPM, lke other forms of research, is JUST A TOOL. My question is this: who’s listening?

  5. Victor Lentini

    It’s a reminder to “know your audience”. People are people after all and have an emotional connection. This article reminds us of a keyword from years ago, “Lifestyle”. Understand your audiences Lifestyle and People habits. Yes, we now have shorter attention spans within media evolution, but we still need to reach an emotion, feeling and connection with our radio station. There are a few stations out there sustaining that idea, fewer finding the balance. Sometimes gut is not a reckless term rather than an emotional one.

  6. Steve Wall

    This is a “how to” on winning listeners and satisfied customers. Good read for anyone programming radio stations. A refresher for some, an opportunity for everyone.

  7. Lee Cornell

    Exactly Jon. A lot of radio has condensed to “doing it by and for the numbers” and removed the essential “relationship” factor that makes for compelling listening.

  8. Don Parker

    Couldn’t agree more, Jon. The big stations that continue to win in PPM typically have great personalities, strong community ties, and benchmark events that make them more than just a jukebox. Content is and will always be king!

  9. Seam Lynch

    Couldn’t agree with you guys more…especially the Michael O’Shea comment. Not so much about what we take away from our product to make it more palatable…what are we adding to it that makes it more loveable?

  10. Doug Erickson

    Great article, Jon. I hope it’s widely read and shared, because you and I have been singing this song for decades. The hope I feel is that programmers like Michael O’Shea are now running some small groups, because I think only the smaller groups can lead now. The biggest aren’t interested in “better,” are they?

  11. Dennis Gwiazdon

    Spot on, Jon. Love the O’Shea perspective. Simple and easy to remember. And something every one of us in the business should focus on every day.

  12. Mark Panetta

    Good stuff! The same dynamics are in play with the outside marketing radio station do. Too often we spend all our time on how we advertise, or where we are going to advertise and very little on what we should say…the message. Thus, very little of it “evokes emotion and makes people seek out our stations.”

  13. Tracy Johnson

    Right on, Jon. In the interest of avoiding all possible negatives, we have removed any reason for listeners to fall in love with us. The result is audiences that only tune in when it’s convenient. Stations are losing their importance! PD’s need to “invest” in overall brand health, building passion, even if it may cause some of those casual cumers to tune out in the moment.

  14. Jim Littrell

    Amen Jon! Exactly why I got into this amazing world of CMN Hospitals Radiothon years ago and continue now to help our station’s brand strength AND helping their local kids at the same time!

  15. Chris Byrnes

    Jon… glad to hear someone else stating what we feel is rather obvious. For too long some programmers have been “duming down” the product to the extent that so many stations sound the same. Most stations have the ability to play the right songs (not always in the right order, but that is another story), so it is what happens between the records that sets one station apart from another. Notr enough effort goes into this area in our opinion. Also too many stations fail to think “local” and seize the moment which is what creates water cooler talk, and what grows ratings. I will put a link to your article on our website if you don’t mind.

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