A little more than two years ago, a music radio station with more than two decades of heritage in its format was struggling. According to the latest PPM data from Nielsen, the station failed to finish among the top ten stations in its target demographic and—as a result—advertising revenue was down precipitously. The station hired us to conduct a Plan Developer perceptual study with the goals of determining why the station’s performance was weak and identifying strategy changes that could reverse its fortunes.
The most important finding in our Plan Developer study was that the station’s music mix and the music expectations its audience and the broader market had of it were considerably more contemporary than where the best opportunity in the market was focused. Thus, we recommended moving the station’s music mix five to seven years older on average. We also recommended employing tactics to change consumers’ perceptions of the station’s music to reflect that older approach, including on-air imaging, features and specialty programming, and external marketing.
Within weeks the station made the music adjustments, updated its on-air imaging, and offered a series of specialty weekends that were hyper-focused on the older sounds for which it needed stronger imagery. The results in PPM were immediate and substantial—within three months, the station’s share in its target demographic grew by nearly 50%, vaulting the station into the top five.
Problem solved, right? Unfortunately, it was not.
While our client made the music adjustments and followed other recommendations, they failed to employ external marketing designed to change listeners’ perceptions of the brand’s music mix. Their conclusion, based on the first three months of ratings following the music adjustments, was that their problem was solved and there was no need to use the money they previously committed to spending on external marketing. (The more likely result was that the novelty of hearing some of those older sounds generated short-term excitement among the station’s audience, whose tastes were generally more contemporary than where the opportunity lay in the marketplace, and this excitement was not sustainable.) You probably can guess what happened next.
Within another three months, PPM reported shares for the station that—while slightly better than when we first began working with it—represented a give-back of more than half of the gains that were made in the first three months. The market manager immediately began questioning the wisdom of the music strategy change and began pushing the program director to reverse course. Fortunately, she resisted the pressure from her market manager, but when he also pushed for spending a relatively small amount of money on an off-air tactical contest a vendor promised would effectively target meter carriers in Nielsen’s PPM panel, she gladly accepted the opportunity to do anything on the marketing front.
Over the ensuing three months, when the station offered the tactical contest, its ratings bounced back modestly, at least to the point where the market manager was satisfied and felt that his decision to spend a small amount on tactical contesting versus a more significant investment on a strategic marketing campaign was vindicated. Unfortunately, the station’s second ratings recovery was short-lived, and its share dropped to roughly the same levels as when we first began working with it once the tactical contesting ended. A post-mortem on the ratings data revealed that its audience shot up when a new heavy user of the station joined the PPM panel; it subsequently dropped when another heavy user in the panel “aged out” of the station’s target demographic.
Fast forward 18 months and I’m happy to report that the station has now turned in its sixth consecutive month in the top five of its target demographic. How did this happen?
A new market manager took over and she—with a lot of prodding from the station’s program director—successfully lobbied corporate for a strategic external marketing campaign that creatively and effectively communicated to the market what the station’s music mix was all about. She also secured funding for a second Plan Developer perceptual study we recently completed, and we were able to detect significant progress with the station’s music images and measure a strong correlation between those improved music images and listenership to the station. More progress needs to be made—and the station is tentatively budgeted to repeat the external marketing campaign early next year—but everyone involved with the station has the same strategic vision and is dedicated to the long-term process of strengthening its brand.
There are many takeaways from this music radio-centric story that also apply no matter which audio-based media— including public radio, spoken word radio, streaming, podcasting, or the music industry—you work in and no matter what metrics you rely upon to measure usage. They include:
- Interpreting changes in listenership to your station, stream, podcast, or music is nearly impossible without research-based insights into why those changes occur.
- The impact of contests and other tactics designed to drive increased usage without also strengthening your brand will be short-lived.
For radio stations, targeting meter carriers is a fool’s errand; build a brand and deliver great content and the ratings will take care of themselves in the long run.