Tag Archives: perceptual research

Why Did My Radio Station’s Ratings Go Down?

“It was only one or two meters!!”

Whether you’ve experienced poring over data in Media Monitors or visiting Arbitron’s offices in Columbia, Maryland back in the day to hand-sift through diaries (or like me, both), the frustration of radio ratings data inconsistencies is a tale as old as the measurement itself.

Generally, ratings tend to tell the story well when viewed over longer periods of time. But when you rely on quarterly, monthly, or even weekly ratings to make decisions that affect your programming, hold on buckaroo. You’re often in for a wild ride.

For me, the irrational rationalizing was the worst part as a program director on ratings day. OK, maybe it was the 30 minutes leading up to the release of the numbers when my stomach turned in knots. But it was the moments afterwards on bad book days, with the General Manager, Sales Manager, and maybe some other members of the programming team in my office offering theories.

“Well, you know, the morning show took the week off and so-and-so was in there by herself.”

“We ran the heck out of that contest. I guess it didn’t work.”

“Why didn’t those commercial-free sweeps connect?”

“The competition started playing one more current an hour.”

Guess, guess, guess, guess.

If you’re only looking at a ratings number, you simply don’t know what caused the drop.

It’s no different when you rationalize why you went up. There are exceptions, of course. A truly major change like a format flip or morning show departure can cause short-term ratings flux, but minor things typically don’t.

At its core, perceptual research is so valuable because of the sample size. When you’re talking with hundreds of listeners in your market that listen to your station or your competitors, you can both rely on the data and feel comfortable making programming decisions based on it.

And because data is impartial, the answers you think you’ll get aren’t always the ones you do. This is especially true when it comes to the answer to the question in the title of this blog. “Why did my radio station’s ratings go down?”

Attempting to answer that question shouldn’t be the only time you conduct perceptual research, but it certainly is a reason to. Over the course of being involved in many studies where that question is asked, the answer is not always that something is terribly wrong.

Sometimes, radio stations going through ratings struggles look remarkably healthy from a perceptual perspective. It could be a ratings sampling issue. And although it may not be much consolation to the sales department in the short term, it is helpful to know that the ratings declines in those instances are usually temporary. It is not unusual to see them bounce back. And thankfully, studies in instances like these offer programmers confidence to not go fixing things that aren’t broken, an instinct that may be opposite to the feeling they get when looking at a bad book.

And yes, sometimes things are in fact broken. Or the competition owns all the images you’re trying to win. Or not enough potential listeners know your station exists. Or a myriad of other issues we can identify. They’re all solvable challenges, sometimes painful, sometimes not. But at least you know the why behind the what and you can take the appropriate action to make positive change.

Guessing may work well for this guy:


Source: Syracuse.com

But it’s not so fun when you’re in charge of a radio station.

Four Questions to Answer in Audio Brand Perceptual Research

Tuesdays With Coleman, our blog that offers tips and insights on branding, content, and research strategy, is now four years old. Over the next four weeks, we’ll reprint four blogs (one per year) that made the most impact through industry engagement.

This week, we’ll start our celebration of the number four by presenting four of the most important questions that can be answered in perceptual research–a type of study we conduct often at Coleman Insights.


Whether it’s a radio station program director poring over ratings, a podcaster dissecting downloads, or a streaming service examining the subscribers of one of its channels, there is a big question that these numbers don’t answer. When consumers choose an audio brand to listen to, is yours one of the ones they think of?

The measurement we use to obtain this information is called Unaided Awareness, and there’s a reason it is one of the first questions we ask in perceptual research. The goal is to learn the first brands that come to mind in your listening universe. For a radio station conducting a perceptual study, for example, we may ask respondents to name as many radio stations in their area as they can remember, regardless of whether they listen to them.

When it’s time to pick an audio brand to listen to, your target consumer is only thinking of three or four at any given time. How can you generate significant listening numbers if your brand isn’t one of those top-of-mind few? It’s no different from the exercise your brain goes through when you pick a restaurant to take a friend to lunch. If the restaurant isn’t top-of-mind, you’re probably not eating there. Radio is at a further disadvantage here, because while a consumer may use a tool like Yelp or Google to discover a restaurant or Apple or Spotify to discover a podcast, radio discovery tends to be more organic or reliant on paid marketing.


In August, Sam Milkman’s Tuesdays With Coleman blog “I Can Tell You How Healthy Your Brand Is With One Question” took a deeper dive into the “first thing that comes to mind” philosophy. Not only should your brand be top of mind, but your listeners should also be able to explain what your brand represents in a few words. “That station plays hit music.” “That station plays New Country.” “That station plays Hip Hop.” “That podcast is about serial killers.”

It seems simple, but you may be surprised how often listeners are either not able to answer the question at all or think of your brand for other things first. For example, listeners may think of your station for playing the most commercials or having too many contests before they think of it for its music or talk position. It’s a challenging but correctable problem, but research can pinpoint where the issue is.


For music radio stations, there is often no more important question than this but there are many ways to approach it. 1) Are you playing the most popular music? Not just with your current listeners; are you playing music that’s popular enough to attract new listening or have you maxed out available audience with the styles you currently play? 2) Are you getting credit for the right music? Are listeners thinking of your station for the music you play or is another station getting credit? Are they thinking of you for styles you don’t want to be associated with? 3) Do the music styles I’m playing work together? The reason why Pandora picks the next song for you and Spotify curates personalized daily mixes are not by chance. They are highly data-driven algorithms based on your music preferences. Radio stations can have a similar advantage by using Compatibility data to learn which styles are more likely to create tune-ins and tune-outs when played together.


Just as it is important to have a baseline of Unaided Awareness to learn how many consumers are thinking about your brand, it is also helpful to know how familiar your key personalities are in the market. In a Coleman Insights Plan Developer study, respondents only evaluate a personality if they have heard of them. Thus, you can see which personalities may not be very well-known but show a great deal of upside with a positive evaluation. Or vice versa, a personality that may have challenging evaluations that need to be addressed and coached.

While every perceptual study is customized based on the issues and challenges germane to each specific brand, these four important questions are the backbone of a great many of them and provide the stepping stones to actionable strategic plans.

From all of us at Coleman Insights, have a very Happy Thanksgiving. Next week we’ll begin sharing the most impactful blogs from the past four years – starting with 2018.

Getting to the Why

Tuesdays With Coleman

Years ago, I was presenting some results to an internal client. He was a sales rep who had seen dozens of quantitative research studies my team conducted. We had asked a question about social media, and he said, “Why are they using Friendster instead of Myspace [it was a long time ago]? What’s the difference?” We hadn’t asked that question in the study—it wasn’t one of the questions we were trying to answer at the time.

But sometimes, we do want to get further into the “why”.

There is a ton of information we can gather during quantitative research. In addition to that, it’s trendable and concise. You can ask a lot of “what” and “who” and “how” in quantitative research and get many of the answers you need to inform your programming strategy and tighten your marketing efforts.

But sometimes you just want to know more about the “why”.

Perceptual, or qualitative research might tell you that listeners love your music but don’t feel your personalities fit the brand—or vice versa. Maybe your station gets a lot of buzz and positive responses from its listeners but your ratings are going in the wrong direction. Or maybe you’re one of four similarly-performing stations in your market and you want to figure out what’s really resonating with your listeners and what isn’t and how you can separate from the pack.

We’ve all seen focus groups represented on TV. They’re written to come across as really dry, with boring questions and a monotonous narrator who goes around the room waiting for answers. I’ve sat in on a few of those (pre-Coleman Insights, of course). But in reality, the dry, boring focus group is pretty far from the norm. They’re also not like those focus groups in recent Chevy commercials. Yes, everyone wears a name tag, but no, very few focus groups end in giant reveals of big trucks and scrolling JD Power endorsements. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a facility where you could fit a truck in the elevator.

The biggest reveals in a focus group come from the people. These 8-12 representatives of your station’s listeners are there to answer your questions and tell you things you may never have considered. They may reveal things you had a hunch about but couldn’t confirm. The best groups are the ones in which your listeners engage not just with the moderator but with each other.

“I used to love to listen to KAAA, they had this crazy guy on in the mornings when I was a kid.”

“Oh yeah, I remember him!”

“What happened to him?”

“He went over to KBBB so I listened to him there for a while, but I hated the music on KBBB so I stopped and now I listen to KCCC.”

“Same here. They play too much Bruno Mars and it’s tired. KCCC is soooo much better.”

“What makes you like KCCC?” and so on.

Why Focus Groups

Sometimes we go into groups with an idea of what our participants will tell us. I love it when we’re wrong. I once co-moderated a focus group about strong characters on television. I thought they would love this one, be turned off by that one, think this other one was weak. Some of my ideas were turned around completely by the time I left. Our participants shared their thoughts clearly—not always succinctly, but that’s where I came in—and we were able to steer the client in a direction that was unexpected but ultimately made a lot of sense.

A while back, I did some focus groups where we were trying to guide advertising for a media company. The work we presented to our groups was slick and interesting. The first group had very clear opinions about one set. The next had clear opinions about another. Throughout the process, we learned a ton about why some of the copy worked and why some didn’t. Even in their disparate feedback, the participants proved to be savvy and articulate and enormously helpful.

This is front-row research. “Let’s find out what that man in the green shirt really thinks about the at-work contest he keeps mentioning.” “What did Theresa say about our morning show producer?” You can see firsthand how certain themes are consistent across groups and how some opinions are outliers.

From there, we take these insights and help you use them to shape your brand’s strategy.

Focus groups aren’t a replacement for solid quantitative research, but they’re a great way to expand, to fill in gaps, to answer tough questions. And they’re a great way to hear more about the “why”.

What’s My Brand Again?

Tuesdays With Coleman

Which radio station plays Classic Rock?

Which radio station plays Hip Hop and R&B?

Which radio station plays new hit music?

Chances are, you have a perceptual image in mind for one radio station that occupies each of these positions in your market.

It’s also true there’s likely more than one radio station in your market that plays Classic Rock, more than one that plays Hip Hop, and more than one that plays new hit music.

It is the one that is top of mind, the one you think of first, that builds brand ownership. In those moments when listeners choose a radio station to fill an instantaneous need, it is better to be top of mind.

Because more than one radio station plays these styles of music, it simply isn’t enough to play them. You must tell the audience, and you have to tell them often. That’s why simplicity is often the best way and slogans like “The Classic Rock Station”, “#1 for Hip Hop and R&B”, and “The Hit Music Station” just make sense. It’s what we call owning a Base Music Position on the Image Pyramid.

It takes a long time to build a brand. So when a change is made to a brand, it is even more paramount for the audience to be clearly informed of the change.

Let’s say my radio station plays mostly music from the 90s and 2000s, but research has identified an opportunity to play more 80s music. So, I significantly drop the percentage of 90s and 2000s music and inject a boost of 80s onto the station. Everyone says the station sounds great.

But did your audience really notice?

On a micro level, you may pick up some listening here and there and the audience may subliminally notice a change. But if you really want to get credit for the branding shift, just playing some extra 80s songs isn’t going to cut the mustard. You have to tell them. Over and over again.  Something like “The 80s Music Station” or “Nobody Plays more 80s” would make the change clear. Don’t forget, your station was playing music predominantly from the 90s and 2000s, so the audience’s top-of-mind perception of your brand is likely just that. You have to tell them you made the change to build the image you want.

What brand comes to mind when I say “baby food”?

Gerber Baby Food

Almost certainly the answer is Gerber. And Gerber still leads the U.S. market in baby food sales. But, like in other segments of the food industry, natural and organic disruptors have changed the game. Here’s a recent organic (pun intended) Google search of “Organic Baby Food”:

  • Earth’s Best
  • Plum Organics
  • Beech-Nut
  • Gerber

It shouldn’t be surprising that the brands that sound natural and organic lead the pack. What may come as a surprise is that Gerber has been making organic baby food since the 1990s, always used non-GMO fruits and vegetables in its purees, and has direct farmer relationships.

Yet it is Earth’s Best that says “No Genetically Engineered Ingredients” and Plum that put the word “organic” in its name.

Earth's Best Baby Food

Gerber has recognized the need to include the messaging in its marketing as part of a brand overhaul.

Gerber Organic Baby Food

They’ve learned, even as the market leader, it isn’t enough to just do something. You must also tell your audience about it.

Over and over and over again.