Tag Archives: radio stations

The Lost Art of Radio Station Stunting

Tuesdays With Coleman

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That’s what Burger King tweeted on November 28, 2018.

There were more cryptic tweets of gibberish throughout the day, raising eyebrows and intrigue.

The following day, BK published the following on Twitter revealing the gibberish was a stunt:

so about yesterday:

– we were sober
– we didn’t get hacked
– the intern didn’t go rogue
– a cat didn’t run on the keyboard

⚠ CINI MINIS are back⚠ you try typing with icing on your hands…

Clever way to (re) introduce a product.

Stunts can be a very effective method to get attention and enhance your brand by doing the unexpected. So why, by and large, has radio stopped doing them?

One of the first measurements we look at in our research is Unaided Awareness. It’s a way to determine which brands are top-of-mind without any prompting. Why is this so important? People aren’t going to listen to your radio station if they aren’t even thinking about it.

Marketing is an obvious way to grow Unaided Awareness, but few stations have the luxury of a big budget advertising campaign, and stunting is a creative way of raising awareness without a big budget.

I can remember countless examples of radio stations using stunts to get attention, some of which I was involved with. We recognize there’s a fine line between a stunt and a promotion. While every promotion is designed to boost station awareness and listening, a stunt does it in a way the consumer may not expect. A stunt often triggers an extreme emotional response, which can be very positive or very negative.

John Lander’s show, “The Nut Hut”, on Eagle 106 in Philadelphia displayed billboards that said “Show Us You’re Nuts”. The listener that did the nuttiest thing won money. Of course, on the air, it was quite the double entendre. Without the play on words, perhaps it would have been just another “most outrageous” promotion. The “flash” of the slogan and the billboards put this one over the top.

On another occasion, John Lander promised listeners he’d send them a dollar bill if they gave him their address – and he did. He sent them a bill for $1. And they sent money back to the radio station!

Legendary radio programmer Bobby Rich ran two specialty weekends years apart that would qualify as stunts. During the height of the disco craze and overplay of The Bee Gees, Rich ran a “No Bee Gees Weekend” on WXLO/New York. Asking listeners which Bee Gees songs they didn’t want played, the jock would say, “I’ll be sure not to get that on for you.” Years later, when you couldn’t turn on a contemporary station without hearing Michael Jackson, Rich ran a similar “No Michael Jackson Weekend” in Philadelphia.

Listeners knew the stations weren’t going to stop playing the Bee Gees or Michael permanently, but the stunts tapped into listeners’ emotions by delivering something unexpected of the station.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

I wonder if a News/Talk station would consider a “No Trump Weekend”? I’ll bet it would make some noise.

Today, there are simply fewer stunts in radio, and there are explanations for that. Maybe some got too mean. Certainly some were too dangerous and risky for the legal department to handle. Also, stations that used to be fierce competitors now share the same hallway, so perhaps there’s less motivation.

Stunts = Top of Mind Awareness + Brand Building

Maybe it’s time to bring back the stunts, with a few caveats.

Recognize that the goal of a stunt is to get attention, but also to build your brand. That means just as every song doesn’t fit on every station, every stunt doesn’t fit on every station.

Adult Contemporary stations, for example, don’t stunt. It’s not consistent with the comfortable brand they are trying to craft. Doesn’t mean they can’t, but the stunt would have to be consistent with the big idea.

A stunt is best deployed when you want to signal change to the market, and/or announce something big and different.

Elvis Duran ran a promotion earlier this year called “Win a Baby!” It’s a contest that provides infertility treatment to a couple that sends in a video of themselves explaining their infertility issues and why they want to have a baby, lending itself to incredible storytelling opportunities.

Elvis Duran Win A Baby

What springs this contest into the stunt zone is the name – like Lander’s “Show Us You’re Nuts,” “Win a Baby” highlights the station and show’s creativity, fits the brand and gets listeners talking and thinking about the brand.

While radio people are some of the best ever at coming up with creative ideas, the industry would be well served to look outside for stunting ideas as well. Because while radio has pulled back on stunting, other industries have done just the opposite.

This year, KFC released a gravy-scented candle, a Danish politician placed ads on Pornhub (and told the world “yeah, that’s me on Pornhub!”) and Coors Light installed taps in bars that light up and pour free pints every time it detects a Bud Light commercial on the TV in the bar.

I mean, that just sounds like a radio promotion.

At least, it used to.

 

Can HBO and Radio Have it All?

Tuesdays With Coleman

As the series finale for Game of Thrones approaches, the buzz feels stronger than ever. While it’s always tough for a network to lose a signature show, HBO has managed to deliver one success after another for the past 20 years. The Sopranos. Six Feet Under. The Wire. Entourage. Sex and the City. True Blood. Game of Thrones.

What’s one thing all those hugely successful shows have in common?

HBO aired them in prime time on Sunday nights. And now, it wants to make Monday night a showcase as well.

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?

Yes.

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:

Acceptance Fit Matrix

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.

Usually you’ll find it is not.

How Amazon Uses Research for World Domination

“Hey let’s put that song in rotation, it sounds good on the air.”

“I think that morning show benchmark is really gaining traction. My wife and her friends love it.”

“The station is sounding too old. It’s probably time to start playing some newer music.”

Is this is how your radio station conducts research?

Radio is fighting daily battles within a never-ending war for top-of-mind awareness. This is no time to trust your request line or mother-in-law for market intelligence. Rolling the dice is not a sound strategy.

Amazon is often rightfully credited with coming up with innovative ideas. How Amazon evolves those ideas into big, successful initiatives is by utilizing market research.

When the company launched Amazon Prime, it offered unlimited two-day shipping for $79 per year. The price increased to $99 and now $119, but also includes added features like Amazon Music and Amazon Prime Video. How did Amazon navigate which features to focus on and which price points were viable?

Research.

Amazon doesn’t just use research to determine how to grow – it uses research to know when to quit.

Even Amazon fails sometimes, as with the Fire Phone, Amazon Local and Amazon Destinations. By using research to track customer perceptions and product/market fit, Amazon was able to mitigate further losses and shift resources into profitable segments.

Do you really know what’s working and what’s not working on your radio station? What if you’re running a feature that’s not compatible with the brand and you have no idea? What if the only measurement you have of your morning show is ratings and you don’t actually know if its familiarity and appeal are growing?

Rolling the dice is, as they say, a crapshoot.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos likes to say “We start with the customer and work backward.”

Are you truly focused on your customer?

Sure, you can gather the troops in a conference room and detail your target listener on a whiteboard. But wouldn’t it be nicer to actually know who your listeners are instead of guessing based on wobbly ratings? Wouldn’t it be helpful to know which ones have the best potential of converting to P1s?

You better believe Amazon knows all about its competitors, probably better than their competitors know themselves.

They’ve done their research.

How much do you know about your competition and its listeners?

Radio should constantly innovate with fresh, new ways of entertaining its consumers. By conducting research to identify strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, you can focus on what works and feel confident your strategy is sound and optimized for success.

It sure beats rolling the dice.

Radio’s New Softer Side

At the tail end of 2018 and in the first part of 2019, there’s been an interesting wave that seems to be, on a medium-ish scale, sweeping over the radio landscape. A significant number of stations in the US and Canada have flipped to a Soft Adult Contemporary (AC) format that started gaining traction in 2016 when KISQ in San Francisco flipped and became “The Breeze.” The Breeze is… well, it’s breezy. It’s designed to be great for your workday; songs on The Breeze don’t require you to work too hard to understand them, many of them are hits from years past and they’re all intended to put a smile on your face.

KISQ 98.1 The Breeze San Francisco

So the big question is… why? Why is this format so popular all of a sudden? Why are stations turning to the soft, “lite” music they started rejecting 25 years ago?

My colleague Meghan Campbell and I recently discussed our views on why this format is suddenly so popular.

JESSICA’S TAKE

To me, the Soft AC format is all about hygge. Haven’t heard of hygge? Google Translate will tell you that it’s the Danish word for “fun”, but really, it describes a kind of coziness. Hygge is a movement, a way for people (usually women) to incorporate relaxation into their lives. Hygge is a way to shut out the craziness of the world and just breathe.

Woman relaxing listening to radio at work hygge

I firmly believe that people seek out hygge and Soft Adult Contemporary-type formats because we’re surrounded by chaos. In a world that is so uncertain and seemingly unstable, where information flies at us so much faster than it ever did, where our news sources fight with each other and family relationships erode because of political differences, people are looking for an anchor in a sea of chaos. In times of strife and trouble, we look for things that are familiar and calming. We try to create order in our lives where we can.

The Breeze and its variations provide a space where the music is calm, we know many of the songs by heart (even if we think we forgot them) and we get to go back to a time where things seemed much simpler.

MEGHAN’S TAKE

For me, it’s less about creating a space for yourself than it is about how everyone gets it. I think the magic of Soft AC is that it can be a familiar, shared experience.

In a fragmented world, people yearn for shared experiences. I love going to concerts—have you noticed the rise of big festivals, where people can gather for several days of enjoying music together? These concerts always feature a headliner people know. There is some discovery of new artists, which is great, but the biggest acts are generally the ones all people can enjoy, no matter their age or stage in the life cycle.

We all remember the songs we hear on Soft AC stations, and they’re not limited to one decade or one artist. On a Soft AC station, you’ll hear artists ranging from Billy Joel to Styx, from Adele to Christina Perri. You might not like every song played on the station, but listen for a little bit and you’ll hear something that triggers nostalgia, and so will the person listening with you.

Jessica mentioned all of the news and information that flies around us. I find that it’s less about the speed of information and more that there’s just too much of it. You can end up as your own island of entertainment, choosing shows and movies and music from a variety of sources. There is a playlist for every taste on every different streaming service.

A couple of weeks ago, everyone was watching Bird Box on Netflix. My social media feed was full of it. So was my mother’s. And it sounded scary and intense—the opposite of Jessica’s hygge—but people were engaged with the show and each other, seeking out that shared experience.

Bird Box Challenge Netflix
The “Bird Box Challenge” was a shared social media experience that involved blindfolding oneself.

The Soft AC format is like that, a way for people who gravitate towards different styles and eras to come around one format that works for almost everyone. People from all walks of life coming together to share familiar, comfortable songs and artists.

***

Regardless of why people are listening to the format, there is definitely something that draws people in. Right now, we don’t know whether I’m right, or Meghan’s right—maybe we’re both right, or we’re both wrong—but time and research will tell how strong these soft sounds will continue to be.

What Radio Stations Can Learn From Gas Stations

Tuesdays With Coleman

Back in June, in the blog Radio Needs Second-Order Thinking, Jon Coleman introduced us to the concept of second-order thinking and how beneficial it can be for radio.  First-order thinking is considering the immediate impact of the decisions we make. Second-order thinking is considering all the potential consequences of the decisions we make.

Second-Order Thinking

When a brand is stuck in first-order thinking, it oftentimes can’t see past its core competency. Leaders don’t leave their comfort zone. First-order thinking can stifle creativity, hamper progress and leave opportunities open for other brands.

What if Netflix saw itself in the movie rental business?

It would have never grown into the binge-centric juggernaut it is today (and would have almost certainly failed by now.)

Netflix wasn’t in the DVD-by-mail business. It was (and is) in the entertainment business. When streaming became feasible, Netflix quickly pivoted into the new form of distribution.

What if Amazon had seen itself in the bookstore business?

Yeah. Same.

Amazon online bookstore

Now, let’s say you own a gas station. Are you in the gas business? Or the fill-up business? Or something else?

From the moment gas stations started cropping up around 1909, gas tanks were filled by an attendant. Services performed by the attendant could include checking your oil, washing your windows, and processing your payment.

The first self-serve gas station in the United States opened in Los Angeles in 1947. While drivers could now pump themselves, it still required attendants to take money, make change and reset the pumps.

While advances in technology allowed for the progression to today’s self-serve pay-at-the-pump experience (except in New Jersey) the real game changer was John Roscoe’s addition to the fuel pumps in Denver in 1957.

The first convenience store.

First convenience store

Now, we live in an era in which almost every gas station is connected to at least a small shop. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, 69.2% of all sales is gas, but that only accounts for 39.5 percent of profit. Food-related items account for 20.2 percent of total sales, but 33.7 percent of profit.

But just think about where the industry was not that long ago. Depending on your age, you may still be familiar with the dreaded “gas station sandwich.”

If a gas station had a convenience store, it probably:

  • Was filthy;
  • Had hot dogs that looked like they’d been there since Elvis was alive spinning on a machine that creaked like frozen pipes in winter;
  • Had bathrooms that smelled like a sewage plant.

We all know there are still plenty of gas stations around America that haven’t exactly evolved.

On the other hand, there are stores like Sheetz and Wawa that have literally redefined the gas station experience.

Not just “decent” coffee that hasn’t been sitting there for hours – a barista crafting your pumpkin cappuccino.

Not just Bud Light and Milwaukee’s Best in the fridge – craft brews from your local brewery.

Clean bathrooms. Made-to-order subs. Touch-screens.

Again, just think about how far this perception had to come from 50 years of this:

Gas Station Sandwich

I’m so hungry, I could eat a gas station sandwich.

It took vision to see streaming beyond DVDs, commerce and cloud hosting beyond books and a shopping experience beyond gas.

Then it took research, discipline and years of consistent image building to effectively change perceptions.

Now the gasoline industry may be on the precipice of another pivot. According to the International Energy Agency, the number of electric vehicles on the road is expected to grow from about 3 million today to 125 million by 2030.

Gas stations got the sandwiches right, but they won’t be able to rely on gas sales for nearly 70 percent of their business forever.

Where are the electric chargers?

Although there may not be a big demand for it now, gas stations can start building the image of the place to “fill up” electric cars. If this doesn’t happen sooner than later, another business will step in and become the brand specialist for electric charging stations.

Few in radio would argue that our industry finds itself at a crossroads.

While many in the industry still think of it as the “radio business,” I think most have taken the broader entertainment-centric approach of Netflix.

This expansion of thinking has allowed radio to evolve onto various platforms, streaming and now is finding its way in the podcasting space.

Gas stations used second-order thinking to see beyond the sandwich. Now, they should prepare for their next pivot.

By utilizing second-order thinking, radio can do the same!

What Starbucks is to Radio Stations

Tuesdays With Coleman

I’m definitely a Starbucks P1.

I give Starbucks a significant amount of TSDC (Time Spent Drinking Coffee.)

A look at my quarter hours with cappuccinos and lattes would show them spread out across dayparts. There’s no question the bulk of my drinkership happens in morning drive, but I’ve been known to cume middays, afternoons and even evenings with my Starbucks gold card.

But alas, something is amiss in my recent coffee-buying behavior, and I suppose when you spend a lot of time with data, you feel the need to analyze why a change in behavior is taking place.

What follows are my findings, as well as a thought about how coffee habits aren’t all that different from radio listening habits.

Many Starbucks P1s like me spend time on its app. The first thing you see when you open the Starbucks app is how many stars you’ve earned, and how many rewards you have to redeem. Starbucks has mastered the art of marketing automation, which means I regularly get reward opportunities (they’re called Star Dashes) customized to my consumption habits.

Ironically, it’s that very marketing automation that brought something to my attention recently. Although I’m still a Starbucks P1, I may be wavering to P2 territory. My Starbucks AQH (Average Quarter Hours) Share is down. I know my total TSDC isn’t down, but it is down with Starbucks.

What’s going on?

I have a sneaking suspicion that over the past year or so, I’ve experienced perceptual Starbucks brand erosion.

It’s not so obvious that I stopped going to Starbucks. I don’t have an overall negative opinion about the brand. But when I really stopped to think about it, I remembered a number of points of irritation that have just taken place in the last year.

  1. The Nitro Cold Brew Conundrum

This spring, I walked into a brand new Starbucks in Raleigh, North Carolina and discovered they had something called Nitro Cold Brew.

Starbucks introduced Cold Brew in all their stores in 2015, and it’s become a favorite option. Now, I get to try it on draft! Out of a tap! I fell in love with it. It had all the rich flavor of the original Cold Brew, but this was smoother and creamy. Almost decadent. I couldn’t wait to have it again.

Only problem is, Starbucks doesn’t offer it in all its stores. And it would be one thing if you could only find it in certain test markets. No, Starbucks will put Nitro Cold Brew in a store minutes away from another one. I’ve been in line at the Raleigh-Durham airport where they didn’t have it, only to discover there was one that offered it right next to my gate (after I’d bought something else.)

It happened again while attending a conference in San Francisco, when I didn’t see it at the store I visited, only to see it in the window of another store nine blocks down.

Test marketing is one thing, but scattering the product you’re trying to get consumers to love across the same market is toying with brand consistency.

  1. The Clover Conundrum

Starbucks hasn’t just used the “scattered market strategy” with Nitro Cold Brew.

In some stores, you’ll find a line of Starbucks Reserve coffees, where baristas make one cup at a time on a machine called a Clover. Other markets may have a Starbucks Roastery, which focuses on the high-end blends.

When I tried some of these roasts the first time, I realized I liked them better than regular Starbucks coffee. I looked forward to having more of these specially-prepared blends.

Except, like Nitro Cold Brew, the Clover is hard to find.

It’s a little annoying when you’re creating a mobile order at a Starbucks location to be constantly reminded “Not sold at this store.”

Starbucks not available at this store

Not the best message to repeatedly send to a customer looking to spend more money on a premium item, and it creates friction in the customer experience.

The home version of Starbucks Reserve is difficult to find as well, so over the last few months I’ve found myself seeking out local and regional roasts.

I know, I’m totally becoming a coffee snob. And giving fewer quarter hours to Starbucks.

  1. The Almond Protein Cold Brew Conundrum

In theory, the Almond Protein Blended Cold Brew drink Starbucks debuted in August should have been in my wheelhouse. I love almonds. I love Cold Brew. I love Frappuccinos, and this is blended like one of those.

It may be the worst thing I’ve ever tasted.

I get it. I don’t need to like everything on the menu. But to that point, everything I’ve ever tried at Starbucks has been consistent with the brand. Variations of lattes taste like variations of lattes. Variations of Refreshers taste like variations of Refreshers.

This just left a bad taste in my mouth.

The reality is, I’m not going to stop going to Starbucks anytime soon and Starbucks is going to be just fine.

But just as I started using Starbucks less, is it possible there are similarities to situations when listeners use certain radio stations less?

Consumers have certain expectations of brands, and one of them is consistency.

When Starbucks got me hooked on Nitro Cold Brew, they didn’t make it easy for me to find again.

Start by asking, how consistent is your radio station’s programming?

You work hard to hook listeners on your product. Once that happens, don’t make it difficult to consume. One example may be a morning show benchmark that’s sticking with the show’s audience. Make it clear what times you’re running it, and deliver it consistently. Don’t make it hard to find.

The Clover Conundrum actually drove me to start consuming Starbucks less often.

My colleague Jessica noted this brand deviation made me want to go more specialized. Starbucks sits somewhere in the perceptual center. It’s not a low-end brand, and there are plenty of brands that specialize in higher-end, more expensive roasts. Perhaps Starbucks’ foray out of the center lane into high-end coffee drove me to specialists I perceived would do better.

Just as Starbucks offers Reserve as a kind of “speciality programming,” what specialty programming do you offer on your radio station?

Do the “treats” line up with the rest of the brand? If not, you may risk perceptually eroding your brand and driving listeners to a station that better specializes in your treat.

The Protein Cold Brew Conundrum is simply a reminder to stay true to your brand. Do not confuse this to mean you shouldn’t innovate. Starbucks often creates new drinks that succeed in the framework of brand expectations. Even the Unicorn Frappuccino worked. It was sweet like most other Frappuccinos and designed to be social media-ready.

Ensure what you present to the listening audience is true to your brand.

In his recent blog, “Should I Play That Song On My Radio Station,” Jon Coleman referenced Don Benson, the former President and CEO of Lincoln Financial Media with this thought:

You can be entrepreneurial in your own lane. You can’t be entrepreneurial in your fringe lanes.

P1s generally don’t turn into P2s because of one listening event.

One negative in-the-moment experience in the mind of a listener isn’t going to change their perception of your radio station.

But like any brand, repeated negative experiences that are contrary to brand expectation will result in brand erosion. In the case of Starbucks for me, it means fewer drinking occasions. In the case of your radio station, it could mean fewer listening occasions.

Loyalty is built on always delivering on the brand promise.

That goes for Starbucks or your radio station.

The 90s Music Research Conundrum

Tuesdays With Coleman

In theory, if you turn on an Adult Contemporary radio station in 2018, you should be hearing a healthy dose of 90s music. If you graduated high school in 1995, for example, you would be around 41 today—right in the wheelhouse of the 25-54 demographic. But of the major eras played on most Adult Contemporary stations, the 90s tend to get the least exposure—maybe about 10% of spins. You’re more likely to hear the 80s, 00s and 10s.

Similarly, we are not seeing Classic Hits radio stations accelerate into the 90s as quickly and aggressively as they once accelerated into the 80s and, before that, the 70s.

So what’s going on? Why aren’t the 90s taking over these formats?

In a word, Compatibility.

Don’t confuse the lack of 90s music exposure with the desire for hearing 90s music. If your music tastes came of age in the 90s, you are likely just as passionate about the music during that era as an 80s kid was about the 80s, a 70s kid was about the 70s and so on. Many people love the idea of hearing 90s music. The problem is not that the concept is unpopular; the problem is that the concept is challenging to execute.

Successful radio stations play a group of sounds that work in tandem with each other. In our FACT360SM Strategic Music Tests, Compatibility indicates if fans of one sound are likely to also be fans of other sounds. While diversity of eras and textures can help expand the scope of a station’s coalition, Compatibility helps ensure that it’s a variety blend that works well together. When Compatibility is poor, a station will have trouble keeping listeners from one song to another, as it zigs and zags across the music spectrum.

With the 80s, the golden era of MTV, we generally find that there are popular, diverse sounds that have high Compatibility with one another.

This means if you’re a fan of:

Straight ahead 80s Pop (like Michael Jackson and Madonna);

80s Pop Rock (like Bryan Adams and John Mellencamp);

80s Flashback Pop (like Eurythmics and Simple Minds);

or 80s Rock (like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard), there is a good chance you’re a fan of more than one and perhaps all of these sounds.

The reason the 80s works so well today is because listening to Michael Jackson, John Mellencamp and Bon Jovi on the same station isn’t a train wreck.

The 90s, however, brought an era of fragmentation, as opposed to the shared experiences of previous eras.

For several styles of music, the 90s was a golden age. Alternative, Hip Hop and Country launched the careers of a multitude of stars and a vast number of hits. In formats targeted to these genres, we continue to see high passion for their 90s hits. But just because Nirvana, 2Pac and Garth Brooks songs remain highly popular does not mean that a Nirvana/2Pac/Garth Brooks radio station would be highly popular. What is lacking for the 90s is high Compatibility between genres. Playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “How Do U Want It” and “Friends In Low Places” back-to-back-to-back may be a fun experiment in variety and nostalgia, but it probably isn’t going to generate great ratings for a mainstream music station.

The lack of high Compatibility between genres in the 90s makes it difficult to effectively blend them. It also makes it difficult to find a lot of mass market hits. You may find huge passion for a song among its home genre fans, yet its mass-market appeal is watered down by low scores from everyone else.

Compounding things is that the 90s lacked a robust center lane of Pop music to help make up for the incompatible edges. Aside from the Teen Pop wave of Britney, Christina and the boy bands at the end of the decade, we’re largely looking at a cobbling together of poppier offshoots of the edges (e.g., Matchbox 20 from the Alternative side, Shania Twain from the Country side). The tide turned in the 00s and 10s. The edges cooled, and mass appeal Pop hits came back in a big way. There were massive hits on the softer side (e.g., Adele); huge artists and hits down the center Pop lane (e.g., Maroon 5); and monster crossovers from the rhythmic side (e.g., Rihanna).

Again, it’s easy to overestimate a station’s ability to effectively incorporate the 90s based on the generational affinity for this decade. Because we’re in the 90s wheelhouse generationally, it makes sense that we see signs of 90s revivals. It’s why Rosanne (now The Conners) was brought back to television. It’s why the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block reunited (and even toured together). The desire for 90s nostalgia is there and completely real.

Ultimately, however, it is the Compatibility conundrum that hinders the 90s as a major ingredient on most Adult Contemporary and Classic Hits radio stations today. While time softens the perceived tempo and edginess of music, the fragmentation of the decade’s music will continue to pose a challenge for programmers.

Why Radio Stations Are Like Toy Stores

Tuesdays With Coleman

Back in March of this year, I wrote a blog post called Why Toys “R” Us is closing.

In it, I argued that while market forces and new competition played a role in its business decline, it was lack of brand depth that did in Toys “R” Us, a company that had complete domination of the image for “toy store.”

The last Toys “R” Us closed its doors on June 29.

I suggested in the post that Toys “R” Us had become a commodity. The store was simply a brick-and-mortar space for transactional exchanges.

The problem with that, aside from the fact that there was no real reason to buy toys there as opposed to Wal-Mart or Amazon, for example, was that Toys “R” Us forgot that the very experience of children and toys is a magical one. The retail toy buying experience, I said back in March, must be an experiential one.

It’s why those of us old enough to remember still sing the Toys “R” Us jingle.

It’s why we cried at the end of Toy Story 3.

It’s why Tom Hanks danced on the piano in FAO Schwarz in the movie Big, which was released 30 years ago this summer.

And speaking of FAO Schwarz

Did you ever visit the flagship Manhattan store when you were a kid? I thought it was the greatest place on Earth. There were giant toy soldiers, flashing lights, larger than life teddy bears and ABC blocks and toys to play with everywhere you looked.

There was staff everywhere with smiles on their faces to help you find that magical toy to make a kid’s day, and consequently the parent’s day.

And yes, there was the piano you could dance on.

Toys “R” Us bought FAO Schwarz in 2009.

They closed all its locations, ending with the shuttering of the flagship New York store, in July 2015. Budget cuts, they said.

That year, the global toy market generated 85 billion dollars of revenue.

This past week, the new owners of FAO Schwarz announced that the iconic brand will reopen at Rockefeller Center in New York this November. As part of the product launch, according to the new owners, the store plans to hire “product demonstrators, magicians…and men and women playing various costumed roles, including toy soldiers.”

FAO Schwarz is holding auditions for people to dance on the piano. And get paid for it.

“We’re looking for people who can deliver that sense of theater,” said the chief executive of ThreeSixty Brands, the store’s new owner.

Sounds experiential. Sounds magical. Sounds like what a toy store should be.

This morning, the New York Times revealed that some old-school retailers are experiencing their strongest sales growth in years. That is, the ones that have experientially adapted.

Here’s the takeaway for radio stations regarding the Toys “R” Us closing and FAO Schwarz re-opening:

Radio, like toys, is, at its core, best when it is experiential.

Radio, like toys, is a form of theater.

Radio, like toys, can be magical.

Radio, like toys, is meant to be fun and memorable.

When toys are treated like a commodity, the business that treats it that way will suffer.

Same goes for radio.

HBO and the Mass Appeal Trap

Tuesdays With Coleman

Why do listeners choose your radio station?

Why do listeners choose your podcast?

Why do viewers choose your TV show?

Why do diners choose your restaurant?

No matter what business you’re in, it’s important to be clear about why your customers choose to do business with you.

Today, we’ll focus on HBO, which was just taken over by AT&T as part of its acquisition of Time Warner.

According to the New York Times, John Stankey, the AT&T executive who now oversees HBO, envisions changes coming to the network. He suggested HBO will have to increase its subscriber base and the number of viewing hours. To do that, HBO will have to broaden its scope, past signature Sunday night shows like Game of Thrones.

So, why do viewers choose HBO?

The short answer is for high quality, compelling shows. There aren’t many signature HBO shows, but when they get a big one it’s really big. The Sopranos. Game of Thrones. The Wire. Six Feet Under. Entourage. Curb Your Enthusiasm. True Blood…and the list goes on.

Incredibly, HBO has traditionally focused on one night a week for its original programming – Sundays. So on the one hand, HBO is not top-of-mind Monday-Saturday. But it’s really top-of-mind on Sunday nights.

They’ve been able to get away with it (and charge a premium) for a long time as a result of the premium quality of its programming.

Now the game is changing. Competing pay channels, like Showtime and Starz, have upped their original programming games. Netflix is a binge factory. HBO was the destination for high production value and strong writing. Now, there’s more choice than ever – and just about every choice is less expensive than HBO.

While HBO should rightfully look to increase interest in the channel in this sea of choice, it risks the “mass appeal trap.” In the effort to broaden its appeal, it waters down its point of differentiation. The very reason(s) why consumers chose the brand in the first place.

The Tuesdays With Coleman blog “Don’t Change Your Radio Station” covered the value of not changing for the sake of change. Radio stations sometimes get the inclination to change things when they shouldn’t be changed. Clearly defined brand images are extremely desirable, and take a great deal of time to build. Any changes radio stations make should be carefully considered through the lens of their desirable images and whether those changes will be at the expense of their base position.

Alternative radio stations in the early 90s faced the challenge of broadening appeal while maintaining their credibility with an audience that liked the stations because they sounded and felt different. While playlists were broader in scope, programmers had to make sure that the new sounds were compatible and that the stations maintained their left-of-center images. If the alternative station loses the perception of being – well, the “alternative” – it can spell trouble for the brand.

Adult Album Alternative (AAA) radio stations have faced a similar challenge. Stations that previously played a large number of deep tracks, for example, found they needed to become more hit-driven to broaden appeal. The challenge was, and remains, how to do so while maintaining the often eccentric, cooler-than-the-room images that draw many listeners to the format.

HBO has the Sunday night image and the quality image and it should defend those images. So, when it considers changes to increase its audience, their leadership, too, must ensure those changes enhance, not water down, those images.

If HBO is losing subscribers and needs to compete for more viewing hours, it has to do it in a way that protects its quality franchise, but at the same time has more programs that rival that of Netflix and other competition. The way HBO does that is the key. This includes how and how often it promotes and markets the images.

Stankey claims HBO has to find a way to “move beyond 35 to 40 percent penetration to have (HBO) become a more common product”.

Desiring more usage is one thing. But as leaders of some of the most successful radio stations and brands will tell you, “common” is quite another.

There’s the propensity to think becoming more mass appeal = more audience = more revenue.

Beware of this trap.

Focus

If becoming more mass appeal compromises your brand and decreases focus, it can (and often does) result in less audience and less revenue.

Perhaps HBO can build its base while maintaining its brand position. If, after the changes, it is still perceived as special and a little “uncommon”, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Radio Needs Second-Order Thinking

Tuesdays With Coleman

First-order thinking is considering the immediate impact of the decisions we make.

Second-order thinking is considering all the potential consequences of the decisions we make.

The radio industry often uses first-order thinking, but not second-order thinking.

When we think we’re solving a problem, we unintentionally create another.

More than once in my career, and certainly in the last few years, a station has changed format and lived to regret it.

Not because they didn’t get reasonable ratings. It was because their flip caused a reaction in the marketplace that ultimately screwed them.

They didn’t think of the second order.

Second-Order Thinking

Example #1:

You’ve got a Hot Adult Contemporary (Hot AC) station in a market that is underperforming, while there is only one Country station. So, you flip your Hot AC station to Country.

First-order thinking: The competition’s Country station leads the market in revenue. If our group flips the Hot AC to Country, and take even a third of their ratings and revenue, we’ll be doing better than we are now as a Hot AC.

Second-order thinking: If we change the format and attack the competition, they may adjust one or two of their stations to attack a station in our cluster. Perhaps the station that accounts for most of our ratings and revenue.

It’s applicable to more than format flips.

Example #2:

You’re responsible for a Classic Rock station with no direct competitor. Since you have no direct competitor, you can broaden the scope to appeal to more people—so you start adding sounds, like Classic Hits.

First-order thinking:  If we add Classic Hits to the Classic Rock recipe, we’ll add more fans to our rock station.

Second-order thinking: If we add Classic Hits to our Classic Rock recipe, we may alienate some of our Classic Rock fans and lessen passion with both camps. Plus, the competition may notice we now sound a bit softer and wimpier and see an opportunity to attack us with a straight-ahead, focused rock station.

See the dangers of only thinking in the first-order? It really is like a chess match, thinking steps ahead.

Second Order Thinking

We’re fortunate to have many clients who invest in research and advertising. Those radio stations that don’t have a complete map of their market may fall victim to first-order thinking.

Example #3:

You oversee an Urban station and your group has the format all to yourselves in the market.

First-order thinking: We’re all alone in this format. We don’t need to advertise.

Second-order thinking: If we don’t invest in our product and advertise, the station’s brand images will wither away. The decline in ratings and revenue will outweigh the cost savings of not investing in the product.

As author Howard Marks explains in his book, The Most Important Thing, “First-level thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it. Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted.”

Although it takes a lot of work, second-order thinking (and third, fourth and so on) is well worth the time.

Second-order thinking now means avoiding problems later.

And you won’t have to call them “unforeseen problems.”