Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Radio's Outdated Research Systems

We really don't have any index or measure of how many stations are doing any 'formal' audience research, but it's probably a safe bet that few are.  The days of doing an annual perceptual study and a full auditorium library test are most likely fading, or in many markets completely gone.  No doubt the economic slump isn't allowing the 'luxury' of gathering the audience's impressions of our products.  Clear Channel used to have a division (Critical Mass) with hundreds of people devoted to perceptual, call out and telephone marketing, now it's pretty much dismantled.  No doubt many in the top 50 markets are flying without any 'radar' looking out at the audience and gathering their impressions, preferences, and the reasons why they listen.  

Perhaps with all the data we have from PPM what do we really need research for anymore?  With PPM the game has changed from a recall strategy.  Now we actually see what the sample listens to minute by minute every day without any recall on their part.   We can see when they tune out and trace back to see why?  But, do we really know?  Did they leave because they hated the song or jock?  Or did they have to go to work and leave the car?  Did they pick up the kids and they flipped on another station?  

While we can finally see an accurate picture of what they listen to we really don't know why they listen, or why they don't.  We used to get some of the picture from perceptual and music testing, but we also had to tailor our research to the reality (from the past) that the audience had to recall their listening - not have it measured automatically.   Before we often won if the audience just remembered our call letters, frequency or slogan - now they actually have to listen for it to count.  

For many stations the perceptual and music testing has been taken over by the station's database.  The folks who are big enough fans to visit the web site, bother to sign up for another database, and wait for their mailbox to fill up with our newsletters.   We can test our music with them, ask a few usage questions, and maybe even find out who they think will win American Idol. But, these little bites of data we get from a small universe of very dedicated P1s is a very distorted picture of market and the audience.  We really can't see the much larger P2 groups or fans of other stations that could also be users of our product.   No doubt the low cost of doing music testing and asking a few questions of the super P1s in your database is worth it, but we have to realize it's not a very complete picture.   

The advent of PPM, the changes in the way the world communicates, and the economic realities are all combining, making the old styles of research outdated and ineffective.  

Spending 50K (or more) on a perceptual study that only reaches the households that will bother to answer the phone and hang with a 25 minute questionnaire are gone.  While we used to justify using the telephone with 'that's the way Arbitron does it' it doesn't work anymore.  Even Arbitron is trying to use address based samples to gather the sample and in PPM they pretty much keep the same panel for up to 18 months.   

Not only do we lack the budget in today's world - is the data still giving us an useful picture?  

In PPM we are now looking more at behavior - not recall.   To be effective we actually have to understand how they behave, not just what they remember or what we've drilled into their brains.   But, we've pretty much quit asking the questions in an organized and strategic format.   And it's happening at a time when we have a complete overhaul going on in the media landscape.  This is like shutting down all the weather monitoring systems in Oklahoma in February for 8 months - we'll just keep looking out the window for those pesky tornadoes.  

It's time to get our heads out of the sand and start listening to the audience again, but we also need a new model.   The perceptual studies from the 70s/80s are too slow, cumbersome and expensive in today's world.   On top of that we are still asking lots of questions that date back to the recall days of measurement.   

It's time for innovation in research, but is anyone working on it?  


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