December 4, 2012
Direct Line: (248) 227-5547
Additional Website: www.commotion.com
While AM/FM radio parties are lowering their revenue sights for 2013 due to a slow-moving economy and debt load issues, there is one silver lining in the clouds - the revenue growth in digital and mobile. That's where Don Backus and Broadcast Electronics come in. Their Commotion division is geared to optimize revenue growth through social media and mobile apps. Here, Don Backus provides the details the enables Commotion to live up to its name by helping radio raise digital revenue.
So what were you doing before joining Broadcast Electronics and Commotion ... and what made you decide to join the company?
I spent 20 years in radio, both on the air and in management before I moved over to the technology side of the industry, most recently with automation provider Enco Systems as VP/Sales and Marketing. It's clear that radio is facing a number of challenges, but that said, challenges create opportunities. I saw social media and the pervasive mobile platforms out there giving radio, in particular, a huge opportunity to build audience and actually grow ... and joining BE and the Commotion team gave me a chance to be part of a true growth segment of the radio business and contribute to an industry I love.
When you're working on digital platforms, which seem to be evolving at breakneck speed, how long has it taken you to feel comfortable to where the company is at?
I started with Commotion in September, but I'd been aware of it, although certainly not as aware of the power and depth of the platform as I am now. While digital is a constantly moving target and our developers are incredibly active staying on top of things with great ideas and plans, I'm very comfortable with where we are. We offer a great suite of products and platforms, and I have a good handle on what it can do for radio.
My primary task is global market development; I'm basically getting the word out anywhere I have the opportunity to do so. I'm talking to everyone ... stations, groups, consultants, syndicators, international dealers and so on ... spreading the word that what we offer is really unusual for broadcasters. Unlike equipment or infrastructure, Commotion is something that actually generates revenue for radio. On a personal level, it's great sharing with people that what we have is something that really can make them more money.
There is still sentiment in some quarters that the ROI in digital still isn't worth the investment. How do you overcome that train of thought?
Commotion isn't about digital as much as it is about social media and mobile, and leveraging a station's existing programming efforts to create additional return. It helps to have a track record of existing clients, which we have, and then explain to potential clients that even if they're not on Facebook or Twitter personally, a lot of their listeners are. By using social media like we do with Commotion, it can contribute to an interactive, more dynamic listener base that can be marketed to. Stations can actually grow audience just through properly engaging via social media.
That doesn't even take into account the mobile aspect of Commotion, which is an entirely different beast. There are over a million smartphones activated every day -- that's a lot of smartphones out there -- and we create station apps that seamlessly integrate all of the tools we offer. Everything from Crowd Control and our Activity Stream to "Now Playing" information ... a single-branded app with the station's existing streaming plus all of the interactive aspects of Commotion.
People aren't so skeptical once they see that we've got the bigger picture in mind. Once we get past the point of not trying to just 'sell them an app,' but showing them all the ways for them to make money, they lose their skepticism.
The people who started Commotion are all radio guys; we all love radio and want to see it do well. But we realize it'll take a few meetings to get across to folks that we don't want to just do one-time business with them, but develop an ongoing business relationship. That's the only way to deliver a dynamic solution that can work well out of the gate and only get better over time.
Describe how Crowd Control works...
Crowd Control is our approach to crowdsourcing, a way of turning the radio station over to the listeners, be it for a short period of time like just a song or two, or an extended period time, hours or 24/7 if desired. Stations select the songs they want accessible for voting, then we enable listeners to go through the choice of songs and vote, so as voting occurs, choices are made and songs are played. There's more to it under the hood, of course, giving the station a great deal of control, but for listeners it's a straightforward, fun experience and a chance to take control.
Sounds like a variation of Jelli and LDR.
It's the same concept as LDR; although I think we've got a fresh take on certain aspects of it -- for instance, allowing a station-defined variable number of votes per listener. We're excited about the gamification of Crowd Control; making voting more of a game appeals to younger listeners and creates more interaction with the station. By providing more ways for listeners to cast votes and interact, we offer stations more ways to generate revenue. Stations can make branding it part of their promotion, such as the "Chevy Volt Top 5 at 5." Plus, Crowd Control is available on the station website and on its mobile apps; providing access wherever the listener is. And all in a graphically rich and attractive design.
What's more important, that you generate more occasions on Crowd Control, or longer occasions on Crowd Control?
Crowd Control is a part of the listener experience; we think that it can generate more interaction and longer times spent interacting with the station, so the answer is probably neither ... or both. Crowd Control is an optional aspect of Commotion. Not everyone picks it up; some stations don't want to do that kind of thing. They want to give the audience the benefit of the tastes of their Music Director and their own research, as opposed to allowing the audience to directly pick the songs themselves, and that's fine.
On our web widgets and our mobile apps for Android and iPhones, if a station is doing Crowd Control, it's just there. If they're not, it isn't. Web streaming is quite pervasive through the PC browser, but our mobile apps are designed with a specific goal in mind -- to enable listeners to have their favorite radio station with them all the time, wherever they are. We feature the station stream in our app so you can listen to the station while jogging, running errands, playing Angry Birds or sending e-mail. You can also watch or contribute to the Activity Stream, which is the heart and soul of Commotion. It's the place were all the conversation takes place and where the party happens.
What exactly is on the Activity Stream?
What isn't? Everything from comments made on the station's Facebook page(s) to its Twitter feed(s), Instagram, SMS messaging, comments coming from those who participate through the station website or via mobile web ... even messages linked directly to audio cuts played on the air, as they play. Plus, the Activity Stream features comments and posts from the station itself. Listeners can send photos or audio clips directly, or call the request line ... all of that stuff, along with advertising, are encapsulated into a single stream that appears on the station website and the mobile app. The great thing is that the station controls and monetizes the ads that they run on their Activity Stream.
When you direct people to your Facebook page, for instance, a competitor's ad can actually show up - be it a competing station, SiriusXM or Pandora. Plus, there are strict rules about promotions, contests and monetization on sites like Facebook. The same thing goes for being on iHeartRadio, TunedIn or any aggregator of radio streams. We believe that station streams should be available there too. After all, maximum exposure is the goal, but wouldn't it be better to have a dedicated platform where the station can capture the listener on a branded app ... and a platform that the station can monetize instead of a third party?
We provide something that bundlers and aggregators don't provide, which is why we think we can help stations make more money with Commotion than all the other places combined. Digital stream aggregators provide the user experience equivalent of having to scan through an infinite FM dial to find a station to listen to. There's no way to stand out ... no way to be exceptional. We're providing opportunities for exceptional radio stations to be exceptional, and derive financial benefit from their own hard work.
Who handles the oversight of the Activity Stream?
Typically, the station wants to do that. Stations can subscribe their Activity Stream to a number of hashtags for Twitter and Instagram, to bring in certain conversation-driven topics like concerts and local events. We allow for items to be auto-published and we also allow for manual moderation by the host. You may think oversight is a 24/7 job, but it's not -- a lot of the actual dialog is self-policing. People usually share their opinions and feelings with radio stations in a positive manner.
The stream generates a certain commitment. After all, these are people who have chosen to be a part of the listener community with the station. Sure, it could be ugly if a station chooses not to moderate anything and then they combine that with very aggressive or controversial programming, but we'd certainly counsel against that mode of operation. More often than not, our experience has been that people will talk about things that are truly social ... "So-and-so is coming to town" ... "Did you hear about someone else?" ... "I love that song!" ... "Nice day to put up Christmas lights!"
A lot of the success of the Activity Stream is guided by the on-air jock or show producer, who can instantly update the stream and send things from the station to listeners as well. We provide tools to block users who are repeatedly offensive, even retroactively pull things out of the stream. They say everything lives forever on the Net, but if someone puts something nasty on the Activity Stream, a station can go back, clip it out and it disappears. We offer a lot of control over the ability to keep a civil community, but generally speaking, people are pretty cool.
Do you generate a lot of data on usage?
We collect a good deal of analytic data for each station -- data on listeners, music voting, sources and networks -- and we're already finding certain trends. Mobile apps, for instance, are really taking the lion's share of participation. People who participate through the web are greatly outnumbered by people on mobile apps. There's lot more participation because they're "in the moment." We're also finding that the more different ways we give for people to interact with the station and with each other, the more they use the app.
Are you focusing on new programs for your app, or are you more into improving/updating what you already offer?
Our primary emphasis is always improving the user experience by providing more and better tools for stations to serve and grow their audience, and to monetize. We've got some great new features that we're building into our apps and our back-end interface for the station; things like a built-in scheduler for inserting advertising into the Activity Stream that's much improved and easier to operate.
We're also enhancing push messaging. For stations that do a lot of SMS text messages, to run that through a service is expensive for someone. Either the stations or the listeners have to pay the phone companies. Push messaging is different. What Commotion does is allow the listener to subscribe to and be sent messages from a station just like a text -- but it's free. It can be targeted very specifically to subscribers who want to know about school closings, station promotions, alerts or even "the deal of the day." The station controls the categories, the content and the distribution time and the message goes to the subscribers' phones automatically. We see a lot of interest in that.
Are you exerting any energy in alerting the advertising community to your platform?
Our platform is radio. The better the radio station performs, the better Commotion performs for them. We think that radio should be, and is, promoting the power of radio to the advertising community. We're not in the advertising business. We don't take any ad revenue at all; that all goes to the station, so they can make as much as they possibly can. If they can set a revenue record using Commotion, then we're happy to provide a social and mobile method for them to do it.
Considering you're in such a quickly evolving industry, can you even afford to take a long-term perspective to the company's future?
Commotion is a business unit of Broadcast Electronics, a broadcast technology company with over 50 years serving the industry, so we're in broadcasting for the long-term. From the beginning with Commotion, we've taken a big-picture approach to things. We've been very inclusive with new technologies as they become available and smartly leverage them for our clients. For example, our apps are designed to be dynamic and not require going though the Apple or Google app store for every little change. They're designed to be push-updated through our own back-end technology, so when we make little changes, or when the station wants to add something like a mobile weather page automatically, it just pushes through to the listener.
The key is to think strategically while acting tactically. We look at the future as an opportunity to create something that people may not even know they want yet, instead of serving up a warmed-over version of 2010 social or mobile tech. We're trying to solve long-term challenges for radio by providing real solutions as opposed to ideas with a short expiration date.
We believe we ought to be thinking of not what we expect to happen in 2013, but what 2014 will look like. We have to do that kind of thinking to make sure our station partners know that we're not standing in concrete. We strive to be just like our platform -- mobile and agile, with an eye to the future.