November 19, 2014
Four years ago, Carolyn Gilbert got together with Marc Chase, Leigh Jacobs, Erin Gabbard and Mike O'Connor and formed NuVoodoo Media Services, a research company aligned with the changing paradigms of both media and research. Despite a recessionary economic climate and "old work" mindsets that continue to inhibit radio's growth, NuVoodoo has found a growing acceptance for its insight and perspective. Here, Carolyn Gilbert discusses what she has discovered in the past four years - and how she believes radio can succeed in the future
You've been running NuVoodoo for four years. Through all your research in that time, has anything you discovered surprised you so far?
I'm kind of surprised people are buying our stuff. When you think of it, it was absolutely insane to start a business in 2010 for traditional media and expect it to do well. But the biggest surprise we've found is in how many people want to do things differently, who've decided to use our data, set up a strategy and just go for it -- and it's working for our clients, which is the best part.
I'm also surprised that so many people still don't fully understand the fundamental changes that have happened not only in broadcasting and traditional media, but all industries. The failure to change and move forward has crippled some companies.
What things about the radio business have disappointed you?
We talk a lot about attracting young people to the industry, but I'm saddened by how many people I meet in some companies who are just hoping the business can last until their careers are over rather than work to build a future for radio -- because there can be very bright future if we focus on consumers and deliver a product they want. Some of us have forgotten what this business is about.
What's the bigger challenge -- reaching the appropriate conclusions from your studies, or properly applying those conclusions to the business?
Properly applying conclusions to the business, but just as important is truly understanding what business they are in. Why? Because of the fundamental change we've already discussed. One mistake is thinking we were in the music business, when we're not. Another is failing to understand that for most of our careers, there was a barrier to entry for radio. If you didn't have a transmitter and a license, you couldn't reach consumers. That barrier to entry is gone, yet we still have a lot people who are flailing because the formulas that worked in the '80s and '90s aren't working today
Are you satisfied with the way your research has been applied? Are there ways to use it more effectively?
We have lost our assumptions. I've come up against clients who say, "We have been asking these questions and tracking their answers for the last 40 years." I say, "Why? We're in a different business today. We need to ask different questions." One of radio's problems is asking questions about things people don't care about. That's a battle we have with some clients who want to ask their listeners questions about slogans like, "#1 music station" or "Today's #1 hit music," when listeners generally answer that they don't care about your slogan. Rather, their response is, "I want you entertain me and be a part of my life."
Unfortunately, some radio stations have lost that magic connection with listeners who now have so many other entertainment options. That's when stations find out, "Maybe we're not as good as we thought we were." Yet they're still scared to take chances on doing different things.
Another thing is people have misused research for generations. They believe it's an exercise of subtraction, and keep taking away things they think people don't like - and then wind up with less and less and less to offer. People who are winning now are taking chances. I almost hate to say this, but many of the people who are taking big chances are in non-commercial radio. The NPR people are doing some very creative things. Some of them work, some don't, but at least they're doing compelling programming.
Is landline callout the dodo bird of research?
Absolutely. Every methodology you use has a flaw of some kind, whether in-person or online. But the landline phones' flaw is that you can only effectively reach only 16% of the population today, and that number's only going down. Landline phones made sense when Arbitron used them. Back then it had 99% penetration and people answered their phones. Good luck finding anyone answering a landline phone today. If it wasn't part of an alarm system, most people wouldn't even need one. By in large, people are either disconnecting or at least not answering landline phones anymore.
On the other hand, reaching people via cellphones, at this point, is offensive to me. Interrupting them with marketing or research of any kind is a silly way to go about it. Research has gone from a "push work" -- where marketers and research push things out to people - to "pull work," where people decide when to be marketed and when to take part in research. We use online research because we have access to millions of respondents instead of a few hundred. Our samples are better, bigger and more diverse. We get better results because respondents cooperate when they want to instead of when we tell them to.
What, in your mind, is the main problem in radio's resistance to change?
Radio is not good at selling benefits. It's constantly promoting attributes. Playing "10 in a row" is not a benefit. Why would listeners care? It makes no difference to them; it doesn't make their lives better. They can get 1,000 songs in a row on their iPods. Why would they use us if we don't relate to them?
What benefits should radio be selling?
How it makes you feel. Can you imagine on old analogy like Kentucky Fried Chicken advertising that all they're doing is boiling dead chicken parts in oil? "Ten songs in a row" ... "Your favorites from the '70s, '80s, '90s" ... These are not benefits; a benefit is keeping you informed, making you feel good, making your day better by giving you things you need to know to make you a better person ... even keeping in touch with people like you, or helping you sing along to music you love. That means more than playing 10 songs in a row.
You know who else plays x number of songs in a row? Pandora. One fact we found out about Pandora ... we did a summer study, which included Pandora, when we asked people if they liked the last 10 songs they heard on Pandora or the last 10 songs on radio, people actually preferred the way we curate music as opposed to what they get from Pandora. We actually do have a music advantage; we absolutely have to play that up and optimize that benefit.
What so-called "benefits" should radio not be selling?
Besides the fact that radio talks at listeners, not with them ... there have been a lot of studies on audio that show that highly produced promos can be wonderful in the production studio, but essentially it's a lot of sound effects, screaming and may not resonate with the target audience. That may amuse people at the radio station, but it's totally irrelevant to the consumer. I remember being played some promos from a bunch of AC guys -- they were all men -- and the promos were brilliantly produced. They were so proud of their sound-effects guy, and the copy discussed the contest and the announcer said, "... all you have to do to win."
I said, "Stop the tape ... I'm a 40-year-old woman. I have to get through the day, making my boss happy and deciding what to make for dinner. I also have to answer the phone, talk to the kids and deal with their problems, pick up the dry cleaning on my way home, and while I'm sitting in rush-hour traffic, I don't HAVE to do a damn thing for you, no matter how cool it sounds on the air." We have to begin to speak to consumers like they're people and stop talking to ourselves.
I had that conversation with those AC PDs15 years ago, and today very little has changed when it comes to their perception of their female audiences. In their defense, I think part of it is because an awful lot of the job programmers have to do is filling out spreadsheets from corporate -- instead of spending time finding out how to please the listener, finding out who she is, what she talks about and what she's interested in.
Another problem is that radio has devalued the currency of commercials. We don't make commercials a part of the compelling content we should be giving the listener. And we absolutely could do it. Commercials can be wonderful. Everyone watches the Super Bowl for the commercials, but we underserve both listener and advertiser when we treat commercials as dispensable. When done well, they can keep people through the spots to the records. It will also drive more traffic to our clients (which is our job, right?). We can do a much better job than scheduling nine minutes of screaming car commercials, which will drive anybody away.
In a recent NuVoodoo column, you wrote, "In a new media world, we must get new answers -- and we've got to ask better questions." What questions would they be?
How do we fit into listener lives? What are they doing when they're listening to us? Can we be where they are? How can we provide better service? It's more about the listeners and less about us. But we ask them the same questions over and over again, to the point where they go, "Stop it, I don't care. Your jingles and positioning statements have no meaning to my life. I'd actually care about your personalities if they related to me."
You've written a lot about meter wearers and how different they are from the general public. But if attracting them may be work PPM-wise, will it generate results for advertisers who want the general public?
You are reaching the public, but you're focusing on the PPM wearer. Ratings don't necessarily generate a "fair" report; there's no grading on the curve. The fact is that ad rates and buys are based on those ratings, and therefore your revenue is based on those ratings, so to go after the whole world instead of that specific target of PPM wearers won't work. If you don't have ratings support, you can't sustain your station. It may not be not fair; it may not be right, but these are the rules we're given -- rules we've always had.
In that light, certain nice radio formats really don't have a place in a PPM world.
That's absolutely possible. Look at the formats that essentially went away when PPM came on. I don't think people stopped liking Smooth Jazz; it just can't be monetized as well. And by the way, there can be a balance where you have to market to PPM wearers, but you can still program to everybody. But you always have to market to the PPM wearer.
There has been a debate about the eroding ratings of Talk product, particularly the partisan conservative segment. Do you agree with that assessment?
Those stations' core listeners demand voices that resonate with their own viewpoints and never vary from their ideology. Many of the hosts who play to these core listeners reinforce those positions, taking calls from listeners who quote from other Conservative-leaning media, booking guests who are in sync with their positions and staying focused on the same few issues hour after hour, day after day. Over time, even the faithful are bound to stray occasionally or get tired and become less faithful. Having imaged itself as being only for those of a particular political opinion, the station finds itself with diminished prospects. And who said that the only kind of talk that can be monetized is angry white guy conserva-talk? There are a lot more things to talk about. They're talking on TV. They're talking on NPR. They're talking in podcasts.
Talk radio needs to be bigger and wider and more inclusive than it is today. It should be on the rise instead of the decline. But, we'll need more voices and greater experimentation to get there.
How does a Talk radio show succeed without appealing to only angry old white males?
NBC and ABC have done morning talk radio for women for generations with Today and Good Morning America, respectively. Oprah was the daytime Talk queen for years; now it's Ellen. There's also The View. Frankly, most women I know watch GMA and Today while they get ready to go to work; they gave up on morning Zoo-like talk radio quite a while ago. Why? Because radio decided the only opportunity to succeed with Talk was to be loud and obnoxious in the morning, or to appeal to the angry white guy, yelling about the same things all day long.
The truth is, people talk about a lot of things that aren't talked about on Talk radio. This is an opportunity for radio to reinvent itself again. Stop thinking about way we have been doing radio. Look at what people are doing and how they're behaving, then adapt your product to work out there, what's really going on outside your window. We only limit ourselves when we think "we can't go there."
On the music side, is playing the records first an attribute or a benefit for a radio station?
In some cases, being the first to play new songs doesn't connect because the station ends up playing too many stiffs. In other cases, however, the messaging gets in the way. What's the benefit to the consumer? For those who are actively seeking new music and using radio for music discovery, the benefit is clear. But, for the (often) larger group - those a little less plugged into new music - the benefit may not be so obvious. In the latter case, getting the messaging dialed in exactly - right from the start - can make or break the tactic.
You've said that the idea of consumer research is to make statistically sure that our instincts are aligned with consumer opinion - the proverbial gut check. How does one do that?
It goes back to what we've been talking about; it's all about paying attention. Look out the window and see what people are doing and what works with them.
Cash contests - you believe giving out a number of smaller cash prizes is better than one big jackpot. Why?
Even in 2014, $100 is a nice prize -- in a vacuum. Of course, that $100 sounds paltry if a direct competitor ups the ante to $500 or $1,000. But, our point here is that there's drawing power in spreading the contest prize amounts more thinly - as long as it's coupled with higher frequency (and the resulting perception of a greater chance) of winning.
Does it still work with the "nth caller" giveaways?
"The 8th caller" doesn't quite do it anymore. The best way to set up a contest is through texting. The fact is 100 bucks is still meaningful when you're giving it away 10 times a day without cluttering up the air - and silent contesting through texting works beautifully. Giving away $100 every hour 10 hours a day is more meaningful to more people than $1,000 once a day. You can still buy something nice with $100. Even if you use it to take your family to a nice dinner, it makes you feel good.
Bottom line: What's the first thing radio should do to improve its fortunes?
Pay more attention to your listener as well as your advertiser - and deal with the debt. A lot of radio today is being run by MBAs and spread sheets. I hate to say that, but the fact of the matter is that's what going on. We have to better serve our consumers and advertisers - and not just the banks ... and that's the biggest problem. It's really what's going on out there. Too many of us have forgotten what business we're in. I know too many great programmers and managers at those companies whose hands are tied because they've got to fill out forms for corporate. They're spending their days doing that instead of spending time with advertisers, working on promotions, and being out with their audiences. The more you go out and touch people, the more you can develop new programming to reach them. And there are great groups out there whose programmers who don't have their hands tied -- and we're seeing them start to emerge from the pack. Radio was the original social media. It can be as vibrant and community-building today as it ever was.