Is Different Really Better?
July 5, 2011
Achieving Product Differentiation
One of the biggest problems Urban-formatted stations will face this year is meaningful product differentiation.
Most of your ratings success still comes from a very small group of extremely passionate listeners and when similar products are introduced, it limits your ability to maintain your ratings levels. Obviously, the more distinct you are, the better. Choice has always been challenging, and now given the explosion of digital offerings, it's even more of an issue. Even in large markets with hundreds of zip codes and population shifts, it s still 10 or more zips that make all the difference. That difference is directly tied to product differentiation.
In a larger sense though, when it is done right, product differential can potentially be Urban radio's biggest asset. We exist in an environment where, fortunately, many owners, managers, programmers and consultants can't explain why their stations have consistently better ratings than their competition and of course, they can't expect the audience to figure it out. They're just glad it's happening. The real problem is that many format-similar music stations today are in such a musical blur that you can't tell the difference between them.
By being as pure as it can be within the format, with strong artists and songs, Urban formats can provide instant and easily identifiable product differentiation. And leading the way is the format's newest generation of music, the new traditionalists. A quick look at other generations would include a list of those who started it, or "the roots," the traditionalists who are still important to the format, and the hybrid crossovers who made Urban music and artists accessible to a greater range of listeners.
We believe the new Urban traditionalists to be artists who are refocusing the music and as they do that, the format has the chance to re-define itself more narrowly. We definitely have to include hip-hop in this group of artists.
A few Urban stations got into trouble with crossovers because they caused the format to become too broad. There are some Urban stations still trying to be the "crossover station." In some markets it works. In others, it doesn't. A few Urban stations tried to broaden their appeal by doing things such as adjusting down their rotations and becoming too soft during middays, in an attempt to capture some at-work adult listeners. They wound up doing serious damage because particularly with meter measurement, they're shared on such a short basis with other stations.
Moving On Means Changing The Balance
For Urban Adult stations, moving on means changing the balance of sound to "one of more new traditionalists and older traditional artists to a certain extent, with a limited amount of crossover." The latter is for flavor, but not to the extent that it's been used in by some stations in the last few years.
As many Top 40 and Rhythmic stations begin to sound more Urban, the product differentiation will be more marked. Some of these stations went too far. They got to the point where they were afraid to be known and sold as Urban. They wanted the Urban buys and the Arbitron numbers that often came as a result of playing Urban jams, but inside closed doors, they wanted, at the very least, to be known as Top 40/Rhythmics.
There are usually a couple ways to distinguish between Rhythmic-leaning Top 40 or CHR/Rhythmics and Urban stations. One is to look at the color of the programmer and the other is to listen to Sunday morning. Also helping stations in the product differentiation battle is that Urban is one of the only formats with some specific artists and public service announcements not heard on other formats.
Cume and TSL Concerns
Here are some thoughts on future musically based Time Spent Listening (TSL) and cume considerations. The true audience hasn't been served lately as stations have vacillated between variations of what they thought they should be. We have to take care of business and super-serve our real core listeners. We should be more inclined to make certain we have the needs of our core audience covered than to worry about all these peripheral usage concepts.
The majority of Urban stations aren't sensitive enough to TSL levels. They're all trying to out-cume each other by running tight gold and recurrent lists and fast gold rotations. We need to take full advantage of the Urban listeners' loyalty traits by giving them what they need to listen longer. We have to stop beating them up with fast gold rotations and give them more new music and more variety.
It is the new traditionalists who will serve this core going forward. You've got to have this sound to keep the format alive and those loyal listeners locked on your frequency. This is even more important in those markets where Arbitron's PPM has replaced the diary.
There's also an opportunity developing for Urban radio to attract 25-49 men in larger numbers. Urban radio's key benefit to men is that even though it traditionally appeals mostly to a non-Arbitron defined category that is 18-39 and female leaning, it's still one of the most current intensive of adult formats. Males like current-based formats but don't have that many to choose from. We'll get to the point where most markets will be able to accommodate two Urban stations. Along with that, the format will be fragmented into two types: Not just mainstream and adult, but foreground and background. Both can be successful, depending on the individual market situations.
The new music will lead the way to a more current-based format. We'll have to skew more current. Most Urban stations have very high TSL, exclusive cume and a huge loyalty factor. But we can't just keep playing the jams we've been playing the last 15 years every 30 hours and hope to keep the present audience's interest, yet alone expect to grow the shares. The audience has many choices when it comes to accessing audio content (on-air, online, in-game, in-home, in-car or Internet-connected device.)
As the move to currents takes place, we see many of the gold songs, which have been format staples, being severely limited or phased out. These high Oldies rotations have destroyed much of the music. We find them, research them and burn them out and then run a music test that shows us they're burned, so we cut the library. Stations that had 900 titles a few years ago are now down to 250-300.
With an Urban Adult format, gold and long-term recurrents are important because of the familiarity factor, but we've limited it by beating up on the oldies so much it's hurt the format. It's a good thing we have still have quality new artists we can use to build familiarity so they can replace the music we've destroyed because we've overplayed it.
Including new artists will allow the format to move ahead. A format can't move forward until it has new artists of sufficient quality to replace the old ones. Urban radio is now at that point. We have to find and then skillfully schedule the best powers -- both old and new. The right power currents and golds will not only help to achieve product differentiation; they will also prove that different really is better.