The Numbers Behind The Numbers
August 16, 2011
New Insights Into Rating Realities
There's some new thinking that's already quietly making the rounds with a number of programmers in both large and small markets. It has to do with the numbers behind the numbers -- a combination of little things that, when properly interpreted, can create a sharper listener focus and make a difference in how ratings are interpreted.
First of all, all ratings have wobbles and fluctuations. In diary markets, most programmers know not to overreact to monthlies or even whole books. With the "write-it-down era" of the Arbitron diary, it was the incumbent that always seems to score. That's because people don't go home at night and agonize over which station they listened to and how often they listened. They will think for 10 or 15 seconds about what they listened to today and write down what they think or remembered they listened to.
So what's the story in the PPM world? With PPM, it's continuous measurement. You get a "report card" every 30 days and even some indicators in between. In some markets, Urban stations are getting more listenership with PPM because a lot of people, for whatever reason, did not claim that they listened to an Urban station under the diary methodology. And they'd been listening all along. There are other things that are affected differently with PPM, such as heritage.
Heritage means nothing in the sense of ratings credit. With diaries, stations with a lot of heritage would, in essence get some credit by default. That doesn't translate into the PPM world. Additionally, you can get hurt when you lose panelists who are partial to your station or format. There is often a notion that weeklies and monthlies have more credence with continuous measurement than similar ratings spans in the diary world. So you need to be able to understand how to react to weeklies, monthlies and ratings in general. Sometimes the numbers will increase a little just because you have a few more P1s in the sample as a result of panel turnover. Sometimes you will lose listeners. This is normal and you need to know what it is happening to your station. The variation in ratings will most likely be within a statistically-valid range.
With PPM, it's important to understand the difference between Average Time Exposed (ATE) and Time Spent Listening (TSL). It's especially interesting to note how little time listeners actually devote to radio on a weekly basis. It's also important to know in markets being measured by the meter that listeners love music and events. One of the most important things you can do, once you understand these things, is to play the music your target audience wants to hear and create events that can spike listening.
One of the other things that's important to know when looking at the numbers behind the numbers involves target formatting. Target formatting can mean the difference between a P1 and a P2. It involves changing the perception of our stations and stepping outside the format boundaries occasionally. The other trick is about increasing your audience share by scheduling the right crossover music at the right times.
For Urban Adult stations, it means playing some rap songs that are extremely familiar, a.k.a. crossover adult party songs. These are songs that would be a hit at any party, such as Keri Hilson's "Lose Control." They're part of the new strategic thinking about music; there has been a shift in the core of Urban radio's library over the past few years.
We've been moving away from some artists who have been found by everybody's research and overplayed. There is a new theory that hip-hop is replacing rock with a younger male audience. It happens with every generation. In markets such as Chicago, Atlanta, Charleston, Baltimore and Birmingham, the latest Arbitron Spring trends show that the Urban or Urban AC station is not only the format leader, but also the market leader.
If we've learned anything about market leaders in the last few years, it is that a well-programmed Urban or Urban AC station can become the new market leader, despite the competition from format-similar stations that usually have larger signals, better research, and deeper pockets.
How do you combat these things? You combat them by offsetting their advantages by using effective target formatting. It has to do with maintaining the proper balance between consistency and freshness. We can't hope to capture and keep an adult audience with nothing but oldies and ballads, even if they're the right oldies. There must be balance. Balance in tempo, demographic appeal and freshness. It's a proven fact that the Urban audiences are trendsetters, so sameness will not work over the long haul.
If you're going to move from being a strong alternative or P2 station to become the favorite station, target formatting needs to be a part of the plan.
Hipness And Positioning
There is a hipness factor that is part of the numbers behind the numbers. The hipness factor must grow from "occasionally hip" to "always hip." The hipness factor should be delivered on a consistent basis -- in the liners, the contests, the way the air personalities handle callers, etc. The hipness factor is very much like the difference between a bank shot and a slam-dunk. They both go in and the score is the same, but true fans of the game want to see a little swagger and flair, and this is what the hipness factor provides. It helps if you have an in-house production director that gets it, too.
Now, the hipness factor itself cannot repair a floundering format. You still have to do everything else right. And you need the right positioning.
Positioning is using great hip copy that is geared to the audience who is there to hear the music. A positioning statement is a like a promise to your target audience, one which you can never violate ... if you expect to occupy mind share. Occupying mind share can translate directly into higher numbers. These positioning statements should offer a unique benefit to the listener. They serve as a point of reference, not just "#1 for hip-hop and R&B." That statement, like the music it surrounds, has to be changed, updated and produced with different approaches for it to continue to be effective.
Make Your Own Hits
Sometimes you may have to disregard a series of music test scores and follow your gut. Keep in mind, just because a test group said that a song is familiar, doesn't mean they want to hear it over and over. At the other extreme is the notion that songs could be put into a power rotation out of the box. But wait. What about the familiarity precept that says that listeners want to hear songs and artists that they recognize? That answer is it still has to be balanced properly. Too much unfamiliar music sends the wrong message to the target audience.
Who are they? They are people in the outside world, listening to traditional Urban and Urban AC stations. When you put a new jam in a power stack on a station that has high cume, you can, by simply playing that song every four hours, make it familiar to your audience. Sometimes this is what you have to do. You have to make your own hits. Summer is the best time to do this. You still introduce new music first on the night show and then let it spread to other dayparts.
By making your own hits, and target formatting, you accomplish two very important things. You maintain freshness and flavor. And you will pick up new cume that becomes attracted to your station this summer. When fall comes, you will have picked up a younger, hipper audience that will grow with you.
Format Prejudices & Urban Dictates
Despite the progress that has been made, Urban-formatted stations still have format prejudices to overcome. These format prejudices take many forms. One of these forms of exclusionism is personality prejudices. Personality prejudices are still common among formats. Most Urban air talent would prefer to work at a station and with music they're comfortable with and like.
Format prejudices exist outside of PDs, MDs and air personalities. We know there is format prejudice in the advertising community. They're called "Urban dictates" and it's a stigma that has been associated with Urban radio and its listeners for years. I call it the "plexiglass ceiling." When dealing with it, the only thing that gets damaged is your arm or your head as you keep banging against it. As unbelievable as it may sound, there are still a few advertisers and agencies issuing "no-Urban dictates."
It's kind of like while corporate America may be more willing to embrace some exceptional Urban stations, based simply on ratings, we still don't have the opportunity to get the same rewards for being average as the rest of the market. Perhaps most distressing is the stark contrast between where we are now and where many believed we would be, based on their projections of our progress.
There are still some markets that have major advertisers who are not interested in attracting Urban radio's listeners. There were a lot of agency buys that didn't come to Urban radio, so there was a lot of direct selling to businesses. In spite of the fact that Urban radio always worked, pulling a lot of business for its advertisers, we found there are still some clubs that won't advertise even when the act is an Urban or crossover one. The promoters who used Urban stations to promote concerts said their clients claimed there were problems and that advertising on Urban stations brought them a crowd they didn't want.
In some areas where promoters used concerts to illustrate the Urban demographics to advertisers the message didn't get through. There was the initial belief from agencies and major sponsors that the Urban audience was white T-shirt wearing high-school drop-outs whose pants and IQs were both low, and who were often on relief.
Some really sharp sales managers did some surveys. They found that 53% of the audience owned their homes and that some of the top money earners in the market were avid listeners. While this helped, it didn't solve the problem.
One of the hardest things stations have to do is to deal with the morale of the sales people who have to go out there every day and get beat up. They face strong opposition from their clients and advertising agencies. They began to emphasize to the merchants and agencies that that nobody liked Urban music but the people. They used a fresh approach. They said "We don't care if the advertiser doesn't listen to us. We can bring people into their place of business." To prove Urban's knack for attracting business, stations would routinely have photographs taken of the station's most successful retail promotions. Those diversified photos would eventually find their way into staff scrapbooks for future ammunition.
There definitely was, and is, a need for an attitude adjustment. One southern sales manager said, "I used to really get upset when we would have events and get put down. We once had this pro-celebrity golf tournament during which we always had big celebrities from sports and entertainment. A lot of agency people would bring their clients, who didn't like our music. But they would come and drink our liquor, eat our food, bad-mouth us and then not even consider us for a buy."
The attitude adjustment should now include a wake-up call to recognize the black middle class. It's a black middle class that still listens to Urban and Urban AC radio. Just who makes up this black middle class? It's a growing group of African-Americans who have above-average incomes and gained social status. The black middle class was defined by income and status alone, but the black professional class is defined by its members' influence over the twin engines of the American economy - business and politics.
Business and politics still determine some time buys. We first started really noticing it back in the 1990s. The 1990s were halcyon days when people were enormously optimistic about the progress that was going to be made. The 1990s marked the emergence of the first generation of the black professional class able to really benefit from changes in public policy, legislative and judicial mandates against discrimination, increased political activism and increased educational opportunities that began in the 1980s. Now, in spite of the progress that's been made with the election of the first African-American president, there are still some who are trying to turn the clock back on civil rights and on the progress that has been made to the betterment of our industries.
And so in 2011 the very notion that Urban radio only appeals to the lowest common denominator is not only ridiculous, it's been proven wrong. Our stations are mass appeal, as is our music and our humor. It would be impossible for Urban stations to rank at or near the top of the ratings in markets such as Memphis, Birmingham, Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta and New Orleans if the only listeners they had were ghetto blacks. For whatever reasons, some people still have the perception that is the only audience Urban radio attracts.
Although Urban radio currently enjoys fewer problems and better acceptance, traces of the prejudice stigma still exist. Everybody respects money, but there are some who still harbor some prejudices and would rather lose money than admit they are wrong
We can solve the format prejudice problem by being realistic about the future. In schools across the country, tomorrow's work force is being shaped. It's being shaped by schools that teach young people to use their imaginations. That encourages them to create, to perform and to dream. Education is still the great equalizer. Because students who appreciate the conceptual as well as the analytical are the ones who'll create tomorrow's innovations in our industries.
Finally, as African-Americans in media, we are directly affected by the numbers behind the numbers. We have never demanded equality of results, only equality of opportunity. We have to leverage who we are. The values and contributions that we have made to our industries need to be sustained. We must continue to give guidance to our young broadcasters, who are clearly not getting it today. We have to teach them to go inside the numbers and understand the margins. Unfortunately, there isn't a logical, proven step-by-step formula to follow. Instead, there's a chaotic path through the woods. A path which includes side routes encompassing unconventional dedication, unparalleled leadership and daring to dream. Is it a path worth staying on? Only if you want to grow.