The 18-34 Sample Dilemma
May 1, 2012
What do the latest Arbitron ratings tell us about how Urban stations are doing in the battle for audience share from adults 18-34? Clearly there are challenges. It is no secret that Arbitron has had difficulty obtaining usable diaries and increased "carry time" for meters. They have had an especially tough time with 18-34 males. That challenge can lead to wide ratings swings; in addition, Urban radio's niche is now being threatened by Rhythmic and Urban-leaning Top 40 stations, which have quietly been trying to co-opt artists and songs formerly uniquely positioned as Urban or Urban AC. One fact is inescapable: There is a huge amount of audience sharing.
While Arbitron's electronic measurement (PPM) has dramatically reduced response bias (forgetting to record listening, recording listening that didn't occur or recording more listening than occurred) -- processes usually associated with recall-based measurements that we experienced with the diary -- there are still problems. Some of these problems are tied to response rates and sample representation.
Response rate is a gauge as to how "projectable" a survey statistic is to the measured universe. No ratings company can be expected to successfully measure the listening of everyone selected in the initial sample; some people may be unavailable or unable to participate and others may refuse to cooperate. All things being equal, the higher the response rate, the better the estimate.
For example, a 60% response rate in a radio ratings study means that usable listening information was recovered from the majority (60%) of the respondents selected for sampling, and it is assumed that the listening of the unmeasured minority is properly represented by the responders. At a 40% response rate, it is assumed that information recovered from the responding minority (40%) is representative of the non-responding majority.
But here's the rub: Responders are quite different from non-responders. As response rate drop, so does the projectability of the ratings. In other words, as response rates drop the research study becomes increasingly biased against non-responders. Statisticians call this phenomenon "no response bias."
Non-responders are more likely to be younger, (in age and outlook) male, more active in lifestyle, only have a cell phone and from the lowest and highest socio-economic fringes. Most importantly, responders to radio surveys, such as Arbitron, have notably different listening patterns than non-responders.
Sample representation refers to the process in which a survey sample includes all segments of the population. For example, if African-Americans represent 15% of a market's population, then they should compose 15% of a survey sample. To ensure presentation for all demographic groups, Arbitron uses a differential survey treatment for hard-to-reach groups, which includes African-Americans, Hispanics and young males 18-24. This enables Arbitron to maximize responses from and presentation of all these demographic groups.
Nearly all programmers have experienced issues with Arbitron's 18-34 male samples. It's an ongoing problem. Both 18-24 and 25-34 male samples often fall way short of their proportion of the population. Solutions range from weighting the numbers (assigning more value to each diary or meter entry for this demo) and redesigning the packaging to increasing compensation and placing more diaries or meters in the survey. Most of the solutions have either proved too costly or have had little effect, so Arbitron is forced to continue to weight the entries so they equal the proportion of the population.
The lower sample in the 18-34 male demo results in a drop in the reliability of the results. Therefore, we often see huge wobbles with a few heavy-listening entries. Recently in some markets, the return has gotten worse. Arbitron is aware of these problems. It has faced them for years and seeks diligently to find a way to improve the 18-24 and 25-34 male return. Any programmer looking at random sample research can see the problem in reaching that sample and getting them to participate in any type of ratings study. In a changing media climate, response rates have declined due to pressures of telemarketing privacy concerns. Cell phones, call screening, unlisted numbers, caller ID and do-not-call lists have become the defense against a ton of products and services attempting to do research and phone sales. The 18-34 demo is very mobile and difficult to track.
We also have to be aware of all the ways communication has been evolving. We've gone from writing letters to telegraph to telephone to computers, e-mail, smart phones, text messaging and instant messaging. No matter what method is used to collect the data, you need a healthy sample of younger demos. In many markets, this continues to be a problem.
One of the ways we feel that Arbitron might be able to improve the sampling issue is to increase the incentive payout again. In a brave new recession era, where gas costs as much as $4 to $5 a gallon, the current incentive is simply not enough. A higher incentive program needs to be expanded in both demos and markets. Trying in only the worst performing markets is only scratching the surface. Once those improvements are in place, additional measures may still be needed.
Left Brain/Right Brain
Now let's look at some other theories about 18-34 year old male behavior. In order to better understand them, we need to know a little about how their brain processes information. Research in neurology and consumer behavior has shown these generational groups have similarities and differences. Once again we get into left brain/right brain theories and concepts. The left hemisphere of the brain is more specialized for processing verbal information and doing sequential analysis and consciously taking in what's happening. The left brain is the center for writing, speech and calculation. The right brain's major function is the processing of pictorial data, non-verbal information and musical impressions. The right brain seems to operate intuitively, almost automatically, without the individual listener even thinking about many of its functions, such as breathing, etc.
Remember, when the right brain dominates, a much greater number of exposures to a message (promo or one-liner) are necessary to be effective. When you shoot directly at the left brain, you have a much better chance of being effective quickly, and it has proven to be a more certain and speedier way to stand out from the crowd.
Radio listening for adults is essentially a low-involvement activity, especially for passive listeners. Most adults tend to be passives rather than actives; although there are exceptions, our studies have shown that high recall of content and message requires higher involvement, which activates the left brain and makes the listeners come out of the passive, low-involvement state of mind.
Now let's take a quick look at commercial placement and saturation. This commercial-saturation issue affects all stations and ad agencies, along with consumer and listener resistance to the glut and the greed. As a result, marketing productivity has plummeted. Well-designed ad schedules on Urban stations have failed to produce results and not because our stations don't have listeners. They failed because the commercials were the third or fourth ad in a seven-ad stop set. And God forbid if they followed an overplayed, tired 1-800 ad for male enhancement products. Bombarding listeners with more ads will only further alienate them and cause the cume to crumble.
The old demographics and psychographics of the '90s and '00s just don't work with today's generations. The traditional marketing model is not only obsolete; with this group, it is completely out of touch.
Cume Stations And Destination Stations
I believe another one of the answers to today's 18-34 male demo problem is to make Urban formats destination formats. As our listeners age, their preferences naturally lead them to stations that play music that reflects their unchanged musical tastes. With Urban Adult formats, nostalgia is a critical part of the format's success. This format, in a lot of ways, is just reflecting back to that nostalgia. Urban Adult's core is 25-49, leaning female. When looking at that key group, their preferences aren't going to change much over time. But these same adults still want to hear some fresh new jams.
How do we make our formats more destination-oriented? By doing better research, asking better questions and getting better answers. Before we can do any of this, we have to know our primary target. Most stations have some strategic plan. In other words, they know they want to be #1 with a certain group of people. For example, mainstream Urban stations (those that claim they are #1 for hip-hop and R&B and blazing) should target 14-28 or 15-24 year-olds. Those groups tend to drive this format in the spring and summer months when the audience composition has changed.
A lot of Urban stations have been paying too much attention to the females in their audience. They have to switch over and expand their target audience to include the males who are available to listen and who may get a diary or carry a meter. Almost all of these males are into hip-hop. Rap records start with males and cross over to females. When you research these rap songs with strictly females, there will be flaws and gaps. Females respond much more favorably to R&B love songs and ballads and the males respond pretty much to hip-hop.
Additionally, you have to figure out whether there are a significant number of Hispanics in the market. In many markets, this is a growing audience segment that cannot be ignored. It has been my experience that any market with even a small Hispanic population can benefit from the fact that young Hispanics gravitate to Urban and hip-hop music. These Hispanic listeners are an Arbitron-weighted group and appealing to them can work to your advantage.
Depth And Packaging
Next we have to look at depth and what it means to the station's potential cume. Urban radio's depth is both its strength and its weakness. Listeners who grew out of old mainstream Urban formats (one size fits all) would likely appreciate a station with a large music library. However, two contrasting philosophies have developed on how to combine the old with the new.
Traditional mainstream Urbans are really narrowly artist-focused with song depth. The new precept for mainstream Urbans is that they should play their format's favorite songs, play a lot of them, and play a lot of them in a row. As the format evolved, what we found was that when mainstream Urbans had a new competitor or because of the competitive makeup of the market, they had to move their vision of what they were -- if they didn't change, their cume suffered.
It's also been proven that offering "deep cuts" to listeners isn't necessarily a winning philosophy. Keep in mind that radio works on recalled usage. Everybody has a different tolerance level, and the challenge is how to take that formula, shake it up, roll it out again and make it sound fresh. The key is packaging. Packaging is another way to ensure freshness. The combination of the proper packaging and freshness builds cume.
What works really well is to link the two and, in turn, bridge the divide between broadcasters and the advertising community. Usually the smaller, more independent marketing and communications companies develop the radical and transformative business solutions across a broad range of media for their clients.
What we need to do is to continue to use the above information to build new cume and strive to understand and adjust to the uniqueness of our audience's changing generational identities. Winning over the coveted 18-34-year-old male is tough, but not impossible, A great aim is important. So is knowing when to pull the trigger.