March 29, 2011
Expanding The Niche Notion
As we look at today's shifting environment, we find there is more cognitive awareness of what this shift means and how extending the niche can help to grow new audience. In this editorial we are referring to that as an "inflated reality." Musically, there is a trend toward including more '90s gold with Urban AC stations. This was a decade that produced more than its share of sustainable hit jams.
Let's not give these programmers all the credit, though. It was their research that identified the Urban radio listeners and music consumers. Armed with this information the new challenge is to figure out how to relate to and target new younger demographics, specific life groups and income levels. Under PPM it has become even more vital to Urban radio's success to expand its audience base as part of the changing environment in 2011. With all the new distractions and choices, this inflated reality process becomes even more complicated.
A recent study, conducted by one of the largest group owners of Urban-formatted stations, found that 36%of adults aged 18-54 qualify as Urban music fans. Inside that number there are two more groups: a smaller "core" who accounts for the vast majority of Urban spending ... and a larger collection of people referred to as "low-funding fans" who represent future revenue growth. This group spent an average of 24 hours a month listening to Urban radio.
Positives cited were that radio was free and played most of the artists they liked. Negatives centered on repetition and limited playlists, which programmers have seen many times through the years in perceptual research. Overall, the group in the study said they were not as happy with their favorite station as they were a couple years ago. The issue that makes core listeners less happy and what repetition actually means is that you're playing jams they don't like more than they'd like you to.
Whether you're talking about heavy radio users who listen to a lot of Urban radio or Urban consumers who buy a lot of music and attend a lot of concerts, if they're saying they're tired of something and there's too much repetition, we can't ignore them. Terrestrial radio is still the portal, but the danger is if you don't get your act right, they'll find another frequency or device.
The explosion of formats and stations targeting the lucrative, female-leaning 25-54 demos has undoubtedly played a major role in the declining percentage of straight-ahead Urbans' losses of older males. There have been some bold experiments by a handful of stations that given time, may work ... especially in the PPM world. And let's not forget Rhythmic Top 40, which has probably had more to do with the decline than anything else. Not only is the format incredibly popular, it's undergoing its own fragmentation and producing even more stations to vie for a slice of the male upper-demo Urban pie.
For years the brightest minds in our world have been urging their stations to prepare to "choose or lose." To pick a narrower, definable target and lock it up or face failure. The recent decline in Urban's overall 25-54 performance may be a sign that, for many stations, the time to choose is here.
On the other hand, we should point out that an additional 27% of those straight-ahead Urban stations surveyed finished strong in the 18-34 category. So the vast majority of stations aren't losing out on many buys just yet. It's more a case of having to share the wealth a bit more than in the past. But what is most obvious is that there are fewer older males whose fickle fingers are finding Urban frequencies. If you're a late entry in an already overly saturated market, you may not be able to compete for 25-54 males with a straight-ahead Urban format. What does that mean? You may have to settle for a larger slice of a demo race you can win. Making money in a "fringe" format is better than being the 7th or 8th stations in the 25-54 demos and losing money.
In many of our blue-collar markets with significant Hispanic populations, Urban stations have to take advantage of their love for our music and artists and reach out to them. The idea is to market effectively so that they feel that it's their radio station, too. Put some billboards up in those Arbitron zip-codes where you know they live. Make sure you have contestants with Hispanic surnames. Take your van into those neighborhoods. Make part of your website bilingual. And even though the audience in 2011 is aware and perhaps sharper than they were a few years ago, they're not listening as long. There appears to be a very vocal bias that exists in some markets among both whites and blacks who feel Hispanics have pushed their culture on everyone rather than adapting to the existing culture.
The key is to sidestep this hurdle and reach out to Hispanics through your music. Make your music mix more Hispanic-friendly without disenfranchising the core. Remember, most Hispanic listeners have little or no history in the format, so older songs may or may not be popular. It becomes a very delicate balancing act. Now that we're getting into the second and third generations of Latinos, it appears that the assimilation into American culture is slowly taking place. For Urban stations that can bridge the gap, the potential payoffs could be huge.
With a growing ethnic population across America, which is most evident in larger markets, Urban-formatted stations will have to adapt if they are to maintain their
role as the format of choice for those who enjoy its music. And we're going to have to reach outside the African-American audience. A recent Wall Street Journal story noted that foreign-born people now make up 12% of the U.S. population, with Mexico as the leading country of origin. A dwindling white audience and declining black audience makes attracting new listeners an absolute necessity.
The challenge is to replace relocating white and African-American listeners with Hispanic/Latin listeners. How do we do this? We have to research them. Include them in our callout, perceptuals and verbatim research ... then adjust our programming and marketing to include the ever-growing ethnic population. It's not easy, but it can be done. You can chase an audience that isn't totally comfortable with you. You still have to play to your core, but if you expand your base and then stay true to the new listeners' expectations, you're going to be a lot more successful than trying to play the game by appealing to the normal audience composition. The key is to focus on current Urban users and potential users. It's reasonable to assume that a small portion of Hispanics will listen, but will they be sampled by Arbitron and even more important, will they give us credit if they're not a P1? We need meters and diaries in the hands of those who will give us credit. Never quite being able to predict how ethnic weighting and sampling, or lack of, will impact overall ratings is a huge challenge. The secret is to stay precisely focused on the target. If you consistently meet the expectations of your core audience and your expanded core, they will reward you when it's their turn to choose.
Because Urban and Urban adult stations can appeal to such a wide range of demographics, it is important to target life groups as well as ethnic groups. This is essential because you can't own all the life groups within a specific group. We've all heard it said that 25-54 is not a demographic, but a "family reunion." Urban stations need to target 18-34 side of the demo scale while Urban AC stations focus on 25-49 year-olds. Although they obviously overlap in the middle, it's totally unrealistic to think a contemporary music format can be strong in every sub-cell within 18-54. Unless you're in a market that isn't very competitive, your station has to have a brand that transcends the limitations of the appeal of the music you're presenting. This is where Urban stations can find real success. And this only comes with time and consistency.
Everyone has a tendency to over-credit listeners by making them a little bit more music-savvy and event-savvy than they really are. This includes the Latin audience. In today's media-cluttered world, we're just the appliance next to the can-opener in the kitchen. We also often come to the erroneous perception that the audience is hanging on to every word we say, which is where we can get into trouble. Urban stations have to plan, schedule and become involved in everything. We must look to the future on a constant basis and plan things months in advance. If there isn't enough going on, you have to create events for your audience.
Defensive Programming & Unintended Listening
Defensive programming can help your station win, just as it does for sports teams. Urban radio needs to come to terms with the fact that a mass-appeal Urban or Urban AC station is a niche format. And there is no new "one size fits all" quick fixes that GMs are always looking for. Some of these "fad formats" will prove to be a disappointment. They can easily be blocked by effective defensive programming.
In the long run, if a mainstream or adult-leaning Urban station is focused, they can make some effective moves to slow down or stop a competitor, which is depending solely on its music to win. Sure, there will always be a few fringe-flavor records and artists that cross over. But a well-programmed, focused mass-appeal Urban station can "block many shots," especially if they truly understand niche defensive programming.
With the bulk of the population growing older, while Arbitron's PPM is now measuring sub-teens, Urban stations will have to focus and concentrate increasingly on teens and young adults. Teens and sub-teens may seem less important from a sales standpoint. But for ratings purposes, they cannot be ignored.
This is a time of more bottom line-oriented stations. With some of the newly purchased or traded stations, owners may feel that they won't be able to make much money with teen numbers. But the reality is if teens carry a meter and keep your station on, those numbers could swell ... and very quickly. Remember, there is a lot of unintended listening that could result from teens and sub-teens not only being measured, but also keeping everybody in their immediate vicinity exposed to your station. Even if you're an adult-leaning Urban adult station, we don't recommend going after a hip older audience with a steady diet of ballads and oldies. Play the jams adults like that also have teen appeal. The formats can overlap on both sides.
Callout And Spin Totals
We can't really examine, analyze or even talk about reaching an expanded ethnic Urban audience without first looking at the music that could bring them to our side of the dial. And how do we arrive at the decisions we reach? Are today's Urban PDs creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy and in the process, getting lower levels of song recognition? If a single is put into callout research after only a week's worth of spins, is that enough? How about after two weeks? Are 80 spins enough? How about 120? Keep in mind that some Urban and Urban adult stations have syndicated morning and afternoon shows and as a result, a record in heavy rotation might only be getting 30 spins or less. So what's the answer?
It depends on the song, the genre and the amount of market exposure the track is getting. But for some programmers, a week's worth of spins may be enough of a track record to begin their callout research. I spoke to one winning major-market programmer who said putting songs into callout early gives him a better sense of how popular a song is. This is something he wouldn't get if he were to wait until he hit a number like 100 spins. He wants as immediate a barometer as possible from the audience so he can get an early gage on how the audience feels about the new music that's being played on his station.
Personally, I suggest that 100-150 spins should be a minimum for most Urban stations before putting a song into callout -- especially if it's a new artist. Some artists or songs will work immediately. Re-makes for example, with their built-in recognition factor, also can go into callout early.
Here's another thought: If you're the only one on a new song, I'd say you need a minimum of 200 spins before it gets familiar enough to be tested -- especially if it's not an established artist. There are some songs that will just lie out there for weeks and weeks. They won't move up, but they won't go away either. Then there are some artists that will just pop immediately. Sometimes if you have a record that just doesn't show a lot of development or movement, that's when you've got to say, "This record is a stiff" or "This record is a hit." regardless of the research or the demographics
There are also niches within the demographics. For instance, there are different segments of an 18-34 audience. Even if you only target females 18-34, there are some very discernable differences. There are those who are still in college; those who are not ... those who are married and those who are still single. These are the major changes people make in their lives ... changes that affect the way they think.
We don't schedule our music by saying this segment is designed specifically for women who have two kids, but you have to be cognizant of those things. And you have to deal with having a variety of personalities on-air. The midday jock might talk about his/her kids one way while the afternoon guy discusses his in another way. At the same time, the night slammer doesn't have any kids, so he's rapping about other things.
Of all the tactics Urban stations will attempt to use to help them win their ratings battles, one of the most interesting and challenging may be intimacy. A few stations are already benefiting from it and may not even know they're using it. We've all heard about how terrestrial radio's one advantage over the Internet and satellite is localization. Now recent studies have shown that something else we can offer that gives us an edge is intimacy. The combination of localization and intimacy can be very powerful.
Providing intimacy or companionship -- a live, warm human -- offers a distinct advantage and can really help with stations now being measured by Arbitron's PPM. Urban radio is more than capable of providing companionship on a one-on-one basis. Companionship is part of intimacy, and some say it's an elusive quality, although most of us sense it intuitively.
Some are going to ask, "What is intimacy, and why is it important?" Intimacy is a combination of elements. It means communicating effectively with each member of your audience. And yes, as an air personality you still have to make your audience laugh, chuckle or think, or all three -- especially in morning drive. But intimacy is more than that. It's impossible to sound intimate with a member of your audience even if you haven't the vaguest idea who he or she is. That's why it's important and why we recommend the use of the personal listener concept. When you believe you're talking to one good friend, everyone in search of human contact will perceive you are talking to them.
In addition to that one special person you're communicating with, it's extremely beneficial to know the actual makeup of your audience. We may assume everyone is getting up and going to work or school between 6-10 in the morning and then heading back home somewhere between 4:30-7 in the evening. But the latest national surveys are showing that fully a third of our audience doesn't work the traditional 9-5 shift. More and more are working from home. So now that we know this, what do we do with it?
Well, once in a while you can put some backspin on the show by saying something like, "Checked in with Bubba, who works the night shift at [local factory, plant or company], and yesterday he and his homies all listened to us and they want us to know they like the vibe. Jennifer over on the South Side says that on weeknights she listens when she and her friends are headed to the club. Well, check it out, whether you're headed to the club or crib right now, here's a little something to ride with."
Or how about for middays -- and again, this is especially effective for PPM markets --beyond appointment listening and occasions, most savvy programmers have their stations targeted directly at the "desperate housewives," mothers or homemakers. They're out there. They're like everybody else. They are going to get their share of diaries and meters. For this coveted crew of sought-after sisters, you might want to tap into their left brains this way: "For everybody balancing their bankbooks right now, here's a little music to sign checks by." Phrases like that help you to connect; they put you top-of-mind and in emotional contact with some people who are usually left out. Including them is putting intimacy to work.
The glory days when great 12+ ratings meant everything are gone. There are still some stations that, regardless of their target audience, spill over and expand into wider demographics. But as advertisers become sharper and programmers become smarter, the demographic pie is being sliced into smaller slices. The goal is to be as mass appeal as possible and take full advantage of some of the secrets revealed above.
There probably isn't a single programmer who hasn't had to defend the format, either from inside their own station or elsewhere in the industry. The economy is down and billing is off by as much as 30%. Owners and managers want answers. Yet some of the format's make-or-break moments are actually moments of choice. Urban stations today face a daunting array of choices and the real challenges have never been greater. But what if we could reduce the risks by putting in place the right elements designed with the use of real data mining -- sophisticated, real-time analytics and acceptable unpredictability.
Understanding the inflated reality coupled with a shifting Urban environment is important. In many markets you have to look at exactly who makes your numbers happen. Then you should cater musically and promotionally to these listeners and potential listeners. If you have a significant or growing Hispanic population, use your research to include and identify the demos associated with this segment of the population and cater to their lifestyle or culture as well.
It's really simple. If you reach out to your audience, they will tell you what they want and what they don't want. Then you give them what they want ... and eliminate what they don't want. You still have to get in the streets and then make the streets come out of the speakers. Now you just have to expand the streets and then make sure the sound that comes out of the speakers is not distorted.