5 Things Digital Media Can Learn From Radio
Radio is the ugly stepchild of the media world. Once the herald of a new electronic age, it now fights for market share with the also lowly billboards. Planners relegate Radio to “support media for TV” status.
If Rodney Dangerfield sold media, it would certainly be Radio. However, many of the smartest business people today are in Radio and the medium regularly outperforms its peers in profitability. There is much Digital Media can learn.
Below are just 5 examples:
1. Niche Audiences: Before TV, Radio was the national mass medium. At some point, survival required Radio to segment radically and even top stations became niche. They adapted by first narrowing their target and then by consolidating into station groups with multi-station, multi-target strategies.
At the heart of Radio’s success today is their understanding of niche audiences. In the US, there are over 50 “official” music formats measured by Arbitron and probably dozens of other “unofficial” ones. New formats are being created all the time as music tastes and demographics change.
While everybody wants to be the next Google, Facebook or Yahoo, many new digital ventures make the mistake of going too broad. It is much easier to build a large audience if people are passionate about your product, and that usually requires focusing your efforts.
2. Content Research: Radio stations are constantly researching their product. Stations do “dial group” research as often as once a month to continually track the changing preferences of their target audience. Smart Digital players are catching on, but usability testing is still grossly underutilized.
While Internet has the advantage of instant audience feedback, clearly more consumer understanding is needed. It is not enough to know merely what consumers like and what they don’t. It is also important to know why and how they use the medium. Usability testing should be constantly ongoing and focus groups should be done annually, at a minimum.
3. Consistency: While developers like to be innovative, audiences like familiarity. In the1960’s Westinghouse pioneered the “news wheel” format, which repeated the news every 20 minutes. A perpetual “whir” noise sounding like printing presses goes on in the background. They kept constant what would be announced and when (i.e. Sports on the twos, Traffic on the fours). It was, and is, one of the most successful formats ever.
Music and talk stations have similar, if less strict formats. On music stations, informational services like news, traffic and weather are read at approximately the same times each hour. Talk radio personalities repeat topics on a cycle. The durations of the cycles are adapted to both listener habits and research methodology for maximum effect. “New Media” people, who think they are inventing all the tricks, clearly have never taken a serious look at the Radio business.
Jacob Nielson, the usability guru, argues strongly for the type of familiarity in Digital that Radio has provided for decades. Re-designs should be approached with caution, no matter how bored people are internally with the old look and feel. Moreover, commonly used links should be placed in commonly used places. There is no point in confusing users just so that your site can be “unique.”
4. Day-Parting: Music stations change the content at night to cater to younger audiences. There is different content for drive times, in-office listening and lunchtime. Conversely, web sites treat audiences the same morning, noon and night.
Optimizing content for time of day can take advantage of changing demographics and web surfing habits. Also, adjusting the contrast slightly to suit natural and artificial light can also improve user experience.
5. Promotions: More than anything else, Radio stations excel at getting clients to pay them to promote themselves. They create contests and events that not only build audience loyalty, they earn revenue.
Radio stations set up concerts, contests and other events and convince advertisers to sponsor them. Clients have their brand, and often their product incorporated into the promotion. They often attend the event as well, which give radio salespeople an opportunity to get extra face time without ad agencies getting in the middle. Instead of whining about how TV gets better CPM’s, Radio goes out and builds value for advertisers.
A primary example of how this approach can be adapted to the internet is the French Radio Skyrock’s success with social media.
It is ironic that the oldest and much maligned electronic medium might be the most highly instructive for New Media. However, Radio has continually reinvented itself to adapt to its changing media context and has a lot to teach us all.