Tom Webster, writing and speaking

"Blue Sky" Research and the Radio Industry

Added on by Tom Webster.

549CB652-9C5B-4C16-8C54-BFE3DA49C45D.jpgLast year I sat in a large ballroom at the Advertising Research Foundation conference in New York, listening to the CEO's of the four largest market research companies in the world talk about data quality and the trends facing our industry over the next five years. I love this conference above all others, for two reasons: one, the spirit of the conference is always focused specifically on what we can do to make advertising and advertising research more effective (and not what we can't do), and second, because these three days (and the ARF's Ogilvy Awards dinner) are all about agencies, advertisers and their market research partners telling great stories about how data and insight led to the development and marketing of some of the coolest products in the world. In previous years, this conference has featured great co-presented case studies on the research and insight that went into such great brands as Red Bull, Toyota, Nike/+, and (PRODUCT) RED.

Over the course of my career I have had the opportunity to work with pharmaceuticals, financial services companies, television networks, technology and software companies, podcasters, advertising agencies and even the Federal Government, as well as work in broadcast and internet radio. All of the work I have done for these entities can be boiled down to essentially three types of research:

  1. Comparative Research (measuring one product or service against others, or against some form of benchmark)
  2. "Fire Alarm" Research (meant to respond to some kind of unforeseen crisis)
  3. "Blue Sky" Research--meant to gain new insight into consumers in order to develop a new product or even a new category

It is this third type of research that has resulted in some of the coolest work I've ever had the privilege to be involved with--work that genuinely breaks new ground in consumer insight to identify opportunities and create value (to "delight customers profitably," as an old B-School prof of mine put it.) In the radio industry, we tend to do a lot of #1, too much of #2, and absolutely none of #3. A format search, as the radio industry accepts it, is typically a #1 exercise. We compare existing format prototypes against existing stations and try to identify "holes" or opportunities. In actuality, this sort of exercise doesn't identify any real opportunity in the market, it merely identifies a hypothetical gap between two existing products, and attempts to speculate how many listeners might switch chairs. In other words, it examines our view of the product, and not the listener. Any "blue sky" research I have been involved with has been in other industries.

Without the more speculative inquiries and insight generated by "blue sky" research, the radio industry will continue to focus in on ever-dwindling bulls-eyes at a time when it most needs to take some risks and expand radio's horizons. This type of research, both qualitative and quantitative, is the key to generating insight and understanding into our listeners. In the past, when I have suggested even 'sneaking' these sorts of explorations into our traditional strategic radio surveys, they are often shot down, or cut to make room for yet another "what station features the best contests and games" benchmarking question. That sort of question wins dubious battles, and does nothing to win the war.

So, here is the gauntlet I throw down to the radio industry: put away last year's study. Lock it in a drawer. Toss the key. Have the courage to commission the kind of "Blue Sky" research this industry sorely needs to unlock the potential future of broadcast radio and keep an open mind about what it takes to realize that future. What got you here will never get you there.

Opinions expressed here are my own, and do not reflect my employer.