Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Rethinking How Broadcast Media Uses Research

Added on by Tom Webster.

Note: I posted this earlier on Edison's radio industry blog, The Infinite Dial, but decided to cross-post here as well since it really addresses how all traditional media is using market research at the moment. I trust you'll find some relevance here.

2010 is going to be an immensely challenging year for many radio groups, and often when we are challenged, we have a tendency to retreat to positions of comfort. With dollars for things like research and programming consulting being stretched and even eliminated, the budget your station actually has to spend on outside help now has to pass through more hoops, cooks and committees, which often means that there is little bandwidth or stomach for radical departures from what you have done in the past. Yet a radical departure is just what is called for in 2010--what got you here, won't get you there, and if radio continues to trot out the same set of goals for its research initiatives, the industry simply won't be relevant in the years to come.

Fred Jacobs wrote today that "The entertainment and information media marketplace has only become more competitive during this last decade, and yet radio's research techniques are still very 1978." This is a theme that Fred has addressed multiple times in his blog, and I commend him for challenging us all in a time when none of us can say we have the right answers. None of us. However, I completely disagree with his conclusion that the problem is with radio research techniques, and I challenge his impulse to make radio research the straw man in this debate.

First of all, it is a bit disingenuous to pin blame on radio research, when surely Fred and everyone else reading this knows that radio has cut 90% of its research budget. Surely one can't blame research techniques when one hasn't actually made their acquaintance in a while. In a time when radio's need for consumer insights is most dire, the budgets for radio research have been brutally slashed industry-wide. This not only hurts radio, it also helps competitive technologies, outlets and media channels that ARE investing (including with companies like Edison) to further increase the gap. Certainly those clients are hiring us to ask the types of questions to which Fred alludes.

There is a tacit assumption behind Fred's assertion that there are better mousetraps out there, and radio researchers are either unaware of them or unwilling to try them. Well, there are better mousetraps, surely (at least, better questions), and I can certainly speak for the team of researchers at Edison that we are not only fluent in these techniques, we use them daily for our portfolio of political, agency and online media clients. Furthermore, I have no doubt that our research brethren like Warren and Jon at Coleman, or Mark Ramsey, or our partners at Arbitron would say the same.

Yet, time and time again I have been in situations where I've challenged the status quo on a research project, only to have the assembled programming team retreat to safety--cutting away the really interesting stuff so that we can re-ask questions from the last survey for "tracking." I can tell you the direction of radio tracking research, believe me. Often it isn't just the station pushing back--it's the group heads, the regional VP's, and yes, even the programming consultants. I can recall multiple instances in the recent past where we have proposed a line of questioning that could provide key insight into radio's consumers, only to have station management and their consultant question "how is that actionable?"--only to then push for questions like "how should we place our stop sets?" which are not only not actionable, they are unanswerable.

All of us are culpable, and few have been willing to buck the flight to safety and attempt the really hard questions, which, while they carry increased risk of failure, are the key to radio's mandatory transformation over the next couple of years. My biggest regret in these engagements is surely that I didn't push harder. There's a New Year's resolution for me, right there. How about you?

So yes, let's challenge the status quo from your research vendors, but also from your consultants, managers and even your CEO's. You might stand a chance of losing status, face or even your job--but if you don't, you definitely won't have a job in the future of audio entertainment.