Radio insider: ‘In isolation, survey promos simply don’t work’

“Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged.” 
– TS Eliot

The radio survey period is usually typified by a pair of contrasting situations. On the one side, you have the silence of radio executives who are precluded from saying anything about the survey lest their comments interfere with the accuracy of the results. And on the other side, you have have a flood of loud, in-your-face promotions with the sole purpose of pushing listeners in the direction of the various brands in the market.

This year, while NZME played it safe and chose not to comment, MediaWorks group content director Leon Wratt responded saying: “All our MediaWorks brands run promotions all the time from smaller music, DVD and concert ticket giveaways to ‘money can’t buy’ experiences or good old ‘hard cash’. Promotions are a great invitation to experience the brand and from audience feedback we know the reward for listening or engaging with us is appreciated and enjoyed.”  

From a promotional aspect, this year was no different with both organisations staying true to tradition of running a range of promos for brands across their respective portfolios.

Mai FM’s presenters are on bus backs and have also featured in a TV ad, Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking is on billboards across Auckland and has also hitched a ride on the city’s buses, The Edge is marrying people who don’t know each other, the Hauraki morning hosts recently ran a 24-hour show, The Rock recently ran a ‘Threesome at the Playboy Mansion’ stunt, and all the other brands are also running their own promotional stunts (some have even questioned the timing of the announcement of Polly Gillespie and Grant Kereama’s separation).

The justification behind this promotional flurry has long been that it helps to spike numbers for the brands during the survey period. It’s argued that the promos encourage listeners to switch to another brand, thereby giving it a lift when the survey results are released.     

“The predictable cycle of promos across radio survey periods only serves to highlight what’s wrong with the current radio measurement system, a system that sees all emphasis placed on two short windows in the year will inevitably see attempts to skew the numbers over those periods,” says FCB head of strategy Rufus Chuter.

“Given it’s such a competitive revenue landscape you can’t really blame the stations for their behaviour. But it perpetuates quite a short-term mentality and simply highlights the flaw in the current methodology.”

A source close to the radio industry points out that the industry does pay for the survey independently and that it is important to the networks that their brands rate well when the results are released.

“In Australia, where they have millions more people, they can afford continuous monitoring of results, but that isn’t the case here.”

According to the source, the promos also play an important role when it comes to attracting advertisers. Around 75 percent of all radio advertising is still sold direct, which in turn means that a bus back might be enough to convince a potential advertisers to spend a bit on a brand. 

The importance of promos to the process was indicated last year when NZME was criticised for financing its own survey independently. At the time, several voices in the industry said that the independent survey gave NZME an unfair advantage because it gave the network plan to prepare while MediaWorks was caught off-guard. One colourful comment (predictably from an anonymous poster) on StopPress went a step further:

“Imagine a group of people regularly meet for an important running race, and one week they all agree to not run while they all get their shoes sorted. But at the last minute, one person texts the group from down at the starting blocks to say ‘Surprise! The race is still on, starting right now, and the results will be published in the local paper for everyone to see!’ Meanwhile, there’s no way everyone else can get to the start line in time. Is that fair? Are those results valid? Would you understand if the other runners didn’t want the results to be held up as the standard?”

What this overlooks, however, is the question of whether or not the promos during the survey make any difference at all. As one media agency executive (who preferred to remain unnamed) previously put it to StopPress: “No survey promo. What if this doesn’t affect the numbers? Another sacred cow in the cross hairs.” 

Comparing the NZME-backed survey results to those released previously, there were wins and losses for both NZME and MediaWorks—however, this change could just as easily be attributable to the addition of digital diaries to the latest approach.    

Another industry source says “in isolation, survey promos simply don’t work” and more holistic promotional approach, applied throughout the year, is necessary to drive listener numbers (and the source says that this approach is already starting to be applied in the radio industry). 

“Radio is habitual and habits are formed over a longer period of time,” the source says. “And this is why it’s very rare that a new show hits number one immediately after launch. It takes time to build interest and audiences.”

This argument certainly rings true in the sense that it’s difficult to imagine an ad inspiring radio listeners to switch from a brand that they have listened to over an extended period of time. A quick poll around the ICG office anecdotally confirmed this, with most people in the saying they had been listening to the same one or two radio stations for years and that an ad had never convinced them to do otherwise.     

“Promotions have their place in any business,” says ANZA chief executive Lindsay Mouat. “But it seems that radio promo season is more the result of the current approach to audience research with occasional market sweeps rather than strengthening radio brands and building audiences.”

To rectify this problem and update the research methodologies, the radio industry appointed radio research consultants Peter Don and Eriks Celmins to look into an alternative. The recommendations were then put to several research agencies, and the incumbent TNS lost out to GfK.

“We took that base of interviews that had been happening over the course of two six-week surveys and modelled it to see what we might be able to do over a much longer period,” Don said at the time. 

The new system will incorporate 40 weeks of data capture and extend the footprint of measurement from the current 2.9 million to 3.9 million, thereby providing a more holistic analysis of the radio market.

And given that a patch of concentrated advertising is unlikely to skew the results one way or the other, radio promo season is likely to become a thing of the past, with ad spend and promotions being dispersed more evenly across the year—thereby letting go of the promo tradition that has for so long entertained us.    

“I am hopeful that the planned changes in 2016 will remove these inconsistencies,” says Mouat. “Until then, we will all read audience numbers with a degree of mistrust.”     

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