What To Do About Nielsen’s Headphones Bonus

What To Do About Nielsen’s Headphones Bonus

by Tracy Johnson

And so The Rating Game adjusts yet again. Nielsen has changed the methodology for gathering listening estimates in PPM markets by implementing a headphones bonus, and early returns indicate AQH has increased as a result. Of course, It should increase when measured listening is increased by 50%. It’s enough to drive broadcasters nuts, but smart broadcasters should use this current change to spike ratings.

To their credit, Nielsen is addressing an ongoing issue of how to measure listening that takes place via headphones or earbuds. As you know, meters capture inaudible radio encoded on broadcast signals. One of the many flaws in the system has been the inability to account for audio that’s consumed but not available to the encoders.

This is particularly relevant because:

  • Listening to all audio via online streams, smart speakers and apps is rising, and
  • Personal listening to all audio sources is also increasing.

So the research company conducted a study of around 1,700-meter carriers in PPM markets to determine how much listening takes place via headphones or earbuds.

Nielsen’s Headphones Bonus Solution: It’s a “Joke”

Headphone and earbud listening is a factor, for sure. Data shows that nearly half of those who listen at work choose this method “mostly or always”. Here’s proof from Jacobs Media’s industry study of radio listeners.






But Nielsen’s reaction to this real thing is curious, and that’s being nice.

Based on their findings, the geniuses behind the fortunes of thousands of broadcasters have decided that all online streaming, app, and smart speaker listening will receive a headphone bonus of 50-70%. 

That’s right. They’re guessing (based on a relatively small survey) that this will more accurately reflect actual listening through headphones.

I talked to several programmers I respect and trust to get a reaction. One described this move as,

The whole thing is a joke. They are already having to weight data in the younger demos because of the lack of meter holders. When data is weighted it becomes less reliable. Now Nielsen is going to weight the data even more. And it becomes less and less reliable.

And more and more volatile.

The Impact on AQH

That means every hour of listening to any audio stream is now worth 90 minutes. A 50% bonus! It’s now more valuable to attract online listening than over-the-air tune-in.

On the surface, this helps repair a significant issue faced by all radio stations: What can we do about declining AQH? Simple. Weigh the actual listening higher. We create new quarter-hours out of thin air.

And it’s working already.

According to Inside Radio, October showed a 6% increase in AQH compared to September. But 2/3 of that increase comes from the headphone bonus.

Two-thirds of the increase (or 4%) came from the implementation of a new way to account for listening that occurs on headphones, known as the “headphone adjustment factor.” The remaining 2% is organic or what Nielsen calls the “fall growth period,” marked by a return to school for many, more cars on the road and the re-emergence of more typical fall lifestyles.

That makes for great headlines, but some smart broadcasters question the integrity of weighting the data so heavily:

I’m glad they’re doing something to try and account for listening that hasn’t been measured in the past. But there’s no way simply adding quarter hour weighting to headphone listening is the solutions.

Still, as I point out in my eBook The Ratings Game, programmers have to play the game based on how the rules are written. So here’s what you should do now.

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Every Radio Station Should Do This Immediately

This is a major development with massive potential repercussions for radio programmers.

At a minimum, every station in a PPM market should immediately make moves to compete for the headphones bonus:

  1. Make sure you’re streaming encoded audio.
    Many stations are not. They assume that since the over-the-air signal is encoded, the stream is, too. You need a separate encoder. And it must be leased from…Nielsen. They make it convenient, though, by adding it to your existing invoice. If you aren’t encoding the stream, you aren’t getting credit for online listening.
  2. Convert digital streams to Total Line Reporting. Stop separating the online feed during stop sets. Splitting the signal may add a few pennies in extra revenue from ad-insertion. But it could cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential rating gains. One Top 10 client’s AQH Rating rose from .2 to .3 (a 50% AQH Rating increase) in one month by taking advantage of the headphones bonus and going to Total Line Reporting.
  3. Make it easy to listen digitally. Invest in a smart speaker skill, then promote aggressively so listeners know how to activate their smart speakers to hear your station. Remember, all digital listening gets the rating bonus. Better yet, buy multiple skills to make it easy to listen to on-demand content for popular features. Promote “Alexa, play Second Date Update” delivers on-demand listening that credits the original quarter-hour (see point #5 below).
  4. Make it easier to turn on the stream. It’s time to de-clutter the website anyway, Make that play button big and bold in as many places as possible.
  5. Use techniques to spike on-demand listening. Another major flaw quirk is that on-demand listening within 24 hours is credited to the time the content originally airs. Now it counts 50% more. Here’s how to take advantage of it.

Once those adjustments are made, take the next step.

Spike Ratings To Leverage the Headphones Bonus

Here it is.  It’s easy.

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Online marketing is inexpensive, easy to target, and with the right Call-to-Action (CTA) causes an immediate response. But now there’s a major bonus for every meter delivered to the online stream.

But don’t advertise the station’s brand image and position. Promote specific content with an urgent CTA. For example:

  • Target ads at specific times to highligh special features airing right now or in the next few minutes:
    • Popular benchmark features on a personality-based show.
    • Special music programming, such as a lunch-time 90s at Noon feature, an All-80s Weekend, or an artist tribute.
  • Promote contests and giveaways:
    • Design specific ads to appear at specific times to drive tune in right now to win.
    • Re-imagine contests and promotions to give away more prizes in a shorter period of time and promote it aggressively. Blowing out all concert tickets in one hour could drive more listening (and attention) than giving them away at various times all week.
  • Promote on-demand audio for 24 hours.
    • Buy online ads that lead users to hear a hilarious prank call from this morning’s show or the talk host’s take on the issue of the day. I explain exactly how to set this up here.
    • Use on-air assets to promote on-demand listening. Imagine driving a current on-air listener to tune in to an on-demand feature. A single quarter-hour of actual real-time listening could count for 2.5 quarter-hours.

Finally, use one of the most effective and efficient methods of promotion: the email database.


I applaud Nielsen for acknowledging a flaw in the system. But adding 50% to all online listening is making a bad situation worse. As one programmer put it:

How about coming up with a solution that will accurately measure listening?

Still, when life serves lemons, make lemonade. Smart programmers, personalities, and marketers will apply some of these techniques and more to aggressively reap the benefits of the headphones bonus.


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