by Tracy Johnson
Most radio programmers know (mostly) how radio ratings work. The cynical response: Not very well. The Ratings Game is frustrating, maddening, and unreliable. But let’s simplify how to win the game. There are 3 ways to increase radio ratings.
Each of the 3 ways to increase radio ratings can be effective, but one carries the best odds for hitting the jackpot.
The components that make up the ratings system are the same whether a market is measured by PPM or Diary methodology. The ratings Math is explained in detail here, but the short version is that two elements drive ratings growth.
Cume (Cumulative Audience): The total number of people listening to a station in a day (Daily Cume) or week (Weekly cume).
Time Spent Listening (TSL): The total number of quarter hours an individual ratings respondent listens to a radio station.
Before explaining how to increase radio ratings by impacting the core elements, it’s important to understand that cume and TSL are different measurements, but closely related.
Many stations cause damage to stations by overreacting to ratings results. I call it the Ratings Freak Out.
The constant rule is that when TSL goes up, cume almost always goes down. And vice-versa. When cume is up, TSL is usually down.
The reason is because of how little most of a station’s cume listens to a radio station compared to fans. More than 50% of the cume for most radio shows tunes in less than 2.5 minutes per day
Yet the math of ratings reports are an average. When a station’s cume increases, the gains are almost always from new cume that spends very little time with the station. That brings average TSL down.
And when cume is lower, it’s not fans going away. It’s secondary and tertiary listeners. That leaves heavy users making up a greater percentage of the audience. So TSL increases.
Understanding the relationship of cume and TSL is key to managing a ratings strategy properly.
In The Ratings Game, the radio is just like any other business. There are three ways to grow a business. And just three ways to increase radio ratings.
Keep them in mind as your station competes to win a larger audience.
Of the 3 ways to increase radio ratings, this is the only one that costs money. Attracting more customers produces more revenue. And it’s the same for radio. More listeners mean higher ratings.
New customers come through advertising and marketing. That’s a good thing, but it is expensive. And it usually only works for a short time.
Imagine an electronics store advertising a weekend sale with a special price of $199 for a 65 inch television. It will attract new customers for sure. Store traffic will increase and they’ll sell out of TVs.
The weekend sale is successful in adding new customers. But a majority of newly acquired customers don’t become repeat customers. They just came for the special offer. They’re likely to go back to their “favorite” outlet to shop.
It’s the same for radio. A major advertising schedule or marketing campaign can raise awareness. Combined with a special offer to win prizes, it can increase a station’s customer base (cume) for a period of time.
But that doesn’t turn new listeners into fans. When the stimulus (special offer) is over, listeners typically return to normal patterns. The new cume is a small fraction of a station’s overall listening.
Hundreds of stations discover this after switching to all Christmas music for the holidays. Come December 26, most listeners return to previous habits.
This is not to suggest advertising, marketing and contesting are unimportant. Stations must continue to attract new listeners to feed the fan funnel. Smart broadcasters develop a marketing strategy to nurture new listeners to use the station more and, over time, become fans. After all, fans make up a disproportionate amount of overall listening (as much as 90%).
Just realize that getting new listeners is likely to be expensive and drives listening only for the short term.
A popular way to increase sales is leveraging customer relationships to increase spending.
Fast food restaurants know the cost of acquiring a new customer is much higher than the cost of extracting more value from existing customers. That’s why they pile on value offers when a customer orders:
The wholesale cost of a Coke is almost nothing, but if the restaurant can sell a large drink for 50 cents more than a medium, profit margin skyrockets.
Nearly every business has a version of add-on product selling.
Car companies earn more money from upgrades like leather interiors, undercoating, enhanced sound systems, built-in navigation system, satellite radios and OnStar than the actual car. Convince a buyer to return for service and the lifetime value of that customer is worth selling the car at cost, or lower.
For retail, “fries with that” is low hanging fruit. It makes sense to train sales teams to add more to an order. It’s a valid way to increase radio ratings too.
If a radio station can convince current listeners already listening to tune in for an extra quarter hour or two, Time Spent Listening (TSL) increases. Stations can do that with great content, solid promotion and effective teasing. It’s also why preventing tune out is the most effective method of increasing ratings.
But supersizing radio listening is unreliable because most listening takes place in the background. Listeners use radio as a companion to a foreground activity. This is most common when driving, where most listening occurs.
It may be possible to extract a few extra quarter hours with amazing story arcs or serial content (“I had to stay in my car to hear how the story ends”), but that is uncommon.
How many listeners adjust schedules to listen to the radio? Right. Nobody skips a meeting or tells their kids they can’t go to soccer practice because “mama has to listen to the radio”.
That leaves one way to increase radio ratings by getting more listening.
That electronics store with an ad for cheap televisions can capitalize if they follow up with another offer to get new customers to return. Over time, they may convert a percentage of new customers into loyal patrons.
Nearly every retail business realizes the intrinsic value of returning customers. Loyalty programs are designed to increase occasions and form habits over time.
For example, the Starbucks Treat Receipt promotion offers customers a 50% off discount if they bring their receipt from before 10am to get a drink after 2. Their goal is to recycle their existing customers and in doing so, create new usage patterns that often remain even after Treat Receipt expires.
In this way, Starbucks understands how to recycle audience better than radio.
This is the only reliable way for stations to increase radio ratings and it costs nothing.
Smart programmers, managers and promotion managers prioritize more occasions of listening.
Here are a few ways to do it:
The Ratings Game has many moving parts, and there is much to understand. But at the core, winning the game is simple. Not easy, but simple.
Learn to increase radio ratings in all three ways, with a heavy emphasis on getting existing listeners to remember to come back more often. This is the most sustainable and successful way to win.
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